Parliamentary Shuffle

TEXT Pierre-Marc Mongeau

The metamorphosis of Ottawa’s Parliament Hill occurs only about once every century. Not since the original construction of the Parliament Buildings in the mid-1800s has the Hill undergone a transformation as extensive as the one underway, which began in 2007. The rehabilitation–in scale, complexity, and time frame–is one of the largest of its kind ever undertaken in Canada.

Towering at the edge of a cliff that rises out of the Ottawa River, the dramatic beauty of Canada’s seat of government rivals any in the world. The Centre, East and West Blocks rank with the most accomplished surviving examples of mid-19th-century Gothic Revival buildings and are rare examples of parliamentary buildings in this style.

But the seemingly robust sandstone buildings belie a fragile grandeur: crumbling mortar, cracked stones, aging electrical and mechanical systems, outdated technology and modern building code requirements have necessitated the present course of action.

To tackle a program of this magnitude, a comprehensive strategy for the entire Parliamentary Precinct, which includes Parliament Hill and the facing street, was developed. Known as the Long-Term Vision and Plan (LTVP), the strategy focuses on renovating the aging buildings in order to meet Parliament’s long-term accommodation requirements and establish a balance between accessibility and security. The LTVP identified a multitude of projects of varying scale on the Hill and in the Precinct at large, to be implemented over a 25-year period. 

Engaging Stakeholders

The rehabilitation of the prominent buildings on Parliament Hill naturally involves numerous stakeholders, which include the Senate, the House of Commons, the Library of Parliament, the National Capital Commission and Parks Canada’s Federal Heritage Buildings Review Office. These groups are represented at the table to ensure their interrelated but unique requirements are incorporated into the planning, design and implementation. Additionally, design review committees were established for initial major projects, including the West Block. The committees, whose members have included RAIC Gold Medal recipients, provided professional advice on initial design strategy and direction.

The West Block Leads

The renovation of Parliament Hill is a series of interwoven projects orchestrated to ensure that Parliament continues to function and the Hill remains accessible to visitors and tourists. There is a logical sequencing of the projects, but the execution, timing and synchronization is complex. The first priority of the multi-phased plan is to rehabilitate the core Parliamentary Buildings–the Centre Block, West Block and East Block. As the Centre Block–home to the Senate and House of Commons Chambers–cannot be rehabilitated while occupied, interim space is required.

The innovative decision was made to construct an interim House of Commons Chamber within the courtyard of the West Block, which, as the most deteriorated of the three core buildings, was in critical need of rehabilitation. The new construction, which involves enclosing the courtyard, is a significant contemporary architectural intervention to this 19th-century building. Concurrent with the rehabilitation of the West Block is the development of Phase One of the underground Visitor Welcome Centre, which includes a shipping and receiving facility. This will form the backbone of an intricate underground arterial system for the movement of utilities, goods and people.

The required emptying of the West Block initiated a cascading sequence of projects to provide interim accommodations within short walking distance from Parliament Hill. Facing the Hill is a row of historic buildings that runs along Wellington Street. These buildings, along with those that back onto them from Sparks Street, were acquired by the federal government in 1973 to safeguard the grandness of Parliament Hill and to provide room for the growth of Parliament and the federal government.

To date, three buildings along this stretch are being rehabilitated to accommodate displaced offices, meeting spaces and reception areas from the West Block. These include the Beaux-Arts-style Wellington Building, the 1970s La Promenade Building and the recently renamed Sir John A. Macdonald Building (formerly the Bank of Montreal). The Wellington and La Promenade buildings will provide parliamentary office and committee-room space while the Sir John A. Macdonald Building will be resurrected as a reception space. The former reception space, called the Confederation Room, was created in the 1960s by demolishing floors and interior walls from the northwest wing of the West Block. The proverbial killing of two birds with one stone is being invoked, as many of these buildings are beyond their life-cycle capacity and in need of renovation.

Additional committee-room space has been leased at 1 Wellington Street, a modern glass and concrete building, adapted from an old railway structure running alongside the storied Chateau Laurier. The building recently housed the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography.

Implementation Framework

Important lessons were learned from earlier approaches to implementing parliamentary projects, which led to the development of an implementation framework suited to realizing the long-term vision. Rather than regarding the 25-year plan as a master blueprint and defining projects on a fixed schedule, the implementation framework is composed of a broad strategic direction and rolling five-year planning cycles. These shorter-term cycles give more flexibility in responding to government and parliamentary priorities, building conditions and markets. The cycles also improve predictability and provide greater accuracy in determining functional requirements and establishing project costs and scheduling.

By 2010, 15 projects had been completed to prepare for the emptying of the West Block and the Wellington Building at a cost of $246 million. The work involved renovating a series of buildings at various locations to accommodate offices, committee rooms and support functions.

The completion of these projects triggered the start of construction work on the West Block and the Wellington Building, as well as on the Sir John A. Macdonald Buildings. The exteriors of these heritage buildings are being rehabilitated, which includes the repair and replacement of damaged masonry, windows and sculptural elements. The interiors will undergo complete restoration including replacement of the electrical/mechanical and life safety systems, which are beyond their normal life expectancies. The buildings will also be structurally upgraded and reinforced to meet current seismic code requirements. The rehabilitation of the Sir John A. Macdonald Building will include a new structure: the 3,100-square-metre contemporary-style annex will add meeting rooms, a secure entrance and essential support functions for the facility.

The projects are tracking on time and on budget: the 2010-2016 rehabilitation of the Wellington Building is budgeted at $425 million; the 2011-2017 rehabilitation of the West Block at $863 million; and the 2012-2015 rehabilitation of the Sir John A. Macdonald Building at $99 million. The more modern La Promenade, which at the end of its life cycle required a significant upgrade, was rehabilitated from 2007 to 2010 for $73 million.

To date, approximately 1,800 employees have been relocated and 78,695 square metres of space is being, or has been, renovated. 

Construction Management Manages Complexity

To move designs from concept to construction, new thinking was employed. Rather than following the contracting route that has typically been employed by the Parliamentary Precinct Branch, a construction management process was adopted for the LTVP’s major projects. The hiring of a construction management firm helps to provide constr
uctability advice and allows construction to commence in advance of completing contract documents. This method allows designers and contractors to work together, permitting a more harmonious interpretation of the design during construction, an essential component when rehabilitating heritage buildings. Construction management also enables multiple construction firms to simultaneously work on the site while maintaining clear responsibility for health and safety, ensuring work can proceed efficiently. This is critical to completing these major projects on time and on budget.

The Road Ahead

The completion of the current rehabilitation projects, as well as others in and around Parliament Hill, will in turn enable the Centre Block to be rehabilitated. Lessons learned will be incorporated into upcoming projects.

The first key step in the rehabilitation of the Parliamentary Precinct–the development of the comprehensive strategy–will continue to guide projects to come and its realization will help to ensure the future sustainability of Parliament Hill as a national treasure, a centre of government and a well-visited tourist destination–a true legacy for all of Canada. CA 

To follow the rehabilitation of Parliament Hill, please visit

Architect Pierre-Marc Mongeau was the Assistant Deputy Minister of the Parliamentary Precinct Branch at Public Works and Government Services Canada from June 2010 to April 2013. He is currently the Assistant Deputy Minister, Real Property Branch, Public Works and Government Services Canada.