The West Block section of Canada’s historic Parliament Hill recently underwent a major restoration and members of Ottawa, Ontario, Local 586 were there to power it.
About 250 members worked on the CA$863 million project that began in 2011 and is part of a larger upgrade to the main buildings that comprise Canada’s federal government, also known as Parliamentary Precinct.
“It says a lot that the IBEW is a trusted source to work on a project like this,” said Local 586 Business Manager John Bourke. “It’s not every day you get to contribute so directly to the history of your country.”
The government estimates that there was an average of 500 workers onsite every day – with a peak of 1,200 – for a total of over 6 million hours of labor. In addition to being the interim home for the House of Commons, the upgraded structure also has offices for the prime minister and party leaders.
Bourke says that members worked on everything electrical from demolition to the final touches still being completed. Members maintained fire alarm systems throughout the project and installed new lighting and distribution, security and multiple communications categories.
“There is a great sense of pride to be able to work on such a prestigious and iconic building,” Bourke said.
Designed in 1859 in a Gothic Revival style, the West Block is the oldest of Parliament’s buildings. Along with the Centre and East Blocks, the buildings were considered some of the finest examples of the architectural style throughout the British Empire. In 1987, the West Block was designated a classified federal heritage building for its important historical associations, architectural quality and environmental impact.
The building, which was initially created for the federal civil service and primarily housed offices and meeting rooms before its restoration, was originally constructed in the same manner as stone castles in Europe. During the renovation, about half of the building’s 140,000 stones had to be removed, numbered and reinstalled.
“It was really neat to see the history, especially inside the building, of the stonework,” said Local 586 member and project foreman Lee Watson. “What they did back in the day, it makes you respect them.”
The stone masonry figured significantly in the restoration, providing some interesting challenges for Local 586 members. In addition to space challenges that didn’t provide for much room, members had to deal with eight-foot-thick walls. And because of the heritage designation, they couldn’t just toss the stones out or blast through them. In some cases, Watson said, instead of doing multiple penetrations, they’d just use one shared opening.
“We had to find a different path,” said Watson, who works for signatory contractor Plan Group. “It took a lot of coordinating with the other trades.”
A major change to the structure is the formerly open courtyard, now the new House chamber. Called the “jewel of the West Block” by the Globe and Mail and surrounded with stone walls, the new design called for an enclosed glass ceiling that captures heat in winter and expels it in summer.
Along with the use of LED lighting and other improvements, it’s part of the building’s increased energy efficiency that will likely help with its application for LEED Silver and Green Globes certifications.
Georges Drolet of architecture firm EVOQ, which designed the space, told the Global and Mail they wanted to evoke nature, a reference to the historical landscape of Parliament Hill and to create “a unique Canadian sensibility” that, he said, wouldn’t require “having to put a moose everywhere.”
The building also boasts four new underground levels, some of which will eventually connect to other parliamentary buildings through a tunnel network. Others house the mechanical and electrical systems.
With the West Block finished, members of Parliament have moved in, making the newly renovated space their temporary home while work begins on the next phase: the Centre Block. It’s a 15-year project that IBEW signatories have bid on as well, and some have already been awarded contracts.
“It would be nice to get it,” Watson said. “That project would take a lot of us into retirement, and that would be a great way to end a career, on something so historic.”
Local 586 members have previously worked on the Library of Parliament and the new Visitors Welcome Centre, Bourke said.