The City of Langford, B.C. recently had its knuckles rapped by the B.C. Supreme Court for issuing a municipal building permit for a residential project that failed to have an architect involved. The Architectural Institute of British Columbia (AIBC) had petitioned the court to declare the actions of Langford’s Chief Building Inspector Jerry Worobec “unreasonable.” The court agreed.
In British Columbia, as in most provinces in Canada, legislative statutes require the involvement of an architect in building projects. These statutes are usually called Architects Acts and are conceived to ensure the safety of occupants. These acts do, however, allow certain exceptions that vary by province for building areas generally under 5,000 square feet and structures less than three storeys.
This is where Worobec went wrong, according to the courts. The project in question was a custom five-unit building designed for mixed residential and commercial use, known as the Hoffman Complex, which far exceeded the maximum area exemption allowed under B.C.’s act.
However, Worobec felt that simply meeting municipal and provincial building codes was sufficient for him to issue a building permit, failing to understand that discretion was not permitted and that provincial statutes take precedence over bylaws.
No penalties were assessed in the case, only an assurance from the city that their actions would not be repeated. Nevertheless, Langford Mayor Stew Young was not happy. He suggested to local media reports that professional groups like architects “have all the money” and should do their own enforcement of the Architects Act.
Young also complained that city enforcement of the act would add costs and delays during what he called “an affordable housing crisis.” He further suggested that the act was out of date anyway, in an era of off-the-shelf building designs.
The role of the architect in building projects has a long history over time, summarized by the phrase “Commodity, Firmness, Delight” often attributed to Henry Wolton’s 1624 translation of the original Latin by Vitruvius. Today, the Ontario Association of Architects describes the relationship between architects and building inspectors as providing, “two sets of eyes acting independently of each other in reviewing construction for general conformity with plans and specifications that formed the basis for issuance of a building permit.”
“The rules have tightened up over the 37 years I’ve been an architect,” veteran Ontario architect Rod Young told the Daily Commercial News. “There’s been a tremendous increase in the regulations. It all comes down to the education of the authorities.”
Young recalls, for example, how building inspectors have evolved from retired builders to course graduates from community colleges and universities.
Young doesn’t dispute the role designers can play.
“There are some very talented people around who could design a highrise building or other projects, and they would be very beautiful and very artistic. However, they don’t necessarily have the qualifications to define the building as structurally sound.”
In a summary of the Langford case published by Miller Thompson LLP, the authors speak of the inconsistency across many municipalities regarding the involvement of architects.
“The AIBC adduced evidence that this issue has arisen in other local governments and that there does not appear to be a uniform approach. While the City of Vancouver and the City of Surrey insist plans be prepared by an architect when the act requires one, other local governments, such as the City of Kamloops and City of Salmon Arm, do not.”
For architects across the country, the case raises concerns.
“The AIBC stated that it has no way of knowing when an unlicensed person prepares and submits drawings in support of the building permit application,” writes Miller Thompson. “Thus, in the absence of a declaration, the problem that arose in this case will continue to arise.”
The Miller Thompson authors also make clear what lessons can be learned by all project partners.
“They must ensure a project’s compliance, not only with the building code requirements, but also the act.”
John Bleasby is a Coldwater, Ont. based freelance writer. Send comments and Legal Notes column ideas to email@example.com.