Engineer concluded suspended N.B. engineer's buildings risked collapse, seeks provincial review

Halifax structural engineer John Richardson says he has reviewed several multi-storey apartment buildings allegedly designed by Hélène Thériault that he concluded were at risk of collapse.  (Dave Laughlin/CBC - image credit)
Halifax structural engineer John Richardson says he has reviewed several multi-storey apartment buildings allegedly designed by Hélène Thériault that he concluded were at risk of collapse. (Dave Laughlin/CBC - image credit)

A Halifax structural engineer has described some buildings by a suspended Moncton engineer as the scariest things he's come across during his nearly four-decade career.

John Richardson told CBC News that over the last six months, he has reviewed several multi-storey apartment buildings allegedly designed by Hélène Thériault that he concluded were at risk of collapse.

"They're working for various reasons that should not be part of the structural design," Richardson said of his conclusions about the structures.

"Things like the drywall partitions and components like that are what are helping hold these buildings up temporarily. And they're not meant to do that."

Richardson's comments offer a glimpse into the seriousness and scope of the allegations against Thériault and her company, Ingénierie Match Engineering Inc., and a scramble to identify and check buildings she allegedly helped design in multiple New Brunswick communities.

CBC tried, but was unable, to get a full picture of how many buildings Thériault worked on, where they are located and whether she worked alone or as part of a team.

In response to two lawsuits, Match has admitted to the "under design" of components of two buildings in Shediac and Miramichi.

The details in the court filings align with what Richardson told CBC he observed.

Thériault did not respond to requests for comment.

A lawyer representing her and Match Engineering in lawsuits filed by building owners that used Richardson to review their structures declined to comment while the matters are before the courts.

WATCH | N.B. structural engineer suspended over alleged deficiencies with multiple buildings:

Thériault's firm was incorporated in 2015 and records list her as its only corporate director. Associations in Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia, where she was also registered, described her as the only engineer associated with the company.

While architects conceive of a building's overall design, a structural engineer would be responsible for detailed engineering designs and structural analysis. Their plans would be used for construction.

But all of the ones I've looked at that have these issues have been shored up to the best of my knowledge. So the current and immediate danger has gone away. - John Richardson, structural engineer

Richardson described the plans he reviewed as being for buildings mainly in southeast New Brunswick, though some were in Saint John and Miramichi.

"They all had issues to varying degrees, and about half of those, approximately, are occupied," Richardson said.

"But all of the ones I've looked at that have these issues have been shored up to the best of my knowledge. So the current and immediate danger has gone away."

He said shoring up buildings has meant adding temporary supports as longer-term fixes are planned.

"I've been a structural engineer for 38 years, designing buildings, and I have not seen anything like this once," said Richardson, whose past work includes the Halifax convention centre and apartment buildings.

The company he works for also helped design Moncton's Avenir Centre arena.

Suspended in May

The Association of Professional Engineers & Geoscientists of New Brunswick, which regulates the engineering profession, suspended Thériault's licence to practise on May 10 pending a disciplinary hearing. She has been a member since 2011.

The New Brunswick association said in a June 7 statement the suspension was based on "allegations of serious deficiencies in the design of multiple buildings, both constructed and under construction."

The association has yet to specify what the alleged problems are, how many buildings or in what communities.

Several municipalities, as well as New Brunswick's Department of Public Safety, haven't answered how many buildings Thériault allegedly designed in their jurisdictions.

Julie Albert, a spokesperson for the City of Dieppe, said that as of June 19, it has identified about 20 buildings linked to Thériault in the municipality. The statement did not identify the buildings.

Albert said the city continues to work with building owners.

Richardson described becoming involved in reviewing some of Thériault's buildings in December. He said he was contacted after cracks were noticed in the foundation of a 63-unit apartment building that was still under construction in Dieppe.

A Moncton engineer faces three separate lawsuits alleging issues with designs, including this one in Dieppe which is still under construction.
A Moncton engineer faces three separate lawsuits alleging issues with designs, including this one in Dieppe which is still under construction.

Richardson says his involvement began with this Dieppe apartment building. (Becky Parsons/Radio-Canada)

Quest CEO Harold Daley told CBC the company turned to Richardson after working with him on a previous project.

Richardson said he reviewed the building plans and quickly concluded there was a problem with what's called a transfer slab that serves as the roof of a parking garage, carrying the weight of four floors and a roof to support columns.

"I've done numerous buildings similar to that, so I sort of knew based on how many levels were above what the spans were, what that floor should look like, and this building just obviously didn't meet what I expected at all," Richardson said.

Just before Christmas, Richardson toured the building and said he saw more cracks than he considered normal. In Richardson's opinion, the building wasn't safe for construction work to continue.

Daley said work halted in January as temporary supports were added to make the building safe. Daley said permanent measures were added with Richardson's input.

"The temporary measures that were put in place have been taken down and the building is safe now for occupancy," Daley said, saying it's set to open in September.

