Dear Premier John Horgan: Here is how to get schools seismically upgraded.
“Rescuers used cranes, blowtorches, and their bare hands to claw at the debris Thursday night, removing roof tiles and slabs of concrete while listening for the faint sounds of children trapped inside.”
That sentence has haunted me for 15 years. It’s from a news report following a 2002 earthquake in Italy that killed 27 children and their teachers when their school’s roof collapsed. The earthquake didn’t actually kill them—the poorly designed building they were in did.
A similarly horrific scenario played out with tragic results last week in Mexico. It has happened too many times in too many places, and it could happen in B.C. in dozens of seismically high-risk schools in Vancouver alone. We’ve known this for years, and we know what to do about it. Let’s get on with it.
After the 2002 Italy earthquake, Vancouver students and parents, including me, formed a grassroots advocacy group called Families for School Seismic Safety (FSSS) to convince the provincial government to upgrade hundreds of seismically high-risk B.C. public schools. Many of these schools are built of old, brittle unreinforced masonry, which makes them some of the deadliest buildings to be in during an earthquake. Yet that’s where children spend their days.
In 2005, FSSS convinced the B.C. Liberal government of the day, under the leadership of Gordon Campbell, to commit $ 1.5 billion to upgrade all at-risk schools by 2020. In 2015, the Christy Clark government quietly shifted the completion date to 2025 for B.C. but as far away as 2030 for Vancouver, which has the most high-risk buildings of any B.C. school district.
Why the delay?
A potentially deadly combination of complacency, politics, competing priorities, and the absence of an effective implementation plan are holding up what should have been a systematic and orderly process of upgrading or rebuilding unsafe schools. It ain’t rocket science, folks: they’re pretty simple buildings. It’s a matter of political will.
The Campbell government never developed a clear implementation plan and left school districts with their limited facilities staff to develop plans and submit funding requests. Funding-eligibility rules frequently changed, forcing school districts and their stretched staff back to the drawing boards. Proposals were sent back for reviews to see if cheaper options were available. Funding requests got stalled for months and even years.
Early on in the process, attention shifted to preparing for the Olympic Games, where government was so committed to getting ready on time that they even flew snow from one mountain to another. Then there was a stadium roof to upgrade and a big hydroelectric dam we might not even need. Imagine if they’d put that kind of determination into getting the schools seismically upgraded in a timely way?
For many of the years I chaired the Vancouver school board (VSB), we asked government to support us in setting up a dedicated seismic-project office we could staff with a team of experts tasked with planning and coordinating all the VSB’s projects. That way they could find economies of scale, develop a temporary accommodation strategy, work with the city to reach a consensus on heritage retention to avoid hill-by-hill battles, and streamline the design process based on learning what works. We envisioned something a little like VANOC was leading up to 2010. They could have a budget in place that allowed them to plan, stage, and complete multiple projects and keep them moving forward smoothly instead of waiting for approvals and lurching forward one project at a time.
We didn’t get far with that for a few years, but they eventually agreed to the project office. However, it was nothing like what we’d asked for. Instead, it gave government more of a say in the project requests—pushing them to “lowest-cost option”, even when they didn’t make economic sense over the longer term, by upgrading outdated buildings that were in terrible condition instead of spending a bit more to replace them. If anything, it seemed to slow things down instead of speeding them up.
Here’s my advice for our new premier, John Horgan.
Instead of fussing around about schools with excess capacity and pressuring school boards to close and consolidate schools, just build new ones “right-sized” to fit current and future enrollment needs and bulldoze the old ones, except where there is significant heritage value—and not just baby boomers’ nostalgic attachment to buildings that remind them of their childhoods.
That addresses the outstanding maintenance issues that plague old schools: out-of-date plumbing, lead-contaminated water fountains, wiring, asbestos, lead paint, roof leaks, inadequate electrical systems and outlets to support modern technology, accessibility barriers, inefficient heating and cooling systems, and out-of-date designs that don’t enable 21st-century teaching and learning.
New schools are also built to a higher safety standard than upgraded schools and are far more likely to be usable after an earthquake than upgraded old ones are. It doesn’t make sense to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade old buildings that could have to be torn down and rebuilt after an earthquake—which could very likely be the case.
New builds can often be done on-site while the old buildings are used until the new ones are ready. That’s how they built Magee and that’s what we did at Kitchener, Douglas, and Sexsmith. It’s less disruptive than moving the students to other schools or portables while their old schools are upgraded. It won’t work at every site, but it will on many.
Instead of pressuring the VSB to close schools like Gladstone and Britannia, like the Clark government did, get going now on building new schools on sites where there’s room and use them for swing space for other schools if needed. For example, build a new school for John Oliver secondary and keep the old one for now. Use the new one for swing space for another high school (i.e., Point Grey or others) while that school gets upgraded if it isn’t feasible to build a new building because of heritage issues or insufficient space on the site.
If your government is serious about bringing in the $10-a-day child-care plan, there’s a great opportunity to build in the space for that at the same time we’re replacing seismically unsafe schools. It makes sense and it will save money over the long term and create an impressive legacy that will be appreciated by families for generations to come.
Look to Europe to see how Passive House construction works for schools and results in long-term energy savings. This could be a great opportunity to build local expertise and interest in building more environmentally sustainable buildings in both the private and public sector.
Pay a bit more now while interest rates are still relatively low and B.C. will reap the savings for decades to come.
With the right kind of leadership, we can turn a tragedy waiting to happen into a great opportunity for B.C.
Let’s do this, John Horgan.