When a 6.4-magnitude earthquake struck deep off the west coast of Vancouver Island in September, it didn’t cause any damage hundreds of kilometres away at Vancouver’s Kitsilano Secondary School.

But student Michael Jaworski says the news did send ripples through the building, rattling the nerves of many of the 1,400 students.

"It’s scary to think what would happen in this school in an earthquake," Jaworski says as he stands beneath the portraits of the class of 1926 in the third-floor hallway. 

While the old, thick masonry walls may look solid, experts say they could easily crumble, even in a moderate seismic event, and that’s a lesson not lost on the students.

"There are different student rumours, like the staircases are first to go, or you’ll only survive if you are on the third floor," Jaworski says as he looks around the halls.

mi-bc-111121-big-fix-kitsilano-jaworski

Student Chris Jaworski says news of a recent earthquake rattled some students and fuelled concerns about the safety of their own school. (CBC)

Principal Chris Atkinson chuckles nervously when he hears students’ concerns. But while they may be more myth than truth, the overall concerns are real, he says.

The school has regular drills to train students to get under their desks until the shaking stops, but Atkinson admits if the big one hits when classes are in session, the results could be tragic.

"There is clay tile in the wall. It will not hold up at all. Getting under a desk might not be enough," he says with understated seriousness in his voice.

500 schools still at risk in B.C.

The 85-year-old Kitsilano Secondary School is one of more than 50 schools in Vancouver alone that would be expected to sustain severe structural damage in the event of even a moderate quake.

In 2005, a provincial report identified 750 schools across B.C. in need of seismic upgrades to survive a quake, prompting the government to pledge $1.5 billion to fix the problems.Since then, it’s spent about half a billion dollars upgrading 132 schools, but that still leaves more than 500 at risk.

Vancouver School Board chair Patti Bacchus knows the concerns well. She first learned about the risk from a television commercial produced by students in 2001 that showed a girl writing her will before heading off to school.

"It was quite edgy, and obviously effective," she says.

With her own children just entering school, Bacchus joined a lobby group to pressure the government for seismic upgrades.

Now about a decade later and with her children close to graduating, Bacchus finds herself still lobbying the government as the head of the school board.

"Vancouver alone will probably end up costing in the neighbourhood of over $1 billion," she says, referring to the estimate contained in a recent consultants’ report commissioned by the school board.

Held up by gravity

Bacchus says shoddy construction in many older schools is partly responsible for the risk.

"When I first got involved I didn’t realize ... how poorly constructed these buildings are…. Some of them, not much more than gravity is holding them together.

"It doesn’t have to be a big one. Even a moderate earthquake could be enough to bring some of these down," she says.

She recounts one recent school demolition where workers uncovered sloppy masonry work hidden inside walls, hollow pillars and beams, floors  not structurally attached to walls and unsecured equipment in the ceilings.

mi-bc-111121-big-fix-kitsilano-secondary-2

It will take five years to renovate Kitsilano Secondary School, but the community is glad the heritage exterior will be preserved in the process. (CBC)

"It took just one hard bump to the corner and that thing went down," she says.

Experts warn that in the event of a collapse, other dangers will emerge, including exits jamming shut or collapsing, suffocation from dust and a toxic legacy from lead paint, asbestos and other materials.

"Earthquakes are a natural phenomenon and they rarely kill people — but bad buildings do," Bacchus says.

Heritage values raise concerns

While Bacchus would like to move quickly to upgrade the schools, in her 10 years lobbying for seismic upgrades, she's learned it's much more complicated than she ever anticipated.

Many residents place great value on the heritage architecture and old brick and masonry exteriors of the schools. That’s led to battles over the fate of some of them, and fears that bulldozing the iconic buildings will leave a hole in the communities.

At Kitsilano Secondary School, the community’s concerns led to a three-year consultation process before the school board decided to save the exterior walls and build an entirely new building behind the facade.

At an estimated $60 million, the project is the most expensive in the seismic upgrade program.

But architect and Heritage Vancouver spokesman Andre Lessard still calls it "an unfortunate compromise" that will gut the heritage-listed 1927 Tudor Revival style building.

"We were hoping more could be saved. A building is a three-dimensional object and it should be retained."

Lessard says the unique features of many older schools, such as their wide hallways, high ceilings and windows that open, will be lost forever when they are replaced.

While he acknowledges the school board has made a significant effort to retain some heritage schools and values, he still believes more could be done to protect them.

A new opportunity for learning

But Atkinson says for parents and students, the No. 1 concern was the disruption the rebuilding would involve, and the desire to avoid holding classes in portables while a new building was raised. 

So instead of using portables during construction, the five-year project will break the school into thirds, and students will move between sections as work is done in other areas.

mi-bc-111121-big-fix-kitsilano-atkinson

Kitsilano Secondary School principal Chris Atkinson, holding plans for the redesign of the school, stands next to one of the exterior walls that will be saved. (CBC)

And while there will be serious disruptions to students, Atkinson sees the project as a great opportunity to wipe the slate clean behind the exterior walls and build what he calls a 21st century learning environment.

"There is no compromise on the learning environment. The outside wall stays and everything else goes," he says, pointing to drawings in his office that detail open spaces, skylights and multiuse classrooms.

Hundreds of schools await upgrades

But that still leaves several hundred B.C. schools awaiting upgrades to make them safe.

Education Minister George Abbott says the government is moving as quickly as possible.

"This is not something you could immediately undertake — projects in 700 schools. We have assigned a very high priority to this, which is why we have undertaken 135 seismic upgrades to date."

And despite some estimates that Vancouver's upgrades alone could cost $1 billion, Abbott says he still believes the whole process of upgrading the more than 500 remaining schools can be completed for the original estimate of $1.5 billion.

Abbott points to new research underway in B.C. based on recent quakes in New Zealand and Chile that he hopes may cut the costs of seismic upgrades.

That's a real possibility, according to Peter Mitchell, a professional engineer helping to develop new standards for seismic upgrades for the province.

Mitchell says a new way of analyzing the way buildings shake is allowing engineers to strategically target key structural elements of buildings, allowing for more cost-effective upgrades in the future.

But regardless of the final price, the school upgrade project will be one of the most expensive infrastructure programs in B.C.

Bacchus acknowledges progress is being made, but maintains the government needs to pick up the pace and set some firmer timelines if it wants to come close to its own 2020 deadline for completing the upgrades.

"The cost of not doing this could be staggering," she says. "Let’s just get it done. The alternative is not acceptable."