By Tina Costanza

For many Canadians, one image that comes to mind when they think of Canada is the Centre Block and its Peace Tower on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

The team behind its restoration and modernization — the largest and most complex heritage rehabilitation project ever seen in Canada — has been balancing respect for the Centre Block’s iconic status with the work they’re undertaking to meet the needs of a Parliament in the 21st century and beyond.

“Respecting the past and looking towards the future conservation and modernization involves a critical balance between making sure this meets the functional needs of a working parliament and also remains an open and accessible place for all Canadians in what is essentially Canada’s town square,” said Rob Wright, assistant deputy minister at Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC), responsible for the restoration and modernization of Canada’s parliament buildings.

The project is being completed under a construction management contract as a joint venture between PCL and EllisDon.

The rehabilitation involves fully restoring and modernizing the interior and exterior of an older building; preserving the buildings’ architectural heritage character; ensuring the buildings meet safety standards and the needs of its tenants/owners; upgrading the information technology, security, plumbing, electrical, heating and cooling systems; bringing windows up to current energy standards; improving accessibility; and improving the buildings’ capability to withstand earthquakes.

The project also includes construction of Phase 2 of the underground Parliament Welcome Centre complex that will connect the West, East, and Centre Block buildings and provide program space for the Parliamentary precinct. It will also provide for material and utility management of the buildings.

PSPC has been working with heritage architects and other specialists to define the extent of the restoration and upgrades that will be required. The cost of the project is a challenge to pin down, because the work involves so many moving parts and is still undergoing design development.

“It’s a large project, with hundreds, if not thousands, of really important decisions,” said Wright, adding that those decisions can impact the budget and schedule.

“Until we move through all of the foundational decisions it would be quite foolhardy to commit to a budget or schedule because those could swing in such a way that any estimate would not really be based on a solid foundation.”

An exhaustive assessment

A lot of work has taken place so far, with the project really having begun in the past year. All the major milestones have been met, said Wright. The past year and a half has involved an extensive assessment program to determine the building’s actual condition and the extent of structural deficiencies.

“This is the most detailed assessment program that we’ve done to date in the precinct. One of the lessons learned from previous work has been to take the time up front to do a really thorough assessment of the building to better understand its condition,” Wright explained. “That’s all about de-risking the project. Jennifer [Garrett, director general of the Centre Block Rehabilitation Program at PSPC] and her team did an exhaustive building condition assessment and put in a tremendous amount of effort to essentially take the Centre Block offline: removing all of the IT systems, electrical, the heating and cooling, mechanical —and then putting in temporary systems for the lifespan of the project. That’s been completed.”

Garrett added that a substantive pickup with the program really started with relocating parliamentarians to their interim offices.

“That was a significant effort on its own,” she said. “What it did was allow us to immediately ramp up our assessment program and start digging behind the walls, and actually establish the construction site. It enabled us to take the building off the grid and start that careful demolition work, as well as excavation for Phase II of the Parliament Welcome Centre. The rehabilitation project really started with the move of parliament and as of today we have up to 350 people working on this site each and every day. So that gives you a sense of how much momentum is going on in the program as we speak. Once construction activities ramp up to full capacity, it is expected that approximately 1,500 workers will be employed on this project.”

The House of Commons has moved to a new chamber in the West Block while the Senate Chamber has moved to the Senate of Canada building, Ottawa’s old Government Conference Centre, near Parliament Hill.

The Centre Block is closed to visitors and tourists during construction, but Parliament Hill remains open. PSPC is working with its partners and stakeholders to provide alternative tourism experiences.

The early stages of construction are really hitting stride now in two key areas, demolition and abatement work, said Wright.

“This involves taking the building, starting in lower-heritage areas, down to its bones, and removing all of the hazardous materials, carefully storing all of the heritage assets — essentially the skin of the Centre Block — and carefully doing the heritage recording,” he explained. “We’ve also been creating a digital model of the building and of all of the heritage assets. The 3D representations of heritage assets such as sculptures, grotesques and carvings will assist the Dominion Sculptor and other conservation experts in their work.”

Decisions are key in the timeline

In terms of when the project will be finished, Wright again cites decisions that first have to be made.

“The schematic design is now coming to completion and that goes hand in hand with making some final key decisions with Parliament that will drive the scope of the project. We’ve been working with committees of Parliament and the administrations of the Senate and the House of Commons, discussing options around some of the key elements, such as the size of the Parliament Welcome Centre, how to restore and modernize the House of Commons chamber, taking into account the growth of members of Parliament over time, (as well as) the number of committee rooms and enhanced security elements.”

The focus is on the decisions that will have a significant material impact on the scope of the project, he said.

“We’re moving through that process now. Hopefully we should be coming to ground on all those big questions by the fall time frame which will inform the baseline of a budget and schedule for the project. We’re obviously focused on making sure that the budget and schedule are well informed by the scope. We are being as aggressive as possible in getting this project moving with confidence through all of the many stages. We are looking forward to reopening the Centre Block and completing the Parliament Welcome Centre as soon as possible.”

Garrett has put in place an integrated project management office that forms a one-team approach, provides a common vision, and reduces friction that can occur when a number of different organizations work together.

The office brings together the project team with the Parliamentary Partners, the design team, the builders, the construction management team — all of the partners.

“You get the expertise of the construction manager up front which increases efficiency and ensures that there’s total co-ordination in terms of what the execution plan looks like, how the constructor is going to execute it, what design support is needed and the timeframe required to maintain momentum on the project and make decisions at the right time,” Garrett said.

“One of the things you can get with design-bid-build programs is that they get designed and then the constructor comes on site and someone says, ‘I can’t build that from how it’s designed,’ and then you’re back into a redesign process. We’re really trying to integrate and have that constructability advice.”

Wright agreed. “[An integrated office] creates total ownership. It takes excuses out of the equation and also sorts out the supply chain earlier, so that we don’t end up without thinking things through and having long lead items that are hard to get to site and cause delays or bottlenecks as we move through construction.”

A digital model of the project is also serving to reduce friction and enables the team to foresee potential problems.

“It’s challenging to take a flat drawing and to be able to imagine what that will mean in real space,” said Wright. “For the users of this space, as well as for Canadians, you’re able to really see how the space will look and you can have a much better idea of how it will function. That contributes to de-risking the project and allows us to have conversations and dialogue where people are equally on the same page and you don’t have a situation where architects are speaking one language and other user groups, parliamentarians and others are almost speaking a different language, and there’s lost-in-translation moments.”

“It is a tremendous opportunity to be working on something that will have impact for the next century and beyond,” said Wright.