The true cost of repairing the Ontario Science Centre is much, much less than what Infrastructure Ontario has been saying—and the proof is in its own documents

Two figures have been cited by the Ontario Government: $478 million and $369 million. The actual number is much less—around $200 million, or just $24 million for tackling priority repairs to keep the museum open for several years to come.

This article is a follow-up on my previous articles debunking the business case for the Ontario Science Centre’s relocation, analyzing how the engineers’ roof report doesn’t call for a complete closure, and demonstrating how a temporary location of the Science Centre would be costly and would not be open for two years. Another piece will appear tomorrow about how the Science Centre could be reopened and repaired by using the money that the Ontario government is planning to spend closing and demolishing it.

The Ontario Science Centre. Photo by James Brittain, Courtesy Moriyama Teshima Architects

How much will it cost to repair the Ontario Science Centre? Two figures have been cited by the Ontario Government: $478 million and $369 million. I have done a deep dive into the origins of this stated cost of repairs, and concluded that the actual figure is much less—around $200 million, or just $24 million if you were to prioritize repairs to a limited footprint of the Science Centre.

Let’s start with the $478-million figure that has been widely cited by Infrastructure Minister Kinga Surma. This includes a generous $109 million allocation to cosmetic upgrades and to the renewal of exhibitions in the existing location of the Science Centre. At $66.5 million, the exhibition upgrade budget is equivalent to the entirety of the budget for exhibitions at the proposed new location of the Ontario Science Centre at Ontario Place. The $42.5-million renovation budget is also generous, especially considering that some $25-million of such upgrades appear to be double-counted in the cost for base repairs and renovations.

In any case, cosmetic repairs and renewed exhibitions fall in the category of nice-to-have, but not need-to-have. Over 75,000 people across Ontario have signed a petition saying they’d be more than happy to have the science centre back, just as it is. Tech sector donors have, unasked, also pledged over $2.5 million toward a reopened Science Centre—an offer that seems ripe with opportunities to work together towards sponsored upgrades to exhibitions. Personally, I think the “Hinton Hall of Computing and AI” has a nice ring to it.

Cosmetic upgrades and exhibition renewal aside, the cost for repairs cited by the Ontario government is $369 million. We can nitpick this—some $25 million of it, for instance, is for upgrades to interior ceiling finishes, flooring, walls, and kitchen millwork, which, as I have said, should arguably fall within the “cosmetic upgrades” budget rather than being considered part of core repairs.

But the bigger picture is that in order to create a business case that made the relocation to Ontario Place palatable, Infrastructure Ontario (IO) appears to have systematically maximized the possible costs of repairing the existing Science Centre, and, conversely, minimized the costs of building a new Science Centre at Ontario Place.

Environmental consultants Pinchin, who contributed to this business case by assessing the state of the Science Centre and estimating the cost of repairs over the next 20 years, came up with an estimate that would have originally been around $142 million.

In a report prepared as part of the Ontario government’s business case for relocating the Ontario Science Centre to Ontario Place, consultants Pinchin were asked to apply an “adjustment factor” of 1.85 to all of their estimates to account for the “hidden internal and external fees” of working with a “complex facility”. This meant that they were asked to nearly double their  base cost estimates for the deferred and proposed maintenance and renovations. Infrastructure Ontario then applied an additional 40% markup to account for cost escalation.

Pinchin was asked to multiply its original number by an “adjustment factor” of 1.85 due to the “fact that Ontario Science Centre is a complex facility with unique characteristics” and “per Client’s [IO’s] request to account for the hidden internal and external fees.” This brings us to $228 million.

Then, since the work they recommended would stretch over 20 years, they were asked to assume a yearly inflation rate of 2.5% and add this to the adjusted estimate, bringing the total to $263 million.

IO then applied an additional mark-up of 40% to Pinchin’s inflated $228-million bill “to account for uncertain and rapidly increasing cost pressures,” to reach the estimated $369-million costs for its business case.

What about the roof? Pinchin’s estimate includes $32 million ($17 million before the complexity factor of 1.85 was applied) to replace the Science Centre’s roofs—an amount that correlates with the estimate for completely replacing the RAAC roofs included in the Rimkus report ($17 million in construction costs, plus 15% in consultant fees and a somewhat generous 20% in contingency, for a total of $21 million).

