Nova Scotia CBC Investigates

Flammable cladding on Halifax tower not up to code at time of install, report says

Gordon B. Isnor Manor is safe for residents but the panelling should be replaced within a year, report says

November 06, 2017

The Gordon B. Isnor Manor is a 15-storey building on Cornwallis Street in Halifax. (CBC)

More than four months after flammable siding was identified on a Halifax seniors' tower, it's still not clear who is responsible for putting it there or who will bear the cost of making the building safe.

According to a consultant's report obtained by CBC News under freedom of information laws, the original contract issued by Metropolitan Regional Housing Authority called for fire-resistant panelling on Gordon B. Isnor Manor during a $6-million renovation in 2011.

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Instead, the aluminum panels installed on the outside of the 15-storey social housing tower were not fire-rated and were not up to federal building codes at the time.

"At this point in time, we're not aware that there was any deliberate intent to not install FR-rated [fire-resistant] panels," said Jamie Vigliarolo, acting general manager of the Metropolitan Regional Housing Authority.

"At this point I'd have to speculate on exactly why and how that particular product was installed," he said.

Identical panelling to catastrophic U.K. fire

The panels, called Reynobond PE, are the same type used on Grenfell Tower in London, England.

Grenfell Tower burned catastrophically in June of this year, with the loss of at least 80 lives. The siding has been partially blamed for the catastrophe.

According to Canada's National Building Code, cladding on high-rise buildings must be subjected to a burn test that measures how fast flames would spread. Reynobond PE has never been certified in Canada for structures more than three storeys tall.

The manufacturer also makes a more expensive form of the panelling called Reynobond FR, which stands for "fire-resistant."

Jamie Vigliarolo is the acting manager of Metropolitan Regional Housing Authority. (CBC)

"It's important for the safety and security of our residents to make sure the components in the building we're installing meet fire safety code," said Vigliarolo.

The consultant's report by Contrast Engineering Ltd. was delivered to Housing Nova Scotia in late July.

It said the building is safe for residents to live in, but that the panelling should be replaced within a year.

Vigliarolo emphasizes that Gordon B. Isnor Manor is built to a far higher safety standard than Grenfell Tower, with fireproof insulation on the outside, fireproof construction within, a sprinkler system and two fireproof stairwells.  

Possibility of legal action

A spokesperson for Housing Nova Scotia said there's a possibility of legal action if it turns out the technical specifications of the original contract were not followed.

Vigliarolo said so far, communication with the original contractor, Avondale Construction, has been positive.

"We're in constant communication with Avondale and working through the details in order to resolve the matter appropriately," he said.

Avondale Construction did not respond to CBC's requests for comment.

Vigliarolo said the MRHA is now on the verge of issuing a second tender for the work.

He wouldn't say how much that might cost.  

"We've been preparing this tender now for about six weeks. And we're right on track and online with getting this tender out. And once a tender is put out, there is no mechanism for us not to award the work."

A painful situation

The president of Alumitech, the Bedford company that supplied the cladding to Avondale Construction, said his company is a contractor and supplies any product that is requested.

"Nine years ago, there were no issues with this product whatsoever," said Norsat Eblaghi.

"This is a very painful situation, and it has been for the past few months."

Eblaghi said the decision to use Reynobond PE was made when mockup panels were first applied to the side of the building.

A report delivered to Housing Nova Scotia in late July said the building is safe for residents to live in, but that the panelling should be replaced within a year. (Robert Short/CBC)

He said the decision was made after discussions among representatives of Alumitech, Avondale and the Metropolitan Regional Housing Authority.

"There are engineers involved, there are architects involved, there's a whole bunch of professionals who chose this material," he said.

Eblaghi declined to comment further on the advice of his lawyers.

But he said, "this is a very simple issue and should be shared with [the] public."

Professional associations not involved

The CEO of Engineers Nova Scotia, Len White, said the regulatory body for engineers is "generally aware of the situation, but had no specific involvement at this time."

White said he can't comment on the issues at Gordon B. Isnor Manor, but he said these types of situations can be hard to untangle.

"Sometimes it's a long chain of decisions and individuals and it's hard to tell who is responsible. That's why legal cases take so long, and it's complicated," he said.

White said professional engineers have "a responsibility to design to the existing codes," and if they spot a problem, they have "an obligation to point that out to the relevant authority."

If a complaint is lodged about an engineer, it would be up to Engineers Nova Scotia to handle the case, but no complaints have been received thus far, White said.

The Nova Scotia Association of Architects said it has received no complaints regarding the Gordon B. Isnor property.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jack Julian
Reporter

Jack Julian is a data journalist in the Halifax newsroom. This is a new position, and he's excited about it. He likes surprises in his stories. Email: jack.julian@cbc.ca Twitter: @jackjulian

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