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One-fourth of the Nebraska Capitol lower floors is now a hard-hat area.

And you may encounter surprising detours at the south and west entrances when you visit. 

The eight-year, $106 million heating, air conditioning and renovation project has begun, with construction workers in hard hats building public passages, covering stairs with particle board, working in now-empty offices, and getting ready to raise ceilings in a portion of the hallways. The project will go quadrant-by-quadrant, starting with the southwest, and ending with the tower. 

Many state senators and their staffs have been displaced for at least 18 months, and some likely longer, and moved to other locations in the building. 

The 2019 legislative session will not be disrupted, but getting around won't be as convenient for senators, staff and the public. 

During the renovation, ceilings in the hallways will be raised, letting in more natural light, said Capitol Administrator Bob Ripley and Clark deVries, HVAC project manager. First- and second-floor offices will especially get more space. 

"The ceilings will revert to a height that's right at the top of the windows, those clerestory windows, so it'll really open up the lighting," deVries said. 

And many offices throughout the building will gain square footage with removal of the perimeter duct work.

The building will look like it hasn't looked since the early 1960s, Ripley said. 

Offices will get new carpeting and paint. Some architecture that has been covered since the '60s will be exposed again. A fire sprinkler system will be added to the first, second and third floors, and fire alarms will be upgraded, Ripley said. And windows will be repaired and restored.

The Capitol has about 1,000 windows, with up to 90 percent of those able to be opened.

When the renovations are complete, the Capitol will get air conditioning and heating simultaneously at any time of the year, without first doing seasonal changeovers of those systems, which can take several days each in both the spring and fall, deVries said. And offices will have individual heating and air conditioning controls. 

During the first phase, main hallways on the first floor near the south and west entrances will be narrowed, but the Capitol gift shop and mail room will be accessible. 

Those attending hearings during the 2019 legislative session will have access to those rooms in the west area until April, and the Judiciary Committee hearings will be moved temporarily to the Warner Chamber, across from the main legislative chamber, which can seat about 300 people, Ripley said. 

The Supreme Court and Appeals Court, both located in the south quadrant, will have at least one of those courts open during the first phases of the renovation project, he said. 

For those who like to pay a visit to their representative in the Legislature, access to senators' offices in the tower will change somewhat.

"It will be not as convenient and not as easily accessed," Ripley said. "What I would say to people when they want to have access to their senator is, 'Make a phone call first. Make arrangements to come down.'" 

Some senators' offices — maybe eight or nine — were formerly in the tower, but in 1989 the Capitol Commission purposefully moved every elected official to the first and second floors to make them more accessible, he said. 

During the project, phone numbers will be listed in the information area on the first floor, and people can call a senator's office to ask about meeting with the senator or his or her staff.

"We made it as accessible as we can," Ripley said. 

The commission is also hiring a third tour guide to be stationed in that first-floor information area to help people find their senator, he said. 

Inside the State Capitol

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com

On Twitter @LJSLegislature.

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State government reporter

JoAnne Young covers state government, including the Legislature and state agencies, and the people they serve.

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