British Columbia

2nd engineer suspended over Surrey condo that failed to meet building code

Two engineers at the helm of a single engineering firm were suspended within months of each other for their work on a condo tower in Surrey, B.C. that later failed to meet building code, CBC has learned.

Some residents say they were unaware their building was subject of 5-year investigation

The Ultra condo tower is pictured in Surrey, B.C. on May 7, 2019. Two engineers have been suspended, one permanently, for errors made during the structural design process for the tower. The City of Surrey is now reviewing the soundness of the building. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Two engineers at the helm of a single engineering firm were suspended within months of each other for their work on a condo tower in Surrey, B.C. that later failed to meet building code, CBC News has learned.

John Bryson and John Zickmantel once ran their Vancouver-based firm together. They were both banned from working as engineers in B.C. — Bryson permanently, Zickmantel for a month — after a years-long investigation found a 40-storey tower they each worked on, called the Ultra, is not up to code

The suspension of two engineers over flawed designs for a highrise, now with hundreds of people living inside, has prompted the City of Surrey to review whether there are safety concerns with the building. 

The news has also prompted some confusion and unease among residents, some who say they weren't aware of any suspensions or reviews to do with their building.

"I had no idea. I've lived here for 2 ½ years and I had no idea any of that was going on," said one renter, Bryan Brock. "Not one."

The Ultra is a pillar of concrete and glass soaring over a dead-end street just a few minutes' walk from the hum of Surrey's university district and city hall.

Designs not up to code, says regulator

There are more than 360 units in the building, finished in 2013, with condos on the top level valued at more than $1.1 million.

Bryson and Zickmantel both had their names on the door of their firm when Bryson was hired to create structural designs for the tower. Zickmantel was supposed to finish an independent review of Bryson's work before design documents were issued for construction.

On April 1, Bryson resigned and agreed to never again work as an engineer in B.C. after the investigation from the regulator overseeing engineers in the province found his designs for the Ultra weren't up to proper building code.

Suaad Alkousa, 54, has lived in the Ultra building with her husband for about two years. (Nic Amaya/CBC)

CBC News has learned Zickmantel was suspended eight months earlier, on July 30, 2018, for failing to complete his review of those flawed designs before paperwork was issued. Zickmantel was fined $15,000 and allowed back to work one month later.

Zickmantel declined an interview with CBC News when reached over email last week. Bryson has not returned requests for comment.

Officials haven't expressed any immediate safety concerns about the building in light of the suspensions, but the City of Surrey says officials are now working with the strata corporation to determine whether there are any safety issues with the tower.

The strata sent an email to owners in the building about Bryson's suspension on May 10, but some tenants say that note never reached them.

The condo tower is 40 storeys of concrete and glass with hundreds of residents. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Jeremy Lebreton, 25, said he got the email, but not before he saw a CBC News story about it on May 7.

"I saw it on Reddit, I saw it online, on Facebook," said Lebreton, who's rented a 17th floor condo in the building with his girlfriend since 2015.

"We did get an email but … It was not very clear. Just that something happened and 'We don't exactly know if your building's affected.' … Maybe it's fine, maybe it's not."

Complaint filed, investigation launched

Engineers and Geoscientists B.C. (EGBC), the provincial regulator for engineers, launched an investigation into Bryson's work after someone filed a complaint about it in 2014.

Investigators hired two engineers from a separate firm to look at the building. Those engineers found the core walls and headers in the building "appear deficient," particularly in regards to wind and seismic design, according to court documents related to the regulator's investigation.

A consent order detailing the case said investigators found Bryson used the wrong, national building code instead of the code B.C. had in place to design certain parts of the building.

Jeremy Lebreton, 25, has rented a condo in the Ultra building with his girlfriend since 2015. (Nic Amaya/CBC)

The order also said some parts of Bryson's design were incomplete and certain mandatory calculations weren't done at all.

The regulator's investigation only looked at whether the building was designed to the code that was current at the time.  It's up to the city and the strata corporation to determine whether the tower is safe.

In a statement on May 6, the city said that work is underway. The city also said it doesn't double check engineers' designs once they're submitted as staff are "legally obligated" to rely on design professionals to be honest about abiding by building codes when they submit their paperwork.

"The city relies on letters of assurance provided by the professionals who designed the building, such as architects and engineers, which confirm the building had been designed and constructed according to the B.C. Building Code," said an emailed statement from Rémi Dubé, who manages the building division at the city's planning and development department.

The regulator and city have declined to identify which condo tower was the subject of the investigation, but CBC News has independently verified the address.

'Should I be worried?': resident

"In this situation, where it was determined at a later time that the building was not built to the applicable code at the time, the city will be following up with the Strata Corporation to determine if there are any safety issues that would impact occupancy."

The city declined further comment when asked about Zickmantel's suspension last week. In the meantime, people living in the tower said they're not sure what to do next.

"I just phoned my Realtor and asked, 'What do you think about this and should I be worried?' And he just said I should give him a call back," said Adam Bull, 34, who owns a condo in the building.

A high rise in question is pictured in Surrey, B.C. on May 7, 2019. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Others like Suaad Alkousa, 54, were less fussed about the news. Alkousa has lived in the building with her husband for about two years and hadn't heard about the suspensions before a reporter asked her about it..

"I was surprised, really, because I don't feel there's something wrong. Nothing's made me worried," said Alkousa, who had a career as a civil engineer in Syria before immigrating to Canada four years ago.

"We'll follow up about it."

Lebreton, who rents a condo, said he feels safe, too, but relieved he doesn't have a financial stake in the building. "If I was the owner, I would just be going crazy," he said.

"If the building was not designed properly or corners were cut," he added, trailing off. "Yeah. Crazy."

About the Author

Rhianna Schmunk is a reporter for CBC News based in Vancouver. Reach her at rhianna.schmunk@cbc.ca or on Twitter.

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