A pedestrian bridge linking the front building to the main exhibitions has been closed since June 2022. Photo by James Brittain, courtesy Moriyama Teshima Architects

And the bridge? Pinchin’s estimate also includes the $11.6 million (roughly $6 million, pre-adjustment) that would have been needed to stabilize the bi-level pedestrian bridge when an issue was first identified with it in 2021. The auditor general’s office was told by Infrastructure Ontario that a new contract for the bridge repair amounted to $16 million, which would provide “a temporary solution to stabilize the bridge.” This seems like an overly large budget—a structural engineer I spoke with indicated that the cost of over $1,000 per square foot put the estimate in the realm of what he would expect to see for repairing a large, vehicular bridge, not a pedestrian bridge. But as the documents related to these bridge repair contracts have not been made publicly available, it is hard to assess whether the numbers are competitive. For the sake of a ballpark figure, let’s add the full $10 million difference to Pinchin’s $142 million, for a total construction cost of $152 million.

Adding 17% in construction inflation (according to Statistics Canada) since Pinchin’s report was generated in 2022, 12% in consultants’ fees, and 10% contingency, the total bill comes to $211 million in repairs.

The Pinchin report details that roughly half of its repairs ($113 M adjusted price, $61 unadjusted) be completed within the first five years following the report. The client may have asked for these repairs to be front-loaded within the five-year span in order to influence the Facility Condition Index assigned to the Science Centre, shifting it from a “B” to a “C”.

This amount could be readily parsed into priority projects, if the intention is to keep the Science Centre functional only until such time that it moves to a different location. Pinchin’s report recommends that roughly half of the repairs for the next 20 years should be completed in the coming five years. Some of the items in Pinchin’s priority list might be reconsidered—for instance, some $8 million ($4 million unadjusted) in ceiling finish replacements that are marked “optional”, or a $1.7 million ($1 million unadjusted) replacement of vinyl floor tiles in the exhibition hall and offices.

An excerpt from the business case for relocating the Ontario Science Centre to Ontario Place notes that keeping the Centre in place and operating on a reduced footprint will require $32 M in building repairs over five years; the exact number used in the Business Case calculations is $32,309,026 ($30,528,632 NPV).
Another excerpt of the report showing how the Province used the estimated $32 M as the cost to repair the building to keep it operational for five years.

Infrastructure Ontario itself estimated that the footprint of the Science Centre could be reduced in footprint for that interim period, presumably restricting it to the Valley Building C alone, a move that it said would entail some $32 million in repairs. In reality, the interim cost of making the necessary repairs to keep the Ontario Science Centre in its may be closer to $24 million, if you were to use industry standard mark-ups and contingencies, rather than the Province’s mark-ups. It could be and even less still if you take into account that Moriyama Teshima Architects, the firm that originally built the centre, has assembled a consultant team to help with the roof repairs pro bono.

It is also plausible that, as part of constructing a business case for the relocation, Infrastructure Ontario directed Pinchin to adjust the priority of the repair items, in order to effect a shift of the overall Facility Condition grade assigned to the building, which is calculated in part using the repair amounts needed in the coming two years, in this case, 2022-2023 (to which over $60 million in repairs was recommended—repairs which were clearly not undertaken during that time):

A key section in Pinchin’s executive summary says that the Ontario Science Centre’s “facility and its components are functioning as intended, for most infrastructure assets, this would infer that no repairs anticipated within the next five years.”

This would explain a key discrepancy in Pinchin’s report, where in one sentence it notes that the Facility Condition is such that “the facility and its components are functioning as intended; for most infrastructure assets, this would infer that no repairs anticipated within the next five years”—a comment consistent with the facility receiving a ‘B’ grade. In the same section, though, the report notes the building’s grade as a “C.” Even this “C” is hardly a dire grade, but rather carries the correlating note: “The Facility and its components are functioning as intended; normal deterioration and minor distress observed; repairs will be required within the next five years to maintain functionality.”

