Langford 'unreasonable' when it allowed building without architect, appeal court says

A decision by Langford’s chief building inspector to issue a building permit for an apartment complex not designed by an architect, as required by a provincial law, was “unreasonable,” B.C.’s highest court has ruled.

The B.C. Court of Appeal has dismissed an appeal by the City of Langford seeking to overturn an earlier B.C. Supreme Court ruling that it was unreasonable to issue a building permit ­without involving an architect on the project.

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The judgment provides clarity for municipal governments across the province where architects have been seen as optional, in a case that will improve protection for the public, said Thom Lutes, general counsel for the Architectural Institute of British Columbia, which initiated legal action against Langford. The AIBC operates under the Ministry of the Attorney General, regulating architecture in the public interest.

If a problem arises with a building designed by an architect, the public can look to the AIBC for accountability, he said.

“That’s not the case if a building is designed, and the construction is supervised, by someone who is unregulated. And so it better protects the public if there’s a problem with the building or with how the professional is operating. There’s an accountability mechanism,” Lutes said.

The Hoffman building was brought to the AIBC’s attention after an owner of one of the units complained about a problem with the acoustics, he said.

In another situation, a building designed by an engineer without an architect required considerable upgrades, with the owner paying, said Maura Gatensby, an architect and lead practice adviser and regulatory liaison for the AIBC.

Lawyers for the City of Langford staff are reviewing the decision.

“We are disappointed with the Court of Appeal’s decision and the ramifications it will have in all municipalities across the province,” a spokesperson for the city said in a statement.

The case goes back to 2016, when Langford’s chief building inspector issued a building permit for the construction of a residential complex at 689 Hoffman Ave. It was clear from the application that an architect was not involved in the project, according to a B.C. Supreme Court judgment issued last year. Instead, a designer completed the drawings and designed the project.

Justice Stephen Kelleher wrote in his May 2020 Supreme Court decision that the building inspector failed to take into account the requirements of the Architects Act in issuing the permit.

“It is not a rational or acceptable outcome that a municipal building permit could be issued for a building which has clearly been designed in contravention of a relevant provincial statute respecting health and safety, that is, the [Architects] Act,” he wrote.

Justice John J.L. Hunter agreed with Kelleher’s ruling, which rejected Langford’s argument that municipal building inspectors are not required to consider the Act.

In 2018, a unit owner asked Langford if an architect had signed off on the project and was told by the city’s senior building inspector, “Building officials have no authority to require an architect on a building your size,” Kelleher wrote in his decision.

The owner then contacted the AIBC, which wrote to Langford and requested that the city provide written commitment that it would comply with the Architects Act in the future. The building had already been constructed at the time.

The city declined to make the commitment, arguing instead that building officials have discretion on whether or not to refuse a building permit that does not comply with the Act.

Lutes said the AIBC has dealt with the same issue in small municipalities across the province and has generally been able to secure a commitment that local governments will comply with provincial law, although that doesn’t always last.

Taking legal action was intended to set a clear standard for municipalities, he said.

“There were some pockets in the province, where there was resistance, or misunderstanding. And what this judgment does, is, I think, helps provide clarity and ensures we all have a consistent understanding of how this law applies,” Lutes said.

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