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Aging mechanical systems a threat to Parliament buildings

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by Peter Kenter

It’s no secret that the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa are in need of repair.
Aging mechanical systems a threat to Parliament buildings

It’s no secret that the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa are in need of repair. A recent report from the Office of the Auditor General offers a grim scenario: “The risk of total failure of key building systems in West Block and Centre Block is growing.”

What makes the Centre Block different from the others is the fact that it’s an early example of a modern steel frame building.

That’s become evident to more than historians, because water infiltration has caused rust from structural steel to permanently stain the stone interior finishes in some areas.

“The new Centre Block, built after the Great Fire in 1916, is considered technically a ‘modern structure’ as it was built using steel and poured concrete,” notes Nathalie Bétoté Akwa, a spokesperson for Public Works and Government Services Canada (PWGSC).

‘The complete framing and cross-bracing structure of Centre Block is fabricated using steel. Other Hill structures were built by the mass masonry method.”

While the steel is considered structurally sound, some of the mechanical systems are leaking, causing water infiltration and the resulting rust.

Principal investigator for the Auditor General, Edward Wood, notes that the building audit was not a new inspection, but a progress report on efforts by PWGSC to fully restore the structures, using existing building inspection reports.

“We were trying to determine whether Public Works is monitoring the conditions of the buildings, and how they are dealing with the problems they’re finding,” says Wood.

“The main finding of the audit is that there’s not a lot happening quickly, primarily because of problems with governance, accountability and responsibility.”

Wood says that conditions in the West Block have been deemed “critical” because systems including HVAC, electrical, water and fire protection could fail at any time because they’re beyond their useful life.

If not attended to, the Centre Block may reach that same critical state by 2019.

There are, however, plans on the books to deal with the deterioration of the buildings.

The West Block will be vacated in the fall for a $769-million renovation and the East Block is undergoing lesser renovation work, with both projects taking until at least 2018 to complete.

A five- to seven-year renovation plan for the Centre Block is expected to conclude in 2025.

As for Centre Block’s steel: “The structural steel is monitored and areas causing infiltration are repaired when required,” says Akwa. “The general condition of the structure is considered safe and sound.

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