The Current Replacement Value of the building was also adjusted, this time by a factor of 1.30, which increases the amount of yearly maintenance that would have been calculated for it in the business case by 30%.

As for running the Science Centre, in Infrastructure Ontario’s business case, the maintenance costs for the existing Science Centre are also exaggerated. Again, due to the “fact that Ontario Science Centre is a complex facility with unique characteristics” and “as per Client’s request to account for the hidden internal and external fees,” Pinchin “adjusted” the Current Replacement Value (CRV) of the property by a factor of 1.30. Since the maintenance expenses were calculated as 1.25% of the property’s CRV, the resulting annual maintenance estimate of $7.5 million per year is also inflated.

The actual maintenance number, without the inflated CRV, would be $5.8 million per year. This number is still significantly larger than the actual expenses in recent years. The Province charges the Ontario Science Centre $4.8 million as an annual occupancy cost—a figure that not only has historically covered maintenance, but also taxes, operating and management fees, utilities, and leasehold improvements, as outsourced to an outside property management firm. In other words, the Science Centre has been getting by on an annual maintenance budget that is somewhat less than $4.8 million.

The Auditor General’s 2023 value-for-money report on Ontario’s science centres summarizes the capital maintenance projects that were finished and deferred in the past seven years. From 2016 to 2018, $11 million-worth of these projects were approved and $2 million denied funding; whereas from 2018 to 2023, the period in which Doug Ford has been Premier, just $1 million of these projects were approved, whereas $14 million were denied funding.

Of course, reinvestment in the Science Centre—including in ongoing maintenance—is indisputably needed. All buildings, new and old alike, require regular maintenance. The Auditor General’s report notes that from 2016 to 2023, 34 maintenance projects identified as “critical,” totaling $12 million dollars, were approved, while 42 of such maintenance projects, totaling over $16 million dollars, were denied funding, which the Auditor General notes “result[ed] in further deterioration of the building.” The responsibility falls under different provincial leaders, but from 2016 to 2018, $11 million-worth of these projects were approved and $2 million denied funding; whereas from 2018 to 2023, the period in which Doug Ford has been Premier, just $1 million of these projects were approved, whereas $14 million were denied funding.

The chart shown previously from the Pinchin report documents the division of budget responsibility for its recommended maintenance projects. The division is based on instructions Pinchin received from Infrastructure Ontario’s management partner for the facility, CBRE.

Although the difference may seem academic, the responsibility for the vast majority of repairs falls to Infrastructure Ontario as the building owner, rather than to the Ontario Science Centre, which has a limited budget and responsibility for building improvements. The Ontario Science Centre, for its part, seemed to be doing what it could with its limited means and scope. At the time of the auditor general’s report, the Science Centre was in the process of purchasing equipment using its exhibit renewals budget in order to reopen its planetarium in 2024.

As minor as it is, this may be, for me, one of the most telling details in this whole saga. Over the past five years, Infrastructure Ontario has systematically denied critical funding to the Ontario Science Centre, allowing its maintenance to lapse. The most visible effects of the Centre’s apparent decline have included the closure of its planetarium in 2022, and the closure of its pedestrian bridge that same year. At the very moment that the province announced the sudden, indefinite closure of the Science Centre on the flimsy basis of an engineering report that asked for manageable, phased roof repairs, one of those key experiences was about to be restored.

The Science Centre had scraped through the pandemic and suffered through putting its visitors on shuttle buses to its back entrance. It had been informed that the government planned to move it to a half-sized facility at Ontario Place in a few years, a move that would include laying off one out of every six people who currently worked there. And yet, it remained determined to give its visitors the best possible science experience in the interim. New exhibitions were still appearing in its Science Arcade and Weston Family Innovation Centre. And the planetarium was going to reopen.


How to pay for repairing the Ontario Science Centre? Let’s start by using the money it’s taking to close it

Cost of Ontario Science Centre temporary location exceeds cost of roof repairs

Ontario Science Centre doesn’t require full closure: A close reading of the engineers’ report

TSA issues open letter on Ontario Science Centre closure

Closing science centre unnecessary, says firm of architect who designed building

Never miss an update: Sign-up to receive Canadian Architect’s free weekly e-Newsletter