Municipal

‘Should not have happened’: new documents outline potentially catastrophic failures in Danbrook One design

What went wrong with Langford’s tallest high-rise, and how tenants were allowed to move into an unsafe building

by Aaron Guillen
July 22, 2021
Municipal

‘Should not have happened’: new documents outline potentially catastrophic failures in Danbrook One design

What went wrong with Langford’s tallest high-rise, and how tenants were allowed to move into an unsafe building

by Aaron Guillen
Jul 22, 2021
Aaron Guillen / Capital Daily
Municipal

‘Should not have happened’: new documents outline potentially catastrophic failures in Danbrook One design

What went wrong with Langford’s tallest high-rise, and how tenants were allowed to move into an unsafe building

by Aaron Guillen
July 22, 2021
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‘Should not have happened’: new documents outline potentially catastrophic failures in Danbrook One design
Aaron Guillen / Capital Daily

Hey Westshore dweller! Want more news and investigations from your backyard? Subscribe to The Westshore now to get the best of Langford, Colwood, Sooke, View Royal, Metchosin, Highlands, and more in your inbox twice a week.

Capital Daily has obtained the third-party review of Danbrook One from the City of Langford. The review was conducted by WSP, an independent engineering consulting firm that was brought on in December 2019, after Langford was informed by the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of BC (EGBC) that the condominium was structurally unsafe. 

In the 19 months since the building’s potentially catastrophic shortcomings were identified, Danbrook One, Langford’s tallest building, has been sitting empty— but a flurry of activity has been taking place behind the scenes.

The current owner, Centurion Property Associates, has launched a lawsuit against engineering firm Sorensen Trilogy Engineering Ltd; its lead structural engineer on the Danbrook One project, Brian McClure; the builder, DB Services; the seller, Loco Investments; and the City of Langford.

According to civil court documents from October 2020, Centurion demands to recover costs of at least $1,000,000 for remediation work on the project, plus the rental income that was lost after the building had to be evacuated in December 2019. 

Centurion claims they’ve lost around $200,000 per month from rental costs alone.

'A lack of knowledge or a lack of care'

Through all the finger pointing, the as-yet unsolved question—how did a building with potentially catastrophic defects get to the point of having tenants?—glares through.

The independent review, obtained by Capital Daily through a Freedom of Information request, addresses a list of 28 concerns outlined by Read Jones Christoffersen Limited Consulting Engineers (RJC) after one of their own structural engineers, Leon Plett, raised issues over the designs by original developer Sorensen Trilogy Engineering Ltd.

“This sort of case should not have happened,” says Carlos Ventura, professor of civil engineering at the University of British Columbia, who has more than 30 years of industry experience.

“This isn’t [the] standard. This is a high list of concerns for a building. It tells you that there are very significant problems with the design and construction of the building. For example, if you have two or three, it would be a different story. My guess is that it’s a lack of knowledge or lack of care, or not enough time allocated to proper design.” 

Centurion alleges that DB Services encouraged those involved in the construction of the building to “fast-track” their work, which in turn led Sorensen to not obtain a required independent review of their designs. DB Services denies that construction was fast-tracked, according to their response to the suit. It took around two years between rezoning the property and moving tenants into the building. These allegations have yet to be tested in court.

According to EGBC quality management guidelines, “insufficient time or budget to conduct appropriate checks [such as third-party reviews] is not an excuse for failing to conduct appropriate checks.” 

Sorensen Trilogy admitted that the design wasn’t complete before the construction of the building began, according to civil court documents. A construction project manager not involved with Danbrook One said this is not necessarily unusual, particularly in multi-stage projects.

Ventura says among several issues with the design, one glaring problem is the way the building is not evenly supported enough to distribute weight to the foundation. 

He points out that all weight within a building needs to flow directly from top to bottom. The WSP report includes blueprints from the original design in which one beam sits on top of a concrete slab, with the next beam below it positioned noticeably to the side. 

In addition, WSP found that the extent of balconies, steel posts, and possibly balcony thickness as seen in photos, was in conflict with the information on as-built drawings, which are developed after construction. 

