Without a detailed procedure for existing buildings, engineers inspecting damage from leaks over the years on the Elliot Lake mall in Ontario, whose roof section collapse killed two employees last year, were limited to following the owner’s dictates instead of a prescribed professional standard.

And as the years wore on, the instructions from Robert Nazarian, owner of the Algo Centre Mall in Elliot Lake, northwest of Toronto, depended on one consideration: his bottom line.

That was a rough consensus that emerged from engineers and witnesses called to the long weeks of testimony before a commission of inquiry convened to investigate the tragedy.

Too costly to fix without great cost to Nazarian, the mall’s leaky roof continued to deteriorate until it collapsed and killed two women working inside. It seems that money was the main culprit, according to testimony heard at the Elliot Lake commission hearings..

Weeks ago Nazarian testified that the structure was a money pit that he couldn’t afford to repair without disastrous financial consequences. His testimony about the rooftop parking deck last year seemed most damning to himself, although in a business sense, his logic was inescapable.

“The Algo Centre Mall was a black hole… No matter how much money you put in… that mall was doomed,” Nazarian testified, adding that he wasn’t going to spend everything he had on repairing the mall’s roof.

A section of the mall’s rooftop parking slab caved in through multiple levels of the structure in June 2012. The collapse killed Doloris Perizzolo, 74, and Lucie Aylwin, 37, and injured dozens of others.

Cost, complexity, difficulty in finding financing, rebellious tenants including some twithholding rent, and the need to keep the mall open while the fix was done, all combined to delay the repairs. Nazarian told Elliot Lake officials in 2011 that he would need to get additional land for customer parking in order to properly fix the rooftop parking lot, he testified at the hearing. The deck had to be empty to be repaired.

Engineers Underestimated Damage

While engineers had inspected the mall, in addition to noting the water leaks and concomitant mold problems and ceiling and store damage from the leaks, they should have recognized the severity of structural problems resulting from the leaking from the mall’s rooftop parking deck, according to witnesses.

A report issued earlier this month by the Association of Professional Engineers in Ontario points out that engineer Robert Wood, former president of M.R. Wright & Associates Inc., based in Sault St. Marie, heeded Nazarian’s instructions and performed only a visual inspection of the structure. He didn’t get background information concerning the history of leaking at the mall.

“Had there been a legislated standard for inspection of existing buildings, both the Order to Remedy and Mr. Wood’s scope of work would have been guided by such a standard,” the report stated.

The Ontario engineers report recommended changing the province’s building code to set out the circumstances in which the Performance Standard would apply as a matter of law, the report concluded.

When a structural assessment is needed following vibration, flooding or snow loads, the building code could be amended to require a structural adequacy report.

The report also said that the organization’s Practice Bulletin, “Structural engineering Assessments of Existing Buildings,” should be enacted as the performance standard.

The performance standard should require that the report be prepared by a professional engineer after a structural assessment of an existing building, according to the Ontario engineers' report. The assessment should include, importantly, descriptions of areas not covered by visual inspections and why they were not covered and engineers’ opinions about whether such areas are critical to the overall structural integrity or building, it said.

Any report should be dated, signed and sealed, said the engineers' report.

Considering Nazarian’s reasons for not promptly fixing the roof, many people inside and outside the proceedings were left scratching their heads and wondering how the tragedy might have been averted.

But for Gerry Gondron, fiancé of victim Lucie Aylwin, the thought of the mall owner delaying much-needed repairs was too much. In an understatement, he told a Canadian television interviewer: “It should have been fixed right away, right?”