By Dave Carpenter

Upon taking on Library and Archives Canada’s new preservation facility project, Nathalie Ethier was so excited; she felt like it was her baby. Except this baby should live for 500 years.

Nathalie Ethier is the Project Director, Library and Archives Canada (LAC) for the new, and second, preservation facility in Gatineau, Quebec. The project will transpire through a Public-Private Partnership agreement with Plenary Properties Gatineau LP (PPG) with an expected completion date in 2022. The project’s roots stemmed from a 2011 study when LAC undertook a comprehensive review of the original facility’s infrastructure needs. LAC quickly determined that they would require a new and bigger facility to preserve the documentation of Canada’s history now and in the long term.

“Because of the requirements of our ever-growing collection, we’re gathering archival materials for generations to come. Our job is to document the history of Canada, so it’s never going to stop,” Ethier says.
With that, Ethier and the LAC team realized that they would need more space to house the archives. They also wanted to support the Government of Canada’s cultural infrastructure objective by providing specialized and flexible sustainable facilities and purpose-built physical infrastructure to support Library and Archives Canada’s mandate.

“When you’re preserving archival collections, you have standards that you need to follow to make sure that collections are kept for a certain number of years, and for us, the goal is 500 years,” Ethier says. “We wanted this building to be able to store collections in a very strict environment to support the preservation goal of the collection.”

New Preservation Facility’s Key Features

The new facility will come with an Automatic Storage and Retrieval System (or ASRS), which Ethier describes as similar to the mobile robots Amazon uses in their warehouse facilities. Further, like Amazon, the federal government’s new preservation facility will be huge, coming in at a storage space capacity of 21,250 cubic metres, or the equivalent of the contents of about 8.5 Olympic swimming pools.

“It will be the world’s largest preservation facility or archival facility with an Automated Storage and Retrieval System. The largest in the world,” Ethier says. “We’re very proud of it.”

The Library and Archives Canada’s new facility will also create a federal-government precedent as a net-zero carbon facility, following their new “green strategy. “We’ve asked the private partner (PPG) to basically build a mega fridge with very strict, energy-targeted environmental conditions with sustainability and durability factors built-in,” Ethier says. “It wasn’t an easy job for them to design and start construction on this facility but they did an amazing job.”

The building’s archival vaults will stay at a temperature of 10 C and 40 per cent relative humidity, with one additional vault at 6 C and thirty percent relative humidity.

According to Ethier, five of the six vaults will store analog collections, while the last vault will house a combination of motion picture films and newspapers. “We wanted to make sure that the environment better suited these types of collections and asked the private partner to design and construct a structure that will achieve a service life of 500 hundred years, which is quite a challenge,” Ethier says.

Given the Preservation Facility’s location in Gatineau, the facility will run mainly on green electricity (over 90 per cent) with geothermal energy powering the facility’s outside perimeter.

Ethier says that PPG went above and beyond to use geothermal energy for the building’s perimeter, requiring five geothermic wells to accomplish the feat. “Outside of the facility, they’ll use geothermal energy. Inside, they will use hydroelectricity, a green and cost-effective source of energy in wide use across the province,” Ethier adds.

A Few Project challenges Along The Way

Due to the optimization process required for the existing preservation centre’s vault, Ethier says there will be periods of limited access to portions of the collection until the facility’s expected opening in 2022, which they will inform the public of in advance.

“We need to empty the vault in the existing preservation centre or while we are transporting the collection from one building to the new facility,” Ethier says, adding that these requirements should lead to more limited restrictions in terms of public access to the new facility. Ethier says they also had to build the facility within a somewhat restricted area, due to an easement on a set of Hydro-Québec towers at the back of the site.

Further, PPG have to account for a water table that runs a mere three-to-four feet below the ground while building the new preservation centre. They will also limit the potential damage to the current facility from vibrations emanating from its construction.

“Think about this huge building that’s going to be holding a massive amount of the archival material,” Ethier says. “The equipment for that required weight is quite important. We had to put quite a few piles in the ground.”

Additionally, Ethier says they had to sit the concrete slab for the new facility on metal piles installed in the ground because of the new facility’s proximity to the current preservation centre, primarily made of glass. Conservators also perform meticulous work on the archive’s collection in the preservation centre.
“We had to make sure that the vibrations were monitored so as not to cause any issues with the people still working in the preservation centre,” Ethier adds.

Public-Private Partnerships Critical in New Preservation Centre’s Construction

Several companies comprise PPG with various specialties. These companies include: Plenary Group (Canada) Ltd., PCL Investments (Canada) Inc., PCL Constructors Eastern Inc., B+H Architects and ENGIE Services Inc. PPG is responsible for the construction of Library and Archives Canada’s (LAC) new preservation facility, enhancements to LAC’s existing preservation centre and maintenance of both facilities for 30 years. The project’s total cost is estimated at $330 million, excluding the cost of operating and maintaining the two facilities over 30 years.
Ethier says the federal government has had limited experience utilizing Public-Private Partnership infrastructure projects in the past. However, Ethier believes it was worth it. She says all the studies and consultations the government conducted in advance, combined with the experts they hired, drove Library and Archives Canada’s new presentation centre project forward.

“Considering that we wanted the greenest facility possible along with a preservation facility that was huge, it was a challenge,” Ethier says. “The design and the construction are done in parallel in a P3 because they have a certain completion time that they have to follow… you don’t have time for red tape. You need to have strong governance to push issues forward and resolve them as quickly as possible.”

When asked which aspect of the project she’s most proud of, Ethier cites outstanding teamwork, leading to innovative solutions. “I’m so proud of our team,” Ethier says. “They’ve done exceptional work, setting the tone for future P3s and the Government of Canada,” Ethier says her office gets many phone calls from different organizations nationally and internationally, asking about lessons learned during the New Preservation Facility’s construction because they’ve heard about how well the project’s gone.

Ethier is also proud of the fact that they executed a true Public-Private Partnership “without Plenaries Properties Gatineau working for us, or us working for them. The building is designed to meet the energy target that we have identified. It’s also one of the largest public building infrastructure projects in Canada; it’s amazing if you think about it.

Ethier also says people within Library and Archives Canada were very generous with their time, expertise and knowledge that helped tremendously toward developing the project, as well as Public Service and Procurement Canada, who helped develop contracts for the project.