North Cowichan requests independent safety review of Magdalena building

The municipality will also request evidence of third-party reviews of structural designs for large developments, before they are built.

The Municipality of North Cowichan is working with WestUrban Developments Ltd. to seek independent assurance that the Magdalena apartment building remains safe to live in. Going forward, the municipality also says it will request evidence of independent reviews of structural designs for large developments before they are built, as part of efforts to avoid similar issues in the future. 

WestUrban built the 64-unit complex, located at 4114 Crosland Pl., in 2019. In July, it informed tenants they would be evicted to allow for major structural repairs. Since then, exclusive reporting by The Discourse has revealed that the building needs $1.8 million in remediation to address dangerous defects that present “a real and substantial danger to the life and safety of occupants and others,” if not rectified.

Front entrance of a North Cowichan apartment building with sign reading "Magdalena"
Residents of the Magdalena building in North Cowichan may soon have answers regarding the building’s safety. Photo by Shalu Mehta/The Discourse

WestUrban has temporarily reinforced the main concrete slab floor above the parking garage and says the building is safe. But the formal eviction process will take at least six more months, and some remaining tenants say they still worry for their safety.

“If the building falls down tomorrow, we become a two-day headline and that’s it,” said Magdalena resident Gordon Griffiths in an interview with The Discourse last month. “And then we’re forgotten. Nobody’s going to care.”

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In response to safety concerns, the Municipality of North Cowichan says it has asked WestUrban to hire an engineer for a third-party review of the building’s safety.

“We have received advice about appropriate criteria for determining what ‘safe’ means in this context and for the purpose of the third party assessment,” wrote Rob Conway, North Cowichan’s director of planning and building, in an email to The Discourse. “We have communicated this to WestUrban and understand they are actively looking for an engineering company to do the assessment.”

Housing Under Pressure: The Discourse investigates structural issues at the Magdalena

The municipality has requested the building be evaluated “in accordance with Commentary L of National Building Code of Canada – Structural Evaluation and Upgrading and Existing Buildings, using Step 3 level of seismic capacity as the ‘safe occupancy’ level.” 

“A combination [of] drawing review and as-built review on site may be required, with the extent of investigation determined by the reviewing engineer,” Conway added.

After an engineer is hired, the assessment is expected to take four weeks, he said.

“WestUrban is working with the Municipality to provide the information and access it requires for this assessment,” an emailed statement from the company states.

WestUrban emailed Magdalena tenants on Sept. 20, notifying them that “additional inspection and assessment will be occurring in the building over the next couple of weeks,” according to a copy of the email shared with The Discourse. “There may be occasions that suite access is required and in those circumstances notice will be provided in accordance [with] the Residential Tenancy Act.”

Why didn’t municipal inspectors catch the building’s defects?

North Cowichan’s building inspectors don’t inspect developments of this size in the same way they would a single-family home and other smaller structures, Conway said in an interview with The Discourse last month. Instead, they rely on information from professional engineers, who provide written assurances that the building has been designed and built to the appropriate standards. 

“Our building inspectors wouldn’t be qualified to do those inspections in any case,” Conway said.

North Cowichan staff have since reviewed the file, and all of the required documentation from the permitting and construction of the Magdalena appears to be in order, he added. “And our building inspectors don’t recall any sort of obvious red flags at the time.”

WestUrban hired Krahn Engineering to design the structural elements of the Magdalena and provide written assurance that it was built to those specifications. WestUrban has since launched a lawsuit against Krahn Engineering, alleging that the firm is responsible for the structural defects and for the costs of remediating them. Krahn Engineering has not responded to the lawsuit and previously declined a request for comment from The Discourse.

Municipality will now request evidence of third-party reviews

Structural engineers in B.C. are supposed to seek an independent peer review of their structural drawings as part of the design process. 

“Conducting an independent review for structural designs is a longstanding quality management standard within our bylaws, which our registrants are required to follow,” according to an emailed statement from Engineers and Geoscientists BC (EGBC), which licenses and regulates professional engineers in this province. “Registrants and firms are informed of this and other requirements through regular communication and education, and we expect them to meet these standards in all the work that they do.”

WestUrban’s lawsuit against Krahn Engineering alleges that no independent review of Magdalena’s structural design plans occurred. Krahn Engineering has not responded to this allegation, and it has not been tested in court. WestUrban did not respond to The Discourse’s questions about how it knows this to be true. 

But in an emailed statement, WestUrban said it will require evidence of independent reviews going forward. “WestUrban is now requiring our structural engineers to provide us with physical evidence that these reviews have taken place, and we are also commissioning our own independent reviews, which goes above and beyond what we are required to do.”

According to EGBC, “municipalities have the right to request records of independent reviews, and we recommend they do so as part of their permitting process.”

Conway, the director of building and planning, confirmed in an email that North Cowichan did not ask for documentation of an independent review of the Magdalena’s designs. That is not a requirement of the BC Building Code or municipal building bylaw.

But, going forward, the municipality will ask for those reviews on large developments, he said. 

“Although there is no formal authority for North Cowichan to require third party structural reviews, the municipality’s Planning and Building Department is now requesting them for multi-storey buildings as a ‘check’ to ensure that EGBC requirements for third party reviews have been met prior to issuance of building permits.” 

This request is a municipal practice, not a policy, Conway added. “I don’t believe local governments have authority to require it, so we are now asking for it to make sure the structural engineers have met their professional obligations established by EGBC. We began the practice after the situation with the Magdalena happened.”

Want updates on The Discourse’s investigation into structural issues at the Magdalena? Sign up for our Cowichan Valley newsletters. 

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