Additionally, the foundations plan was submitted for construction before Sorensen received the geotechnical report. That report is meant to investigate several important factors that contribute to the stability of the building, including the type of soil beneath the construction site, and whether the ground is capable of supporting the proposed building.

With incomplete drawings and “insufficient information to accurately build what the designer intended,” Ventura says the plans spelled trouble for structural safety—including potentially catastrophic failure like that of the Champlain Towers in Miami.

“It doesn’t matter if you have a lot of concrete or steel,” he says. “If it’s not in the right location, the member [or beam] will crack and eventually fail. If one fails, it could precipitate into bigger problems like the building we saw in Florida. It’s an extreme case, but the load was excessive, the failure started happening, and the building collapsed.”

TIMELINE OF EVENTS

February 2017: DB Services seeks rezoning for a parcel of land at 2766 Claude Road in Langford
July 2017: Danbrook One breaks ground
Sometime in 2018: Centurion claims unidentified engineer contacted Sorensen Trilogy with structural integrity concerns
March 2018: Danbrook noted to be substantially complete, according to WSP
December 2018: Leon Plett hears about structural concerns at Danbrook One, approaches Sorensen
Early 2019: Plett completes formal complaint over Danbrook One’s engineers to EGBC
March 2019: Danbrook One starts moving residents in 
April 2019: EGBC notifies Langford of complaint, asks for all documents related to Danbrook One
April 25, 2019: Centurion enters into agreement of purchase and sale for Danbrook One 
June 26, 2019: Langford provides “comfort letter” to Centurion
August 26, 2019: Centurion officially becomes new owner of building
December 3, 2019: EGBC tells Langford about structural deficiencies 
December 17, 2019: Langford tells Centurion about EGBC investigation and structural concerns
December 20, 2019: Langford receives third-party report recommending that remediation work necessary immediately 
December 20, 2019: Langford revoked occupancy permit for Danbrook One, delivers written notice telling tenants to vacate the building
December 20, 2019: Centurion demands DB Services to perform all work to remediate structural concerns 
December 21, 2019: DB Services agrees to perform emergency temporary remediation 
October 7, 2020: Centurion submits lawsuit against DB Services, Sorensen Trilogy, Loco Investments, and City of Langford

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Three failsafes

Ventura explains there are three “failsafes” in a building’s planning and construction. The first step to make sure that a building is structurally sound is having the designs drawn up by a registered and qualified engineer—someone who has proven they have enough knowledge to design buildings that will meet the building codes. Although Sorensen’s lead structural engineer Brian McClure specializes in multi-unit residential construction, Ventura says this case suggests the engineer “did not do as expected.” Lawyers for McClure and Sorensen declined requests for comment. 

The second failsafe is the city review process. Ventura explains that cities are expected to have staff who can “identify deficiencies” and tell the engineers and architects what needs to be adjusted before their designs can be approved. 

“This is a tough case because of the details,” explains Ventura. “It requires a lot of engineering knowledge to determine these significant and serious deficiencies in the design. The city might not have had enough knowledge.”

Ventura says most larger cities can afford to have qualified people on staff, but that smaller municipalities may not have anyone who can actually determine if there was a deficiency in the design. If they don’t, they can end up hiring external reviewers to complete the task. 

Langford’s chief building inspector, Jerry Worobec, told Capital Daily that it’s rare to hire external reviewers to look over plans. Notably, Langford only hired WSP for a third-party opinion after Danbrook One was discovered to be structurally unsafe. 

The final failsafe, which only factors in for larger buildings, is to get a third-party review in which an independent engineering firm redoes most of the calculations for the designs to confirm that the original calculations were up to standard. If the reviewer finds any problems with the designs, they can submit it back with a list of fixes that are needed. 

Ventura says getting a third-party review is an honour-based system. Engineers are expected to do everything possible to design structurally sound buildings and abide by the EGBC bylaws. He says it's common practice to internally review the designs before submitting the drawings to the municipality or to a third-party, and that the EGBC isn’t formally responsible for making sure every structure is built properly, but rather sets the code of conduct. 

In Ventura’s view, it should be the responsibility of municipalities to request third-party reviews—but currently, Langford doesn’t list a review as a requirement before handing out building permits.

