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UBCO’s engineering report on downtown building came with warnings

A photo of UBCO's construction site on Doyle Avenue on June 2, 2024.

The geotechnical engineering report for UBC Okanagan's new downtown Kelowna tower warned the university about the risks of digging so deep long before neighbouring buildings showed damage.

The initial engineering report for the Doyle Avenue tower foresaw the possibility of settlement issues affecting the surrounding properties, and recommended weekly monitoring.

In the report laden with technical engineering jargon, and under the subsection “Excavation Monitoring” the report informed UBCO to check the land surrounding the site during excavation.

“We recommend that monitoring of the lands surrounding site be completed as a prudent measure to confirm anticipated off-site behaviour during excavation,” the report said. “We recommend that the survey of the monitoring points be completed weekly during initial excavation with the results forwarded to GeoPacific.”

UBCO's media liaison Nathan Skolski said the university followed the recommendations in the report.

"I can confirm that the recommendations included the initial geotechnical report were followed as well as those found in all subsequent reports issued by the geotechnical engineer of record," he said in an email to iNFOnews.ca.

iNFOnews.ca has obtained a copy of that geotechnical report for the UBCO Property Trust construction site, which envisioned a skyscraper with a four-storey parking garage, but the project has had to be changed after their neighbours were evacuated.

A geotechnical expert said if the recommendations in the report were followed then UBCO would have been aware of the damage to surrounding properties long before the need to evacuate any buildings. At the meeting where Hadgraft Wilson Place tenants found out they had to leave their homes the university's Principal and Deputy Vice-Chancellor Lesley Cormack said she could not comment on whether the university would take responsibility. 

READ MORE: UBCO tower debacle could set back Kelowna’s downtown development

Soil settlement issues caused by UBCO’s excavation of the four-storey parking garage damaged several surrounding buildings, including Hadgraft Wilson Place. Hadgraft Wilson Place is a building for people on fixed incomes or with disabilities which is owned and operated by Pathways Abilities Society.

Hadgraft Wilson Place was evacuated at the start of April after the fire department determined the building was unsafe. The evacuation was preceded by damage to the building that visibly got worse over several months.

Currently there are two lawsuits against UBCO, and one includes the City of Kelowna.

“The defendants… knew or ought to have known that the shoring wall that was part of UBCO Development construction site was unstable and the excavation and construction work on the lands posed a danger to adjacent properties,” one suit claims. “However, they failed to stop construction and excavation activities on the Lands or warn the plaintiffs and Class members of the resultant damage and the dangerous conditions to the surrounding properties.”

READ MORE: City of Kelowna, UBCO sued over downtown building debacle

Pathways’ executive director Charise Daly said they had been documenting the damage to the building and corresponding with UBCO at least as far back as October of 2023. Construction on Doyle Avenue was halted when Hadgraft Wilson Place was evacuated but has since resumed with plans for a shallower parking garage. 

Kelowna’s sandy and silty soil is known to be prone to challenges like settlement issues according to UBCO’s engineering professor Dwayne Tannant.

The geotechnical report from December 1, 2022, was conducted by the engineering firm GeoPacific. In the report the firm recommended weekly monitoring during the initial excavation to confirm the surrounding buildings and infrastructure were not severely impacted by the excavation.

The report said the project was feasible if the report's "preliminary recommendations were incorporated into the overall design." GeoPacific recommended these weekly monitoring reports should be sent to the firm for assessment and review.

GeoPacific’s report also said the developer was incorporating design elements for the benefit of “off-site parties.”

READ MORE: Residents scramble for places to live as downtown Kelowna building deemed unsafe

The city said it ensures there are third-party, independent experts who confirm the feasibility of a project like this, but it relies on their expertise. 

"The City of Kelowna, like all other local governments, relies entirely on the expertise of these subject matter experts without getting involved in inspection or any earth work methodology," the city said in an email. 

Geotechnical engineering professor Mohammad Rayhani said any settlement issues should be apparent in the recommended monitoring reports relatively early on in the excavation process.

“They should have seen signs of settlement,” Rayhani said.

Rayhani said settlement issues could arise from problems with the shoring systems that support the hole and prevent it from collapsing. He said another cause of settlement issues is when a significant amount of water has to be pumped out of the hole, or when a giant hole stays empty for a long period of time.

“Even if there was no monitoring they should have known that if that site was kept open like that for a long time, then this will lead to a problem,” he said.

GeoPacific did not respond promptly to requests for comment, and Ledcor, the construction company working on the building, declined to comment. 

The City of Kelowna and UBCO has denied official requests from iNFOnews.ca to review their geotechnical engineering reports. 

The City of Kelowna was unable to respond to requests for comment initially, but emailed their response after this story was published. 


To contact a reporter for this story, email Jesse Tomas or call 250-488-3065 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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