It’s not often you can actually see a house vibrating, but in Gerry Wowk’s case the sight is hard to ignore.
The resident of Kingston Close has several videos taken at different times during the fall of 2011 through the winter of 2012 when Alberco Construction crews building a $19-million pump station on Sturgeon Road were using a vibratory hammer to drive sheet piles into the ground.
Just watching the video, it is easy to both see and hear the crystal in Wowk’s cabinet chattering and clinking as the work across the street shakes his home. And Wowk isn’t alone — neighbour Pat Wasylynuk was sitting at his dining room table one day in November 2011 when his house started to vibrate and he heard a crash.
“I had a glass of water half-full in the kitchen and all of a sudden, my glass vibrated off the edge and fell on the floor,” Wasylynuk said.
Everyone could feel the vibrations. Russell Vida, a chief warrant officer with Edmonton Garrison’s 1 Combat Engineer Regiment (CER), who only moved to the cul-de-sac in October, called home while away in November and got an update from his wife.
“I called home one night and she said the construction out back is quite bothersome. She said, ‘I was literally shaken out of bed,’ ” said Vida.
But it wasn’t until Vida returned home later that month and cast a casual glance at his driveway that the real problems began. And, according to Vida, the process has left him so frustrated and disheartened with the city that he just wants to leave.
“At my next earliest opportunity, I’m going to sell my house and move out of the city so I don’t have to deal with the bullshit that goes on at city hall,” Vida said.
The pump station is a project of the Alberta Capital Region Wastewater Commission. When finished either at the end of this year or in early 2013, it will pump sewage to a treatment plant near Fort Saskatchewan. Construction began in October of 2010 with Alberco as the contractor.
On that day in November 2011, Vida looked down at his driveway and saw a crack. Unlike his neighbours who are long-time residents, Vida, having just moved in one month prior, had the benefit of a recent home inspection. The crack in the driveway was not listed.
“I called the inspector and said there’s a crack. He said there was no crack when I did the inspections,” Vida said.
Soon more cracks began to appear in Vida’s house — a previously noted crack in the basement, which had been sealed, opened again and the basement floor seemed to shift, no longer level. More vertical cracks appeared in the exterior that ran all the way down to the foundation.
Wasylynuk also started noticing some changes. His fence appeared to have somehow moved and his dog could now squeeze through the hole between the fence and the ground. He too had cracks in the exterior of his home. Wowk noticed a small depression underneath his deck that hadn’t been there before.
“We were all prepared for the noise and digging,” said Wowk. “It’s when the house started vibrating. If the house is vibrating, what is happening underneath and how might this impact us 10 years down the road?”
But according to both St. Albert and Alberco, the vibrations weren’t causing the damage. Both organizations set up sensors when Vida and Wasylynuk started lodging complaints with the city, Alberco and the wastewater commission. According to both reports, which were shared with the Gazette in March, the vibrations that reached Kingston Close measured anywhere from one to 1.5 millimetres per second, well below the 12.7 mm/s known to damage plaster in old homes.
“During the installation, two independent studies were completed that showed the level of vibration emanating from the site was below thresholds that would cause any damage,” said Gil Carleton, design and construction manager for the commission. “We put some seismic monitoring equipment and measured the vibrations.”
But it’s not the vibrations that are causing concern, or even the damage, Vida says.
“This is not a shockwave issue,” he said.
While Vida and Wasylynuk have reported damage to their insurance companies, which have both hired engineering firms to inspect what is happening to the homes, both residents suspect their houses are settling. And they say the preliminary work completed confirms their suspicions. They feel their homes have stood long enough that any natural settling should be finished.
Stand at the intersection of Sturgeon Road and Sir Winston Churchill Avenue and you’ll see the pump station on one side and the neighbourhood of Kingswood on the other. A close inspection will show the houses in Kingswood are built at a slightly higher elevation than the pump house.
Sheet-piling was used to build the pump station. This process involves a vibratory hammer using counter-rotating weights to create vertical vibration, which drives large metal girders into the ground. It is during this process the vibrations and noise were reported as most intense.
But in Vida’s opinion, it was the void the girders created in the soil below that is causing the houses at a higher elevation to settle. With the hammer shoving the girder in, soil is displaced. The void it creates has to be filled and gravity will likely oblige it, he contends. The soil to fill the void will likely come from soil at a higher elevation.
But no one seems to want to help, Vida said. There were no pre-construction home inspections completed before construction began. He says complaints to Alberco were directed to its insurance agency.
Ron Simonsmeier, president of Alberco, said the company received some complaints last year but nothing since. He says if there were problems with settling, he would expect to see damage to roads such as Sturgeon Road and Sir Winston Churchill Avenue, or an apartment building across the street from the construction site, which hasn’t happened.
“I find that hard to believe considering they are 200 to 300 metres away,” said Simonsmeier. “If there was any settlement you’d see it in the roadways and we haven’t seen it.”
The older pump station buildings also aren’t showing any signs of damage either, Simonsmeier said.
“There’s two existing buildings there and there’s absolutely no indication of that going on,” said Simonsmeier. “Nobody has said anything to us about it.”
According to Carleton, the wastewater commission hasn’t studied the possible effects of settling on nearby homes.
“I thought the seismic activity monitor was enough, that it was below thresholds to cause any damage,” Carleton said.
Vida also spoke with several different people at city hall, which culminated in a meeting over the summer with city manager Patrick Draper. According to Vida, he left the meeting with the impression the city was going to conduct an independent engineering study. Instead he got a letter offering a home inspection, which Draper confirmed was offered to Vida.
“The resident turned down the offer to get the inspection done,” said Draper. “From my last conversation with him, he had an engineering firm getting an assessment done. In a project like this it is the wastewater commission that is responsible for the project.”
Vida believes that because the city issued the permit for construction, it has a role to play. But Draper said, from what he’s learned, staff were satisfied with the information provided to issue the permit.
“If the city is assured and Alberco is a known company and the wastewater commission is a known entity, with the property documentation and back-up, the permit would have been issued,” Draper said.
Insurance companies for both Vida and Wasylynuk have hired engineering firms and had a preliminary look at the damage. While no reports have yet been complete, both say the engineers told them verbally it appeared to be damage from settling.
A contractor has given Vida an $80,000 quote to fix the exterior of his home and replace his driveway. He hopes his insurance company will cover most of it but isn’t looking forward to paying the deductible, increased insurance premiums or the out-of-pocket expenses to replace his deck, his flower beds or anything else damaged as a result of the work.
Wasylynuk said his engineering firm will conduct hydrology and geotechnical testing. The final report could take as long as two years to produce.
Both have also launched a complaint with the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta against the engineers involved from the wastewater commission, Alberco and the city. Philip Mulder, director of communications with the association, confirmed a complaint has been received and is being investigated.
“There isn’t anything more I can share with you,” Mulder said.
According to the association’s website, when a complaint is deemed worthy of investigation a three-member panel begins a preliminary investigation and prepares a report for the group’s investigative committee. Such investigations, Mulder said, can take anywhere from weeks to months.
Vida says if an independent engineering company was hired and studied the case and said there was no way the damage to his home was caused by settling, he would leave it at that. But he isn’t optimistic. And his opinion of the city has changed as a result.
“I will never recommend a person move to this city and I have recommended many people,” Vida said. “I will never recommend another person move to this city, ever.”