Worobec, by contrast, says the responsibility to check for third-party reviews lies with the EGBC. Capital Daily has asked Langford to clarify who signed off on the building permit for the Danbrook One’s designs, but didn’t receive an answer by publication.

Worobec added the city hasn’t changed its building permit review process since Danbrook One.

Megan Archibald, director of communication and stakeholder engagement for EGBC, says that municipalities aren’t obligated to verify that a third-party review has been conducted, but it is allowed to make its own permit approval processes. 

At the end of the day, the obligation remains with the engineer to obtain an independent review before submitting documents for construction. And whenever EGBC finds out that this hasn’t happened, they will launch an investigation. She confirmed that the current investigation into Sorenson and McClure has been active since April 2019 and is ongoing. 

When the EGBC investigation is complete, the registrant could be penalized, which could include anything from the suspension of the registrant’s license to a fine of up to $100,000. 

Concern after concern

Before Centurion bought Danbrook One in late August 2019, a structural engineer named Leon Plett, who was not associated with the project, became concerned about the structural integrity of the high-rise. 

Plett alleged in court that he believed the designs were copied from drawings his firm made for another building in Victoria, but weren’t “properly adapted” to meet the safety requirements of the new building.

Plett was told by one of Sorensen’s partners that they were “confident that the building design met the building code requirements,” had obtained a third-party review, and peer-reviewed it internally, according to civil court documents. Notably, Sorensen declined to provide Plett with further proof to back up their claims. That’s when Plett launched a formal complaint with the EGBC. Plett declined to comment, as he’s currently involved in EGBC’s current investigation into Danbrook One.

To help with their investigation in April 2019, the EGBC asked the City of Langford to provide several documents on Danbrook One’s designs. 

At the same time, Centurion was setting up plans to buy the property from Loco Investments. Loco is run by Margaret McKay, who is also the director of DB Services, the firm that built the property. Centurion says they contacted Langford in June and that  the city provided a “comfort letter”.

Centurion claims Langford didn’t mention anything about an engineer complaint in the letter, but according to the EGBC, an investigation was already underway and the city had been made aware of it.

During the first investigation by EGBC, Sorensen admitted that they hadn’t gotten an independent review of their designs, as required according to section 14 of the EGBC Bylaws. A later third-party review in July 2019 confirmed to the EGBC that the building code wasn’t met.

Langford denies that they knew the extent of the building’s structural problems when they were contacted by the EGBC in April 2019, according to their response to Centurion’s civil claim. The city claims they were only told that the EGBC was conducting an investigation in relation to the building regarding potential violations of the Engineers and Geoscientists Act. They say the letter didn’t disclose anything about safety concerns or any dangers. The city claims they only became aware of the problem on Dec. 3, 2019, when the EGBC shared the details of the complaint with them.

Ventura pointed out that a city can still give out an occupancy permit if the deficiencies of a design are not related to public safety. For example, an envelope of a building may be at risk for water leakage, which could result in a serious problem in the future. The city might decide to give the permit, but on the basis of addressing the problems within a specific timeline.

Later that month, Langford revoked the building occupancy permit and told tenants that they needed to move out. The building has sat empty since then.

Centurion says they asked DB Services to pay for all remediation work required, but the engineering firm only installed temporary shoring in December 2019 and refused to continue with permanent fixes when asked to by Centurion in June 2020. Since then, Centurion has announced plans to complete remediation work on the property, but no completion date has been confirmed.

Ventura says although it seems like there is a lot of finger-pointing going on about who is responsible, he hopes that this situation helps other structural engineers and cities to catch similar problems with building designs before they progress as far as Danbrook did.

“We all strive to prevent this from happening,” says Ventura. “But you always have bad apples. I knew about the case beforehand, but didn’t know the exact details of Danbrook One… this is a really bad case.”

Hey Westshore dweller! Want more news and investigations from your backyard? Subscribe to The Westshore now to get the best of Langford, Colwood, Sooke, View Royal, Metchosin, Highlands, and more in your inbox twice a week.

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‘Should not have happened’: new documents outline potentially catastrophic failures in Danbrook One design