By Rafael Brusilow
Ryerson’s oldest residence has walls and ceilings that could collapse at any minute and is a health hazard to the students who call it home, a Toornto contractor said.
After assessing O’Keefe House, general contractor John Worton said the deep cracks crawling across the residence’s walls are a telltale sign that structural damage is creeping across the building.
“When the ceiling starts to go, that’s a problem,” Worton said, pointing at two cracks on a resident’s ceiling that are threatening to connect. Once that happens, Worton said, chunks of plaster will eventually come crashing down.
“Would I sleep here? No,” Worton said.
Located at 137 Bond St., O’Keefe House has walls crawling with ominous, wide cracks that suggest its foundation isn’t holding up, the contractor said. Many of the cracks, more than an inch wide in places, have crept into supporting pillars, across ceilings, and down entire wall joints. This is not surprising considering the house was built in 1855.
Although its walls haven’t collapsed yet, Worton said campus housing is tempting fate by holding off on major renovations.
“They’re taking on a liability,” Worton said.
Residents mentioned that the jackhammering and heavy digging on the site of the new student centre, which is next door to O’Keefe, is widening the cracks.
“It’s been a difficult place to live, with the jackhammering and the house shaking; everything seems to be breaking,” said one resident. “We feel like we’re neglected here.”
The house’s worst cracks are located inside students’ rooms.
In the room Worton marked as the most dangerous, fractures looking like spindly fingers have connected across the walls and ceiling. It has created an effect that makes it look like the room is going to split in half.
In another room, roommates have crammed a washcloth into a jagged two-inch crack in the plaster underneath their window to reduce the amount of cold air coming into their room.
Evan Charles Bentz, a professor at the University of Toronto and a structural engineering expert, noticed the cracks in the walls and ceiling are pointed in the same direction, which suggests to him the construction next door is having a direct and adverse effect on O’Keefe House.
“The construction has caused the foundation to shift and cause cracks,” Bentz said.
According to Bentz, some of the cracks are clearly younger than the paint on the walls, which suggests some of the house’s damage occurred recently.
He also noticed a crack that runs over top of an electrical box in a room on the building’s first floor. The crack concerned him because it could cause an electrical fire.
Because they didn’t want to jeopardize their chances of coming back to the house next year, most residents were not willing to be identified. However, one resident admitted that if he wasn’t applying to live at O’Keefe next year, he’d “have a lot more to say.”
Ryerson’s Housing Manager Philip Lim said he was surprising to hear residents were afraid to talk about their concerns with the house and said he has always encouraged them to contact him with their issues and concerns.
“I’m totally shocked,” Lim said. “This is the first time I’ve heard of this.”
Lim said structural engineers Ryerson hired earlier in the year had inspected the residence and said the building was safe.
Ryerson President Claude Lajeunesse backed up Lim’s point.
“The place is safe,” he said. “But, Lajeunesse said, construction on the student centre is holding up work on O’Keefe. “We will not do repairs until the student campus centre is completed.”
Lim admitted that O’Keefe House requires ongoing maintenance and major renovations.
He also said that while the housing department conducts daily maintenance checks of O’Keefe’s public areas, problems in residents’ private rooms need to be reported by residents. According to Lim, he has received less than five maintenance requests from O’Keefe residents this semester.
“If I lived there, I’d definitely put in more requests for things to get fixed,” Lim said.
The crumbling walls aren’t O’Keefe’s only problem. Along with the perpetual quakes caused by construction, residents have endured a rat infestation and a flood in the basement, which was the result of a broken pipe.
“That was an accident — a student turned off the heating by mistake,” Lim said.
In late January, ice on the house’s steps injured nine students. Despite O’Keefe House’s dangerous structural flaws, most of its 31 residents actually consider themselves lucky to be living there — in fact a large majority of last year’s clock applied to come back this year.
“We put up with a lot of shit in this house, and if it wasn’t an amazing place to live then people wouldn’t stay,” one resident said.