By Mike LaBella
---- — HAVERHILL — If you’ve driven by the Citizens Center on Welcome Street recently you’ve probably seen workers on lifts removing panels from the outside of the building.
One of the most heavily used city buildings is finally getting a new outer jacket after a seven-year wait.
Heat has been escaping out the walls and windows in the winter, while air-conditioned air escapes on summer days.
The Citizens Center at 10 Welcome St., is home to community programs such as senior activities, the Recreation Department and veterans services, is getting new, more energy efficient and leak-free outer walls.
Unlike other city buildings with brick exteriors, the outer jacket of the Citizens Center’s was made of masonry-type panels. City officials say these panels have been buckling and peeling away for years, causing damaging leaks to interior walls and ceilings and draining energy.
As the city’s financial outlook improves, it became time to replace the outside walls.
Councilor William Macek, chairman of the natural resources and public property committee, said the Citizens Center has had problems from almost the beginning.
“Even though we’re having to make a large investment, the energy costs will be reduced through the use of modern materials, saving the city money on an annual basis,” Macek said. “The building will have a better appearance, and there won’t be any more leaks.”
“We’re fortunate that the city has the ability to keep moving forward in these difficult economic times,” Macek added.
Vincent Ouellette, director of human services whose office is in the building, said the project cost is about $922,000. He said the city received a $200,000 federal energy efficiency grant to help pay a portion, while the city is borrowing and tapping its capital repairs fund for the rest.
Work began several months ago and the project is expected to be completed by the end of June, Ouellette said.
One problem came to light during removal of exterior panels.
Ouellette said workers found many corroded/rusted studs that hold the panels in place. They have to be replaced, he said.
Ouellette said the building was erected during a time when federal funding was available for shovel-ready projects, and that the exterior panels that were installed happened to be discontinued the following year.
The center was built in 1978 at the urging of Mayor George Katsaros.
“After 10 years the panels began to peel away and some fell off the building and were replaced with plywood,” Ouellette said.
The new exterior will be composed of lightweight, durable insulating foam panels with a surface coating of stone in rust and granite-grey colors.
“Right now the exterior is not well insulated,” Ouellette said. “We’re losing heat and air conditioning. The new exterior will save us a lot on utility costs.”
Scott Bonito, a foreman for GVW Inc. of East Boston, which is overseeing the project, said the work requires multiple steps. He said most of the metal studs that hold the exterior panels will be replaced. New insulation will be installed, along with a thermal barrier, then the outer panels can be set in place.
Ouellette said the existing windows will have a tighter fit as well.
Dozens of seniors have lunch there every day, and many of them linger to play card games or take part in other activities such as arts and crafts classes, knitting groups, Yoga, Zumba, and other fitness classes. Various groups hold meetings in the building.
Residents vote in the center, and at certain times of year the city uses it as a center for flu shots.
The building’s condition became a hot topic of discussion in 2006 when City Councilor William Ryan brought his concerns before the council, which in turn asked Mayor James Fiorentini to conduct a study of the center.
“It’s falling apart, and former Mayor George Katsaros must be rolling over in his grave,” Ryan said at the time .
Ouellette said a number of repairs and improvements have taken place over the years. Grant money paid for a new energy-efficient skylight, windows and doors, handicapped-accessible entry, and dining room tables and chairs, and also paid to install a solar energy system and energy-efficient upgrades. In 2010, new HVAC units were installed on the roof along with a new air exchange system.
“The roof was replaced about 15 years ago, but improvements are being made,” Ouellette said. “Since last summer we’ve been painting the interior with help from the Sheriff’s Department. About 85 percent of the painting project is done.”
After the exterior work is complete and the building is water tight, the city will replace bathroom fixtures and make other improvements to the building, including new bathroom flooring and repairing bathroom walls that were damaged from leaks, Ouellette said.