Planning for the Rehabilitation of Centre Block: The House’s Experience

Article 2 / 11 , Vol. 44 No. 2 (Summer)


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Planning for the Rehabilitation of Centre Block:
The House’s Experience

Susan Kulba is the Director of Real Property Services at the House of Commons and overseas the Centre Block Rehabilitation Program.

Parliament Hill has been buzzing for decades with renovations and rehabilitation projects. While all of these projects created some disruptions for parliamentarians and parliamentary staff, the rehabilitation of Centre Block was perhaps the most daunting. The two chambers would need to be moved to new locations that could be fully operational without much disruption. In this article, the author uses the House of Commons experience to trace the meticulous and extensive planning needed to make this massive move work and explain how stakeholders have been kept informed.

Setting the Stage

The West Block Rehabilitation Project was a keystone in the Parliamentary Precinct Long-Term Vision and Plan (LTVP) implementation strategy. Its critical role was the provision of an interim Chamber and legislative spaces to allow the Centre Block to be renovated. Given the domino effect created when vacating and moving office spaces, the implementation of this vision had to be undertaken incrementally.

The West Block Rehabilitation Project was a major undertaking that restored the existing heritage building to its former glory and incorporated all the modern functionality required to support our Parliament. The architectural vision includes a new multi-level infill within the West Block courtyard to accommodate the space needed to meet the requirements of the House of Commons. The new Chamber sits in the former open courtyard. The glazed roof design is at the core of the architectural vision. The roof arches over the central aisle of the new Chamber. The double structural arcade emphasizes the vertical architecture and echoes the neo-gothic influence of the heritage building.

For the duration of the Centre Block rehabilitation, the West Block will serve as the interim Chamber. The move was not an overnight occurrence; it took years of planning and preparation to successfully transition our key legislative functions into a new space. Much of this planning stems from the Long Term Vision and Plan, a guiding framework to upgrade the buildings and landscapes of the Parliamentary Precinct and meet the modern requirements of parliamentarians. The LTVP was first developed in 2001 by Public Services and Procurement Canada in consultation with the parliamentary partners: the Senate, the House of Commons and the Library of Parliament.

The LTVP allows for a strategic and aligned approach among stakeholders. Accommodations were carefully considered within the context of the end state. The main move was kept to the essential functions which could not be done without disrupting the operations of Parliament. The opening of West Block was originally planned for September 2018, with the main move scheduled to take place during the summer adjournment. In the end, it was deferred to January 2019 to ensure the readiness of the building. The result was a two-phase scenario covering the recess periods in the winter and the summer. Members whose offices were not moving to West Block were gradually moved out of Centre Block between July and November of 2018 to the recently restored Wellington Building and to the Confederation and Justice buildings. These moves aligned with the LTVP objective, which calls for the greater use of buildings away from Centre Block. The vacated offices allowed for some of the Centre Block project investigation work to begin. Members whose offices were located in West Block, including the Prime Minister, the Speaker and House Officers, were moved during the winter recess period. This marked the first time that the Office of the Prime Minister was moved, other than after an election, since the fire of 1916.

To prepare for the office moves, Party Whips who are responsible for the office allocation and informed their Members. Four to six weeks before the move, the Administration met with each Member and their staff to decide the exact date and time of their move, as well as to discuss any special needs and furniture layout preferences for the new office. Phone lines were typically only transferred the day of the move to avoid any interruption of service to constituents. Members and staff were briefed on the new office layout and details, such as programmable light switches and card reader programming – an operational shift for Members. All Members and staff were also offered tours of West Block to help them become accustomed to the new building. West Block, with its Chamber and committee rooms, became the Members’ workplace and they needed to be familiar with it even if their offices were not placed there. On opening day, and for the following two weeks, House Administration staff were onsite at each entrance and other key locations to assist Members in orienting themselves within West Block – a service that was greatly appreciated and noted by Members afterwards.

The move involved an additional level of complexity due to the heritage furniture in the Chamber and the art collection. It was decided that the Centre Block Chamber furniture would be used in the interim Chamber, meaning the Chamber had to remain operational with its furniture until the very last day of sitting before the December adjournment. In the week following the adjournment, the old Chamber became a worksite, and the Administration sprang into action to dismantle it, modify the heritage desks Members use to accommodate new technology, restore the desks, and reinstall them in the interim Chamber. A custom crate was built to move the massive Clerk’s Table in three separate sections. It was a collaborative effort to disassemble the desk, move it safely out through the Peace Tower staircase and entrance, load it onto a truck, and into the Mackenzie Tower Entrance to its new home. To ensure safe delivery, a dry run with the empty crate was held to practice this move. Another major undertaking was moving the Prime Ministers’ portraits along with numerous other heritage paintings and sculptures, which were carefully transported to West Block over a period of months.

The Books of Remembrance from the Memorial Chamber were moved to their new temporary home in the Visitor Welcome Centre, when the new space was made ready for them. It was clear to everyone that once the Centre Block Chamber was dismantled there was no going back, therefore, the decision to proceed with the move was made only once there was a high level of confidence that West Block would be operationally ready for the return of the House on January 28, 2019, for the first sitting in the interim Chamber.

