Collapsed mall architect 'didn't design any leaks'

The man who designed the doomed Algo Centre Mall testified Monday that he didn't like the idea of putting a parking deck on the roof.

Elliot Lake Algo Centre Mall designer says he was uncomfortable with rooftop parking lot

The Algo Centre Mall in Elliot Lake is slowly dismantled as a public inquiry into the mall's partial roof collapse begins its second week. (Amy Dodge/CBC)

The man who designed the doomed Algo Centre Mall testified Monday that he didn't like the idea of putting a parking deck on the roof.

Architect James Keywan, 87, told the commission by video-conference from Hamilton on Monday that he was responsible for the drawings of the building — and little else.

Commission lawyer Bruce Carr-Harris tried to establish who the lead project consultant was for the Algo Centre Mall — and who was ultimately responsible for approving any changes along the way.

Letters presented to the commission spoke of Keywan co-ordinating various players. Keywan said he hired structural engineer John Kadlec for the job.

But Keywan denied that he was in any way responsible for choosing or installing the waterproofing system for the roof of the mall, which was also the floor of the roof-top parking lot.

Algo Centre Mall architect James Keywan denied being responsible for choosing or installing the waterproofing system for the roof of the Elliot Lake mall, which was also the floor of the roof-top parking lot. Keyan's testimony was provided by video-link from Hamilton, due to health concerns. (Elliot Lake Inquiry)

Last week, the commission heard that there may have been structural problems in expansion joints in that floor that led to ongoing leaks.

'I had never done it'

Keywan told the inquiry into the deadly collapse of the garage that the now-deceased owner-developer of the mall believed rooftop parking was the best and cheapest option.

During sometimes testy exchanges with Carr-Harris, Keywan said it was Nick Hirt, vice-president of mall owner Algocen Realty, who made the decision to put parking on the roof of the mall, which collapsed last year killing two women and injuring dozens of others.

"I'm very uncomfortable with that because there's retail space below," Keywan testified. "I had never done it. It's not a common thing to do."

Keywan said he went through several options with Hirt — all of which were rejected as impractical or too costly.

It was too difficult to put underground parking in the rock on which the mall was built in 1979, and there was no nearby land for parking, or space for a garage tower, the inquiry heard.

Keywan said Hirt, who was also an engineer, concluded there was no choice other than rooftop parking.

"I was concerned because I didn't know anything about it and I didn't know anybody who knew anything about it," Keywan said.

Other options discussed

Keywan said he had suggested to Hirt they should build in such a way as to allow for future construction of a roof over the garage.

Justice Paul Belanger is head of the commission leading the inquiry into the fatal roof collapse at the Algo Centre Mall in Elliot Lake, which happened on June 23, 2012. (Yvon Theriault/Radio-Canada)

Another option he said he proposed was to allow for building more retail space above the parking deck.

"He agreed with me on all these points, but the cost would have been too high," Keywan said. "Well, I'm not involved with the money."

Hirt said he had a firm that had assured him it could waterproof the roof deck and Keywan said he assumed due diligence was done on the waterproofing.

The inquiry has heard the system had never been used on such a structure before, something Keywan said he didn't know.

The architect said he bore no responsibility for choosing the waterproofing, and didn't track the terrible leaking that beset the building — dubbed by some residents as "Algo Falls" — from the start.

"I didn't design any leaks," Keywan said.

Carr-Harris asked if the now-retired architect would have designed something unsafe just because the owner demanded it.

Written allegations against current owners

The Elliot Lake Inquiry has received written allegations from a former manager of the collapsed mall who says its owner had no regard for public safety.

In a statement filed with the inquiry, Henri Laroue said mall owner Bob Nazarian always cut corners when it came to safety.

As examples, she said he used wood instead of steel studs in walls, and made unqualified staff do electrical work.

Laroue said she quit her job because she worried about the legal liability of his refusal to comply with fire code orders, apparently because he viewed the orders as part of a conspiracy against him.

The allegations haven't been tested at the inquiry and Nazarian denies them, saying he always worked very hard on the mall.

"Absolutely not, not, not," Keywan responded. "I can be concerned about any building I designed. If it’s not taken care of, it will fall down and kill somebody."

Keywan also said he adhered to the Ontario Building Code as his "bible" in his design work, and believed everything was done to code, but that essentially was his assumption.

Ultimately, he signed off on the project simply on Hirt's say-so, without seeing the building, he said.

Carr-Harris seemed incredulous the architect did not do more to protect himself from any legal ramifications by satisfying himself the work had been done properly.

"It may be lawyer talk, but it's not architect-client talk," Keywan said.

The architect also said he thought it was a "very good-looking building," although he said he never saw it in person.

He told the commission that he started sketching the mall in 1976, after being retained by the original owners.

No criminal charges or civil liability will come from the public inquiry, which was established shortly after the fatal collapse. The commission, headed by Justice Paul Belanger, will come up with recommendations to ensure such a tragedy doesn't happen again.

The inquiry is expected to run until mid-July.

Schedule of testimony:

March 11James Keywan, architect, retained by Algoma Central Properties for the design of the Algo Centre Mall
March 12 & 13

Barbara Fazekas, former chief librarian, Elliot Lake Public Library

Rod Caughill, former development supervisor, Algoma Central Properties

March 14Domenic Dell'Aquilla (Trow), engineer, hired by Algoma Central Properties

With files from The Canadian Press