By Demir Delen, P.Eng.
Since January 1 this year, all Ontario professional engineers and architects who perform design activities for buildings are required to be qualified for building code purposes in addition to their qu...
Since January 1 this year, all Ontario professional engineers and architects who perform design activities for buildings are required to be qualified for building code purposes in addition to their qualification as a licensed professional. The law enabling this was passed in June 2002 and is entitled “An Act to Improve Public Safety and to Increase Efficiency in Building Code Enforcement,” which is commonly known as Bill 124.
One way to increase “efficiency in building code enforcement” is to reduce the duplication of efforts in the permit approval process. This benifit can be accomplished by building officials completely foregoing the examination of plans for compliance with the building code fire safety provisions in buildings that require engineers’ and architects’ involvement. Instead, the officials could rely on these professionals since they are now required to be qualified in building code matters in addition to their engineering or architectural expertise.
The “practice of professional engineering,” as defined in Ontario’s Professional Engineers Act, is concerned with the safeguarding of life, health, property or the public welfare. The building code is concerned with public health and safety, fire protection, structural sufficiency and accessibility, as stated in the Building Code Act. It is clear, then, that the practice of professional engineering and the building code are both concerned with the same purposes. The building code also mandates that certain types of buildings be designed by a professional engineer and/or an architect. It follows that there is a great deal of duplication of effort in ensuring compliance with the provisions of the Professional Engineers Act, Architects Act and the Building Code Act during the permit approval process since all of these Acts refer to the building code.
Regarding the fire safety requirements in Part 3 of the building code, building officials often conduct an in-depth review of drawings despite the involvement of professional engineers and architects. This review is a duplication of effort that costs time and money. Ironically, in most municipalities, building officials reviewing plans for large and complex buildings that are designed by professional engineers and architects are not engineers or architects themselves.
Before the new regulations came into effect, most building officials relied on professional engineers’ or architects’ seals regarding compliance with other parts of the building code. Most officials did not review related drawings when processing permit applications, such as structural design (Part 4), HVAC systems (Part 6) and environmental separation (Part 5), as well as the many referenced standards. The practice of relying on the professional engineer’s seal for code compliance has therefore already been established.
If building officials were to leave compliance with the building code to professional engineers and architects for the types of buildings required to be designed by such professionals, they would still ensure compliance with the requirements of the zoning bylaws, site plan control and other applicable laws before issuing a permit. However, they would have more time to review plans for buildings covered under Part 9, Housing and Small Buildings, since professional engineers’ or architects’ involvement is not required for these buildings. Focusing on Part 9 would be a more effective use of the building officials’ time rather than having to spend time reviewing plans and specifications prepared by engineers and architects who, as discussed above, are already mandated to ensure public health and safety under their Acts.
An alternative approvals process is one that has been in effect in Vancouver since the 1980s. Under this “Certified Professional Program,” the city staff does not carry out a detailed building code evaluation but instead can issue a building permit based on the certification of a “Certified Professional” for code compliance. The program has been adopted by several other municipalities in British Columbia.
Some building officials in Ontario are concerned about the independence of consultants regarding enforcing provisions of the building code when they get paid by owners and developers. The Building Code Act in Ontario now enables building permit applicants to appoint private sector Registered Code Agencies to approve compliance with the building code. However, the provisions allowing professional engineers and architects to act as Registered Code Agencies for applicants have been revoked. This decision was due to political pressure by building officials regarding their concern over consultants’ having a conflict of interest.
Regardless of who pays them, professional engineers must abide by the provisions of the relevant professional engineering Act in their province. For a professional engineer in Ontario, duty to public welfare is paramount as indicated in O.Reg 13/03 and Professional Engineers of Ontario’s Code of Ethics. Failure to make responsible provision for complying with applicable statutes, codes, by-laws etc. in connection with the work they undertake constitutes professional misconduct and is subject to the disciplinary procedures indicated in the regulations.
Perhaps it is time that professional engineers and architects take full responsibility regarding building code compliance with respect to fire safety matters, leaving building officials to concentrate more on buildings where professional involvement is not required.
The whole issue of building permit approvals has become even more pressing now that the objective-based building codes are upon us. Concerns have been raised about the potential liability of building officials in accepting “alternative solutions” under the objective-based code. Considering that the intent and application statement of each provision in the building code will now be available, I believe there will be less liability for building officials. The real question is how will building officials in Ontario issue a permit under the alternative solution option of the objective-based building code within the time frames mandated as a result of Bill 124.
Building construction in Canada requires a time-consuming and costly approval process. I believe that reducing the duplication of efforts by building officials and designers belonging to a self-regulating profession will increase the efficiency in building code enforcement. It will also result in a cost-effective approval process without reducing the level of performance regarding public health and safety.
Demir Delen, P.Eng. is a principal with Morrison Hershfield, consulting engineers of Toronto.