The Dress Rehearsal – Dry Runs

The execution of the move to West Block was made possible in large part due to the operational readiness efforts that took place in parallel to the move plan. The building and many operational services were tested in a series of four major dry runs that saw between 400 to 600 participants (mostly House Administration staff and a few Members) in various roles, take part in simulations of Chamber proceedings, committee meetings, and protocol events. These simulations were key to the success of the readiness in supporting Members’ work. Carrying out tests, training, and dry runs allowed employees to have practice in West Block before opening day and provided opportunities to identify and solve any glitches or bugs that arose.

With this smooth transition, Parliament remained operational with limited impacts leading up to the move date. Much work was done in advance, with contingency plans in place and. in some cases, redundant systems eliminated to ensure a smooth transition. Personal offices had been transferred to other buildings ahead of time, resulting in little disruption to Members, apart from the emotional severing of ties with a building that is most loved. Members were able to move from Centre Block to West Block with minimum disruption while parliamentary proceedings transitioned smoothly from one building to another.

The Move

The move from Centre Block to West Block was difficult for all parliamentarians and particularly emotional for many who realized that, given the length of the closure, they would not be returning to their familiar and special place of work. Parliamentarians were aware that after years or decades of working in the Parliament Buildiing, they might never work in that space again. The national significance of Centre Block was written on the walls, rich in detail and meaning, with personal stories and anecdotes that Members could share with visiting constituents. Others, elected after the move, may never had the chance to experience the Parliament Building as a working environment.

Moving into West Block, assigned originally as a Departmental building, was an adjustment for many. Years of planning and preparation can never fully prepare staff and Members for the full impact of having to move key legislative functions into a new space. The move resulted in less space and fewer grand architectural features. Members were forced to re-orient themselves, and traditions and ceremonies, such as the Speaker’s Parade, were revised. Yet, the departure from Centre Block to the freshly rehabilitated West Block also presented opportunities for significant workplace improvements in a state-of-the-art facility. Working in this new space allowed Members greater opportunities to use Indigenous languages with simultaneous interpretation. The move also meant that Members’ desks now had USB charging stations, more varied dining options for rapid meal selection, and wheelchair access to the galleries and other spaces. West Block also allowed for direct access to three permanent simultaneous interpretation booths where previously in Centre Block there were only two, and the ability to connect five additional booths within proximity of the Chamber.

The galleries were placed further back meaning better visibility for all Members, better thermal comfort, and enhanced audio and visual systems, among other improvements. There was also an opportunity to tell the story of West Block, which highlights the growth of our nation and construction campaigns that took place to accommodate our changing parliamentary landscape.

Lessons Learned

The move to West Block provided important lessons that will be applied when moving back into Centre Block. Parliamentarians supported the approach of moving the House of Commons operations into West Block, allowing for the Administration and parliamentarians themselves to reassess years of processes, requirements, and methodologies used in Centre Block. An example of the ingenuity in these moves is the use of the Rhodes Chair. The Speaker’s Chair in Centre Block was used for almost one hundred years prior to the move, but due to its size and heritage integrity, moving it into West Block was not possible. The solution was to use an alternate chair, built for Speaker Edgar Rhodes in 1917, after the fire in the Parliament Building. As the Rhodes Chair was required when the House of Commons met in a temporary location a century ago, it was fitting for the chair to once again be used in an interim Chamber.

While the House of Commons continues to sit in West Block, Canada’s largest rehabilitation project is taking place in Centre Block. The multimillion-dollar restoration project is designed to preserve the historic character of the building and ensure the needs of parliamentarians and the people who support them for the next hundred years. The project includes significant repairs to its masonry, a new roof and windows, seismic upgrades, enhanced information technology and security features, among other improvements. It will also require the temporary closure of the Peace Tower for important structural work, as well as conservation of the Carillon’s bells. The Carillon has only been silent twice since its installation: from 1980 to 1982 for rehabilitation work on the interior of the Tower, and from 1995 to 1997 for work on its exterior.

Engagements with Parliamentarians

The House of Commons continues to explore options for how to best engage Members in the LTVP and its rehabilitation and construction, and to ensure their role in discussions on the design and operational requirements for the future of Centre Block and the wider precinct.

To ensure Members are involved in decisions about the rehabilitation, in March 2020 the Board of Internal Economy discussed the governance of the Centre Block Rehabilitation Project and agreed to establish a working group composed of Members from each recognized party, which would report to the Board.

The group is tasked with providing updates on the rehabilitation project and with making recommendations as required. The working group will guide and inform consultations and engagement with Members and parliamentary partners, including joint consultations with the Senate when necessary. This working group also serves as a forum to consult with Members about their views, expectations and needs on a regular basis.

Information for Members at large is summarized in a Bulletin issued from the Speaker featuring updates on decisions made at the Board of Internal Economy, construction updates, information about the heritage asset preservation and conservation work, as well as updates from other projects in the precinct falling under the umbrella of the LTVP.

Members also have an opportunity to tour Centre Block to see the rehabilitation work first-hand at regular intervals. Feedback from Members who attend tours provides an important engagement tool, allowing them to understand the full scope and scale of the project.

While the Parliament Building is a workplace for Members and their staff, it is also a building of great symbolic importance to all Canadians, which is why public engagement is so crucial to the success of this historic undertaking. Using digital platforms, information, photos and videos are shared to document the ongoing rehabilitation work in an effort to keep Canadians engaged in the process, and also excited for the future of the building.