With a phalanx of municipal inspectors watching, R. Bruce Fazio hoisted an industrial drill Thursday and bored four holes into the cinderblock walls of the troubled Norristown condominium building he constructed.
Three of the holes revealed that the load-bearing walls were hollow, confirming reports by Norristown inspectors that led to the condemnation of the three-year-old, 26-unit building.
Fazio said he believed they had been filled with concrete and steel rods, as the building code requires.
"The areas where it's missing are coming as a surprise to me," he said in a stairwell, a few feet from one of the palm-size holes.
As he drilled, several of the eight condominium owners required to evacuate the building by Friday afternoon trudged through the halls, some laden with belongings to move out.
Fazio had testified in Montgomery County Court Tuesday that the walls were solid and the building was stable, despite an engineer's findings to the contrary. Even as the inspectors shined flashlights into the building's crevices to see how many cinderblocks had been left hollow, Fazio said the building was safe.
"There are some areas that need to be filled," he said, "but it's a fix."
Edward Koehler, the engineer Norristown officials hired to evaluate the building, said Thursday's findings were what he expected when he wrote of "grave safety issues" in the structure after an April walk-through.
"There are some locations where the hollow points of the block have been filled with concrete," he said, "but in general, 50 to 75 percent have not."
Proper walls, Koehler said, are built by laying rows of cinder blocks that are mortared together. Under construction codes, steel rods are inserted into the cavities, which then are then filled with concrete. The result, he said, makes a cinderblock wall "almost as solid as a wall of solid concrete.
In court, he testified that the five-story building's walls could topple in heavy winds.
Fazio, of Collegeville, said the unfilled concrete blocks in his condo building at 770 Sandy St. were "more like 10 to 15 percent" instead of the ratios Koehler claimed.
"They're doing core drilling where they have already proven that there's not grout," Fazio said.
The drilling was done by order of Montgomery County Senior Judge William T. Nicholas. His order required the building's various issues to be fully diagnosed and a repair plan prepared within 30 days.
Tom Schofield, whose son Ryan owns one of the condominiums, followed the inspection party around the building, occasionally tapping on a cinderblock wall with a hammer to check for soundness. The hammer had belonged to Schofield's great-grandfather, who worked in masonry.
Fazio said he did not know who the masonry contractor had been for the building.
"I'm looking through my records for that right now," the builder said.
Schofield shook his head about the hollow walls, but said he expected them, as a major building deficiency, to eventually be fixed under court order.
Less likely, he said, are remedies for the building's other failings, including the construction-grade carpeting, holes in interior walls and exterior siding, and tangles of exposed wiring that drew disdain from Schofield, a retired electrician.
"This was supposed to be a luxury building," he said. "I don't see the bank stepping in. I don't know if anyone is stepping in to build it up to luxury standards."