'My heart kind of sunk'

Richardson said he spoke to Thériault by phone Jan. 9 and asked how many similar buildings she had designed, saying he recalls her saying she worked on many of them.

"At that point my heart kind of sunk," he said.

That same day, he wrote to the engineers' association about his concerns, writing that he wouldn't file a formal complaint because he did not have details about her other buildings. He asked the association to take over.

What happened between his message and her suspension four months later has emerged as a point of contention.

In a statement to CBC, the association's CEO and registrar, Lia Daborn, said the lack of a formal complaint by Richardson "hampered our efforts."

The statement says that "following its own investigation," the association "filed the Complaint against Ms. Thériault." It didn't say when that investigation began, or when the complaint was filed.

The statement said the association's complaint was without assistance from on-the-record information from Thériault's clients or engineers who reviewed her work.

"In fact, if anyone had gone on the record with the Association, we may have been able to act sooner," Daborn said in the statement.

An apartment building under construction in Dieppe at the centre of one of three lawsuits involving a Moncton engineer.
An apartment building under construction in Dieppe at the centre of one of three lawsuits involving a Moncton engineer.

Richardson says he was asked to review plans for this apartment building in Dieppe last December. (Becky Parsons/Radio-Canada)

After his involvement with the Dieppe building, Richardson said, he began hearing from other companies that allegedly used Thériault's designs, as well as from municipalities, which wanted him to take a look at plans.

Richardson told CBC he passed along information to the association as more buildings came to his attention. The association didn't answer a question from CBC about that.

A lawsuit against Thériault's firm, Match Engineering, was filed in March about its work on the Dieppe building. The case refers to expenses to investigate cracks, but doesn't name Richardson.

Last month, Match's lawyer filed a statement of defence in the case.

"Match admits to certain deficiencies in design, but, denies all other statements and allegations" in the lawsuit, the document states. The court filing doesn't elaborate on the admitted deficiencies.

Two other lawsuits have been filed against Thériault and Match Engineering about buildings in Shediac and Miramichi, buildings Richardson had also been asked to review. Statements of defence were filed in those cases Monday.

"Match admits to under design of the transfer slab and certain elements, including columns and supports, supporting and connected to the slab," the documents state, going on to say there was insufficient rebar specified by Match.

The statements of defence say that Match wasn't the cause of losses alleged by building owners, but says if they had losses, it was caused by unnamed contractors on the projects, or by other officials.

One lawsuit alleges issues in the design of this apartment building in Shediac that required temporary and permeant fixes.
One lawsuit alleges issues in the design of this apartment building in Shediac that required temporary and permeant fixes.

One lawsuit alleges issues in the design of this apartment building in Shediac that required temporary and permeant fixes. (Becky Parsons/Radio-Canada)

Richardson said the buildings he's reviewed are multi-storey apartment buildings with several floors above an indoor parking garage.

In basic terms, Richardson described the main issue he observed as a concrete transfer slab over the parking garage that's too thin, with too little supporting steel.

"We design building components so they have more capacity than the load that they are expected to have to carry, and that's our safety factor," Richardson said.

But, he said, he concluded the buildings lacked a safety factor to support loads the buildings might typically see day-to-day.

Based on his experience, he said this could lead to the slab failing, resulting in higher levels collapsing into the basement.

"That hasn't happened, thank goodness," Richardson said. "But we were very concerned, particularly with some of the buildings."

Evacuations were considered at several points, but ultimately none have occurred. Instead, he said, he was comforted that temporary supports could be in place within 24 to 48 hours.

Richardson said he opted to speak publicly because he worries there may be other buildings that Thériault worked on that have yet to be checked.

"Because they are so dangerous that they could in fact collapse and there's people living in them. That's my big worry."

Asked whether the association has a full list of her work over the years, the engineer association's CEO said in a statement it is in "possession of Ms. Thériault's records," but didn't directly say if that means it has a complete list.

The association said its investigation is ongoing.

"As any further issues are identified, we will continue to work, municipalities, provincial officials, and building owners to ensure public safety," Daborn said in the statement.

Engineer calls for provincial investigation

The association said it has hired an external investigator to review the known designs of buildings and structures associated with Thériault.

It said it is still awaiting the investigator's report.

However, Richardson is calling for a broader review, suggesting what he saw requires the provincial government to appoint a person, or several, to find and check each building.

"I'm not looking to do the work, just to be clear," Richardson said.

"We have — we're very busy. We have more than enough work, but I'm just concerned about the safety of the people living in these buildings."

A spokesperson for New Brunswick's Department of Public Safety didn't address the call for a provincially led investigation, instead directing questions to the association.

Hearing postponed

Thériault was to face a disciplinary hearing in June, but that hearing was cancelled. The association said her lawyer has agreed to facilitate the process without her needing to attend. It's unclear when, or if, a hearing may take place.

The Prince Edward Island engineering association has also suspended Thériault following her suspension in New Brunswick, though it says there's no indication she has worked on buildings in that province.

Engineers Nova Scotia says Thériault resigned from that association earlier this year, and it isn't aware of any buildings in that province she worked on.