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Centre Block: Building Renewal for the 21st Century

In this excerpt from a recent book, Carleton's Stephen Fai and architect Allan Teramura discuss the use of technology in the restoration of Parliament Hill's Centre Block.

The following text is excerpted from A Portrait of Canada’s Parliament by William P McElligott © William P. McElligott; essay copyright Stephen Fai and Allan Teramura, 2021. Published by ECW Press Ltd. www.ecwpress.com

Carleton University’s Immersive Media Studio used state of the art technologies such as laser scanning and digital photogrammetry to record and measure the interior and the exterior of the Parliament Building as well as reveal the structural systems within the floors, walls, and roofs. Image courtesy Carleton University Immersive Media Studio (CIMS)

To the casual observer, the Parliament Building appeared, before it was closed for the rehabilitation in 2019, in good condition. The iconic south facade and Peace Tower were restored in the 1990s, and the important interiors were generally presentable.

Look closer, however, and there are signs of water entering the building, damaging the stonework and finishes — a result of deteriorated exterior masonry and roofing. Unseen behind the stone and plaster, water is also corroding structural steel, which further damages the masonry in a vicious cycle.

Also concealed behind the elaborate interior finishes are thousands of metres of rusted-out heating pipes, which break from time to time, causing further damage and wasting heat. Because most of these pipes are embedded in concrete, finding the source of leaks is time consuming, messy, and costly. 

People who worked in the building, before they moved to alternate accommodations, are familiar with the shortcomings of its electrical and communications systems, which were stretched to capacity. Built at a time when media meant reporters with notepads, the building was never intended to accommodate modern broadcasting technology.

And, like other structures of its age, the Parliament Building was not designed to withstand earthquakes. Ottawa is in an active seismic zone, and a destructive earthquake could strike here. Reinforcing the structural system to prevent catastrophic damage and to protect the building’s occupants is both possible and necessary.

Because the work to replace or upgrade these systems is exceedingly disruptive, doing it while the building was occupied was impractical. And because the systems were in a condition where the risk of major failures could impede the functioning of Parliament, the repairs could not be delayed any longer.2

The time has come for a thorough rehabilitation, which is underway and will last for more than a decade.

A see-through effect is created with state-of-the-art digital recording, where the skeleton of the steel structural supports in the House of Commons Chamber appears like a ghost. Image courtesy Carleton University Immersive Media Studio (CIMS)
A see-through effect is created with state-of-the-art digital recording, where the skeleton of the steel structural supports in the House of Commons Chamber appears like a ghost. Image courtesy Carleton University Immersive Media Studio (CIMS)

Because the Parliament Building is Canada’s most symbolically important building, the need to protect its heritage value must guide every decision during its rehabilitation. Internationally recognized best practices for conservation will be followed, both to protect existing elements and to design new features that serve modern functions. Skilled artisans will employ traditional methods on historic materials, while new work may be produced using computer-driven fabrication technologies. The architects’ task will be to harmoniously blend the conserved historic fabric with the new.

The first step was to get a detailed, accurate record of the existing building. Carleton University’s Immersive Media Studio (CIMS), in partnership with Public Services and Procurement Canada’s Heritage Conservation Services, surveyed the building using digital mapping technology.3 Laser scanning and digital photogrammetry recorded and measured the interior and exterior, with an overall accuracy of less than one centimetre. The resulting point cloud was then registered to a known survey network and compiled into a set of three-dimensional measurements. For building components that this technology could not record — such as the structural steel within the walls and floors — Heritage Conservation Services prepared a report using historical drawings, photographs, and specifications housed at Library and Archives Canada.

While construction of the current building was based on about 4,000 hand drawings, sketches, and diagrams, the rehabilitation will be managed through a single digital building information model. More than a 3D visualization, this model links the architectural geometry from the point cloud with databases that contain a variety of information about the building and its components. For example, the click of a mouse can provide the size, reference to the original drawing, and the 1916 catalogue number for each of the over 12,000 pieces of steel in the Parliament Building. Or one can compare the building today — showing the various additions from over the years — with the building as it was newly constructed after the fire of 1916. At over 56,000 square metres, this is the most comprehensive and complex application of a building information model for architectural rehabilitation in Canada, and one of the most advanced in the world.

The architects will use and add to the building information model when designing the rehabilitation. Construction managers will then use it to plan the rehabilitation, contractors will follow it during construction, and building operators will refer to it for managing the building and grounds over the long term.

The technical basis for the design having been established, another question remains: how should the renewed Parliament Building reflect modern Canadian cultural identity?

Carleton University’s Immersive Media Studio used state of the art technologies such as laser scanning and digital photogrammetry to record and measure the interior and the exterior of the Parliament Building as well as reveal the structural systems within the floors, walls, and roofs. Image courtesy Carleton University Immersive Media Studio (CIMS)

When the Parliament Building was designed, Canada was a different place. In 1916, the political process was only beginning to open up to women, and the Canadian federation did not include Newfoundland or a separate identity for Nunavut. Many of the treaties with Canada’s Indigenous peoples had not yet been signed. The population was mostly rural, and a quarter of what it is today. The ethnic composition of the country still mostly reflected the early French and English immigration.

The 1916 design was itself a radical departure from the original Parliament Building designed almost 60 years earlier. The new building reflected Canada’s evolution into a sovereign nation with its own culture and values. The Memorial Chamber and Hall of Honour were both innovations, celebrating the contributions of ordinary Canadians — something that would have occurred to no one in Victorian times. Laden with iconography, symbols, and allegorical artwork, the Parliament Building encapsulates the maturing democratic ideals of the early 20th-century Canadian establishment, reminding parliamentarians that they must govern with wisdom.

Today, Canada has evolved into a complex, open, and pluralistic society. A renewed Indigenous identity is emerging, language is more uniformly bilingual, and society at large is more culturally diverse. The Maple Leaf replaced the Red Ensign atop the Peace Tower more than 50 years ago.

Should the Parliament Building evolve to reflect the changes in Canadian identity over the century since the last reconstruction? While most Canadians will want the character of the building to remain intact, the symbolism of the renovated Parliament Building should also acknowledge the transformation of Canadian society.

Responding to the current cultural context is the responsibility of officials of Parliament, the government of Canada, and the architects they have charged with reimagining the Parliament Building. Some changes may be subtle, such as carving new imagery into some of the still-untouched stone bosses throughout the building. Others may be more dramatic, such as introducing new functional uses or public spaces. Large or small, these interventions can be designed to reflect what “peace, order, and good government” means to us today.

The rehabilitation of the Parliament Building provides an opportunity to see our modern collective identity captured in a sophisticated blend of historic and contemporary art and architecture. Reimagined in this spirit, the Parliament Building will be a visible record of modern Canada’s democratic values and ideals.

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