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New office will oversee B.C. school seismic upgrades

Russell Hixson
New office will oversee B.C. school seismic upgrades

A proposed new project office in the Vancouver school district aims to speed up its backlog of seismic upgrade projects.

Through a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), the Ministry of Education plans to work with the Vancouver board of education (VBE) to create a co-governed project office staffed by personnel dedicated to overseeing seismic projects in the Vancouver school district (SD 39).

The office will provide the district access to additional, specialized resources to accelerate progress on these upgrades.

As soon as the MOU is signed by the chair of the VBE and the Minister of Education, a steering committee will be formed to hire a director, who will then be responsible for establishing the office.

The goal of the new office is to ensure seismic mitigation program (SMP) funding is focused on seismic upgrades.

It’s also to help the VBE make better use of the excess capacity in their facilities.

The district currently has up to 9,000 empty school seats.

According to the ministry, there are 69 schools in Vancouver that have been assessed by the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists B.C. (APEGBC) as having high seismic risk.

According to the ministry, given the complexity and significant number of projects in the district, combined with the need to maximize the number of safety upgrades within the available program funding, there is a unique need to address these projects in a more timely and cost-effective manner through a specialized seismic office.

Ministry officials explained that the scope of projects can have a massive range, some requiring only minor work, while others may be scrapped in favour of building a new school due to high upgrade costs.

The province first communicated to the VBE its request for a specialized office in the spring of 2012.

Through the Seismic Mitigation Program (SMP), the province has committed more than $1 billion over the next 10 years to support school seismic projects throughout B.C.

Of the 69 high-risk schools in Vancouver, there are currently five in design or under construction.

There are 24 more projects that the province has committed to fund through the SMP.

While program funding remains available and the provincial government remains committed to the 24 supported projects, the province is not in a position to proceed with final approvals and funding until the MOU is in place.

"It’s easy to make a building safe, it’s not as easy to make it safe and cost effective," said Graham Taylor of TBG Seismic Consultants.

Taylor is also a member of APEGBC’s Seismic Peer Review Committee and was involved in the development of the Seismic Retrofit Guidelines for B.C. schools.

Vancouver is a challenging district due to the large number of high seismic risk schools.

"It’s mostly because there are so many schools built in the early 1900s or in 1950s and early 1960s. It’s a big nut to crack," he said.

In some cases, concrete columns have deteriorated, but in most cases the old design standards have become outdated.

Taylor said that in ideal situations, a swing school can house students until major construction is complete.

But for most projects, the challenge is designing a construction plan that minimally disrupts classes, helps the school meet safety standards and does so for a reasonable price.

He said the past 10-15 years have poised the engineering community to do exactly that.

The industry has spent many of those years developing and perfecting user-friendly computer tools for engineers to conduct non-linear dynamic analysis.

The tool allows engineers to simulate what happens to a structure as it fails and deforms during seismic activity so they can design targeted seismic projects.

The software allows all local engineers to be experts in the highly advanced technique.

B.C. also has a unique, collaborative environment designed to foster innovation.

A technical review board, administered by the APEGBC  reviews seismic project plans, addressing concerns and praising good ideas.

It’s a community of encouragement and excellence that Taylor said is almost unheard of in engineering.

Last month the West Coast received a reminder of the dangers earthquakes present that are so easy to forget.

Napa Valley, Calif. experienced a 6.0 earthquake, its biggest in 25 years.

The quake closed hotels in the valley and damaged about a dozen of the valley’s 500 or so wineries, according to Napa Valley tourism officials.

About 90 to 100 homes were labeled unfit to enter  and half a dozen people suffered serious injuries.

"I think we kid ourselves that they don’t happen very often, so where is the urgency?" said Taylor,

He noted that the quake wasn’t really that big compared to the 8.2 or 9 magnitude earthquake that is expected to hit the region in the future.

"We just don’t know when or where that can happen. It’s just another reminder that we got to take it seriously," he said.

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