'A lot of mystery' in Manitoba Housing tower in Brandon mostly empty since 2012, documents say

Delays in fixing "significant" building code deficiencies at a Brandon, Man., apartment complex that has been nearly empty since 2012 were caused in part by consultants working on the project, according to documents obtained by CBC News.

8 suites in 76-suite building are currently occupied

Only eight of the 76 units in Princess Towers are occupied after it was discovered the building's ventilation system didn't meet Manitoba building code requirements. (Riley Laychuk/CBC )

Delays in fixing "significant" building code deficiencies at a Brandon apartment complex that has been nearly empty since 2012 were caused in part by consultants working on the project, according to documents obtained by CBC News.

The documents relate to Princess Towers, an 11-storey Manitoba Housing apartment complex in the southwestern Manitoba city. They were requested through freedom of information, and show the building has been nearly empty since December 2012.

Manitoba Housing aimed to have tenants back in the building in 2015. However, the updates to the ventilation system did not meet code. Addressing those problems caused  "significant delays."

"We're going on seven years now," said Brandon city councillor Kris Desjarlais. "If they really wanted it to be a priority I think it would have been done by now."

More than 500 pages of information obtained by CBC News detail various contracts and tender documents related to the building's repair. The documents also give a more concrete timeline about why it's taken so long to address code deficiencies in the ventilation system.

No more than 13 suites in the 76-suite building have been occupied since renovations, set to cost $7 million, began in 2012. Currently, eight units are occupied, Manitoba Housing said. The building consists of a mix of one-bedroom and studio apartments.

Just eight of the 76 suites in the Brandon building are occupied, even though finding affordable housing is a challenge. 1:58

According to a document detailing the scope of the work needed at Princess Towers, the problems lie in the exhaust ducts, which were found to be too small. The kitchen, laundry and bathroom systems were also interconnected and couldn't properly ventilate the individual rooms, which is not permitted under Manitoba building code standards.

The exhaust systems were also deemed too noisy and exceeded recommended noise levels on the upper floors of the building, the document said.

In another document, officials admitted they weren't exactly sure when the ventilation system was first changed.

"There is a lot of mystery in this building," read part of an addition to a tender document. Drawings from 1971, when the building was still under construction, showed it had larger exhaust ducts.

But drawings done in 2012 showed smaller ducts, which failed testing in 2015. Manitoba Housing said parts of the ventilation system, including some fans and motors, were changed during the 2012 renovations.

Air balance test fails 

The problems were discovered in March 2015, when the consultant and contractors with the 2012 renovations discovered air balance tests had failed and asked Manitoba Housing for changes to the construction contract.

Manitoba Housing spent a "significant" amount of time with the consultant and the consultant's insurer trying to come up with a plan to correct the ventilation issues.

A review of the ventilation system in Princess Towers found 'significant' deficiencies in the building's ventilation system. (CBC Graphics )

A new plan and design for repairs was submitted to Manitoba Housing in November 2016.

"The method of correction, however, was not favourable to Manitoba Housing and in our opinion would not have corrected the primary code compliance issue," read a background document dated November 2018.

The province reached an undisclosed settlement in 2017 with the consultants that were involved in the original design of the building's 2012 renovations.

The names and details of the consultants involved were not included in the documents.

Manitoba Housing later issued a request for proposals in November 2017 for another consultant to complete drawings and designs to correct the issues. It was awarded in February 2018.

Construction on the ventilation system started last month.

Low vacancy rate 

The building's 68 currently vacant suites would help battle Brandon's low vacancy rate.

It sat at just 1.0 per cent in 2018, according to data from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, down from 1.5 per cent in 2017 and 3.3 per cent in 2016.

Desjarlais said housing has been at a premium in Brandon since Massey Manor, another affordable housing complex, was badly damaged by fire in spring of 2018.

An influx of post-secondary students and workers hired to work on the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline in western Manitoba has also led to an even bigger shortage in the city.

"That's really hit us hard and created another pinch on the market," said Desjarlais, referring to the Massey Manor fire, which displaced more than 150 people.

Flames and smoke break through the roof of Massey Manor, which was badly damaged by fire in May 2018. (Riley Laychuk/CBC)

Desjarlais, who sits on Brandon city council's poverty committee, said the city has been trying to talk with Manitoba Housing about the building, but hasn't been successful.

"Nobody has offered to spend any time with us, give us a full understanding and timeline," he said on Princess Towers.

Desjarlais said while Brandon's homeless population decreased in 2018, he hopes construction on Princess Towers is done sooner rather than later to help them out.

"There are a lot of couch surfers in Brandon right now that are waiting to find housing accommodations," he said.

Repairs underway 

Tenants in the eight units won't have to move out of the building while the ventilation system is repaired, a Manitoba Housing spokesperson told CBC News via email.

Manitoba Housing estimates it could cost up to $750,000 to repair the Princess Towers building. (Riley Laychuk/CBC )

Manitoba Housing Asset Management officials believe the repairs could cost up to $750,000 to complete, excluding the cost of additional testing and permits.

Officials said construction at Princess Towers should be done by this summer.

About the Author

Riley Laychuk is CBC's reporter based in Brandon, covering rural Manitoba. Share your story ideas, tips and feedback: