Second firm hired to tackle Hilton mold
By Andrew Gomes
Advertiser Staff Writer
Three weeks after Hilton Hawaiian Village closed its Kalia Tower, another team of specialists has been hired to step up the search for the cause of mold growing in guest rooms.
An executive of CH2M Hill, a multinational engineering, construction and consulting firm based in Colorado, said a team from the company is scheduled to arrive today to start the complex process of identifying and correcting the fungi problem.
All of the 453 Kalia guest rooms remain closed. A team of mold investigators from Atlanta-based Air Quality Sciences Inc. has been sampling the tower's air quality, analyzing the mold and performing a preliminary inquiry into possible causes.
Although Hilton Hotels Corp. has estimated it will cost $10 million to find the source of the mold in Kalia Tower and remove it, the timetable and scope of the project still remain largely uncertain because of the complexities of the engineering, construction and mechanics that are enabling the mold to thrive.
David Odom, vice president of CH2M's building services group, said yesterday that his team, which has been studying Kalia Tower blueprints and Air Quality Sciences' findings, has some ideas about the cause, but not enough to speculate.
"We really need to take (the investigation) further," he said. "At this point, we've ruled nothing out."
Hilton Hawai'i spokeswoman Karen Winpenny said yesterday she was not able to characterize progress of the investigation or anticipate how long it might take.
Based on similar CH2M mold investigations at high-rise hotels, Odom said diagnosing the cause of mold at Kalia Tower could take two to four months but more likely will take several weeks given 24-hour access to rooms and the resources Hilton has dedicated to the project.
Still, identifying the humidity source is difficult because mold investigation experts say the problem could be from an architectural or engineering design fault, construction defect, malfunctioning equipment or any combination. "It's almost never a single cause," Odom said.
With a mold problem at a new 12-story addition to the U.S. Army's Hale Koa Hotel in 1995, the cause was attributed to underpowered room dehumidifiers and misplaced vapor retarders that created and trapped moisture behind walls.
CH2M was involved in the investigation of the mold at the Hale Koa, and has investigated mold in hotel complexes with an estimated 50,000 rooms, mostly in Florida during the past 15 years.
Odom said typical causes of mold in those cases have been most often linked to deficient air conditioning systems and air or water penetrating building walls.
Some problems, he said, have been as extensive as those at Kalia Tower. Other mold-related repair work in which CH2M has been involved cost $15 million to $20 million.
Such extensive problems are not uncommon, Odom said, adding that in most cases hotel owners have been private companies able to keep much of the trouble out of the public spotlight. A disproportionate share of mold problems are found in new hotels, he added, saying, "It happens a lot more than you would expect."
Charlie Wiles, executive director of the nonprofit American Indoor Air Quality Council, said avoiding air pressure, condensation or water-leak problems in constructing or operating a high-rise hotel is difficult.
Typically, buildings in humid climates such as Hawai'i are designed to be slightly pressurized to keep warm outside air out.
"In the case of Hawai'i, keeping the indoor temperature above the dew point may prove to be extremely challenging," he said.
Jason Princenthal, president and chief indoor air quality consultant for Honolulu-based AirCare Environmental Services, said many hotels are built with features that make them more susceptible to mold, such as vinyl wall coverings and oversized air conditioners.
Vinyl prevents walls from breathing and aids moisture buildup, while oversized air conditioning systems cool air quickly without adequately removing moisture.
Odom said hotels also are challenged because they usually have a greater density of people per square foot than office or apartment buildings, and cannot control environmental conditions in rooms.
In the case of the mold at the Hale Koa, it took three to four months to diagnose the problem. Odom said the company spent several more months studying corrective measures set up in test rooms before deciding on a $5.5 million fix.
Unlike the Hale Koa, which was able to keep most of its affected rooms in service during repair work, Hilton is under pressure to find a solution as fast as possible while ensuring the problem is properly corrected so the mold does not return.
Reach Andrew Gomes at email@example.com or 525-8065.