British Columbia

Architects of their own misfortune? Building design approval draws lawsuit against city

B.C.'s architectural watchdog is suing the City of Langford on Vancouver Island over a five-unit townhome complex that was approved without the input of an architect.

Regulator wants to quash a city permit for a townhome complex that wasn't designed by an architect

British Columbia's Architectural Institute has gone to the B.C. Supreme Court in its battle to ensure that the province's Architects Act is being obeyed. (Shutterstock/Mizin Roman)

B.C.'s architectural watchdog is suing the City of Langford, just west of Victoria, over a five-unit townhome complex that was approved without the input of an architect.

The Architectural Institute of B.C. wants a B.C. Supreme Court judge to say the decision to issue the building's permit was "unreasonable" because the structure was drawn up by a designer — in violation of B.C.'s Architects Act.

The battle highlights a much larger fight between the body tasked with regulating B.C.'s architects and communities around the province accused of ignoring the law.

"A building that requires an architect in Prince George or Langford should have one, no less than a building in Richmond or Vancouver," says Thomas Lutes, general counsel for the AIBC.

"Our view is that the public is not protected when local governments fail to consider the Architects Act and require architects. There's a missing accountability piece."

'Building most certainly should have had an architect'

Designed in a "modern West Coast" open style, units at 689 Hoffman are listed for upwards of half a million dollars.

According to the AIBC's claim, the building includes five dwellings as well as commercial space.

But in June 2018, the regulator received a query from a resident who was concerned about their new home.

"I was hoping someone can clarify my concerns about whether an architect was required by the developer for our residential/commercial property," the email reads.

"From my brief look into the laws, my understanding is that our building most certainly should have had an architect."

The Architectural Institute of B.C. has gone to B.C. Supreme Court to try to get an order saying that the decision to issue a building permit for this Langford townhome complex was unreasonable. (Google Maps)

The Architects Act prohibits anyone other than a licensed architect from "advising on, planning, designing or supervising the erection, alteration or repair" of most larger buildings or buildings designed for public assembly.

The law specifically says you need an architect for apartments or residential buildings with five or more dwelling units, hotels containing 11 or more rooms and commercial buildings with a gross area greater than 470 square metres.

The rules also apply to any building with more than one storey used for public assembly and any building, other than a veterinary hospital, to be used as a hospital, sanatorium or home for the aged, with more than 12 beds.

No obligation to enforce Architects Act

The AIBC claims the Hoffman townhome complex needed an architect because it has a gross area of 748 square metres and five dwelling units, one of which is a live/work space.

According to the court documents, the regulator claims to have raised its concerns with the City of Langford. But the city allegedly said its job is to enforce Langford's building bylaws — not the Architects Act.

The Architectural Institute of B.C. says that communities should enforce the Architects Act before giving building permits to construction projects. (Todd Korol/Reuters)

Lutes says the regulator agrees. But he says cities should make sure developers are complying with the provincial regulations when they approve designs.

According to an affidavit from architect and AIBC regulatory liaison Maura Gatensby, it's not the first time the issue has arisen.

She claims that the cities of Vancouver and Surrey both work with the AIBC to ensure the Architects Act is followed.

But the regulator says Kamloops takes a "different approach that appears to rely primarily or exclusively on the building code".

Gatensby says the AIBC has also contacted Salmon Arm with similar concerns.

"To conclude, there is not a uniform approach within the province," she writes.

'It's a difficult step'

Lutes says an order from the court might not have any direct or immediate impact on the physical structure of the building at the heart of the battle.

After all, it is already built and occupied.

He says it's rare for the AIBC to sue a city, but that the organization is pursuing the claim in the hope other municipalities will make sure architects are being employed when required in the future.

"It may be a situation where the City of Langford would be required to reconsider, but of course the building permit has been issued," he says.

"It's a difficult step, but certainly going forward it should have an impact on how certain decisions are made." 

The AIBC has published an undertaking and agreement under the illegal practice portion of its website from the man who designed 689 Hoffman.

He admitted that he "provided design services and prepared drawings for a building which, based on its size and intended occupancy, required the services of an architect."

The City of Langford has not responded to the claim and did not return a call for comment. None of the allegations have been proven in court.

About the Author

Jason Proctor

@proctor_jason

Jason Proctor is a reporter in British Columbia for CBC News and has covered the B.C. courts and mental health issues in the justice system extensively.

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