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Hill Life & People

Inside West Block, the House Chamber’s home for the next decade

By Laura Ryckewaert      

The West Block building is now set to be in full use as the House of Commons’ interim home in January 2019.

There will 40 per cent less space for visitors in the galleries that ring the interim Chamber, with seating for 346 people, down from the 581 seats available for visitors in Centre Block. Visitors will access the galleries via catwalks that connect from the third floor, going through archways that used to hold windows. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade
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With seven years of renovations nearly complete, the media got a tour on June 15 inside the West Block building, the interim home for the House of Commons Chamber for at least a decade once Centre Block closes in 2019.

It was the first peek for the press inside the space, along with the new Visitors’ Welcome Centre, since September 2016, and came on the heels of the House and Senate’s final call on Centre Block move-out plans.

The House and Senate announced on June 14 that the full move out of Centre Block—into West Block for the House and into the Government Conference Centre (GGC) at 2 Rideau St. for the Senate—would be delayed until January 2019.

Previously, the plan was to move Centre-Block occupants, furniture, and other heritage assets being relocated to the West Block and GCC over the summer, starting in June, to be fully in place by September to start the fall 2018 session in the newly renovated buildings.

The House and Senate will now do a phased move out of Centre Block, starting in the fall, and will be fully in place in their respective new homes by the start of the new sitting in January 2019. At that point, the new underground Visitors’ Welcome Centre (VWC), which will serve as the public entrance to the West Block, and includes a parliamentary boutique, security screening, and the starting point for tours, will also be in full use.

The West Block building was closed for construction in February 2011. Altogether, its renovation is estimated to cost $863-million, including $115-million for the glass-domed roof that tops the building’s old courtyard, within which sits the new interim House Chamber.

Work on the building included excavating four storeys down underneath the courtyard floor; two of those floors will be part of the building’s regular use. Roughly 26,000 square metres was added to the building, from 15,000 to 31,700 square metres. The building has also been brought up to current codes, and has undergone a seismic retrofit.

The amount of bedrock excavated could fill 28 Olympic-sized swimming pools, said PCL Constructors’ Irvin Heiber. More than six million workforce hours on site have been recorded for the West Block, he said. PCL was awarded the main construction contract for the West Block and the VWC.

Workers pictured on the job in the West Block on June 15. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

Major construction in the West Block is now complete, and partial occupancy permits from the City of Ottawa were granted on May 31. With the smell of paint in the air, plenty of signs of touch-up work was visible during the tour, including patches of areas still in need of final finishes to the walls and floors.

Along with the interim Chamber, the West Block includes four committee rooms; government and opposition lobbies; offices for House officers and other leadership; a cabinet meeting room; a dining room, cafeteria, and kitchen; and a new “Charles Lynch Room” for smaller press conferences and a new media workspace. An office for the prime minister will go in the Mackenzie Tower, named after Canada’s first Liberal prime minister, Alexander Mackenzie—Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) will be the second PM to use the space.

It’s set to be the House of Commons’ home for at least a decade—though Rob Wright, Public Services assistant deputy minister, noted that Centre Block is four times the size of West Block, which took seven years of construction, and presents many of the same challenges.

The view of the interim Chamber from the visitors’ galleries. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

The interim Chamber for the House of Commons is set within the West Block’s courtyard in an open-air space. The entire courtyard is topped with a glass roof, which is supported by steel beams, and meant to evoke the feeling of a forest clearing, a reference to it previously being an outdoor space.

Five million pounds of structural steel are involved, and if placed, end-to-end the steel beams could extend for seven kilometres. For the record: all of the steel used comes from Ontario and Quebec.

There will 40 per cent less space for visitors in the galleries that ring the interim Chamber, with seating for 346 people, down from the 581 seats available for visitors in Centre Block. Visitors will access the galleries via catwalks that connect from the third floor, going through archways that used to hold windows.

The orientation of the interim Chamber has been flipped. In Centre Block, the Speaker’s chair, pictured above to the right, is on the northern end—with the government seated to the west, and the opposition to the east—but due to spacing in the West Block, it’s now on the southern end, with the government on the eastern-side.

Visitors will still be able to watch Question Period, but tours to the West Block will only take place when the House isn’t sitting, as the main attraction would be the temporary Chamber, which wouldn’t be accessible during sitting days. Extended hours and more frequent tours will be introduced.

The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

Mock desks for MPs and table officers are currently set up in the interim Chamber for the various acoustic, lighting, and broadcast testing that’s taking place.

When Centre Block shuts down, MP and table officer desks from the House of Commons will be moved over and reused. However, as the Speaker’s chair that’s currently in use in Centre Block won’t fit through the doors, a chair previously built and used by former House Speaker Edgar Rhodes, a former Conservative Nova Scotia MP who was Speaker from 1917 to 1921, will be put in.

The Northern Doors. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

There’s seating for 338 MPs in the interim Chamber, with room for further growth. Wood included in the space is a mixture of birch and red oak from different parts of Canada.

Dubbed the “Northern Doors,” these doors featuring stained glass stand between courtyard and the new foyer space outside it, where media scrums will happen in the future. The stained glass design is meant to evoke the northern landscape and sky. Across from the Northern Doors is the floor-level entrance to the Chamber, pictured below.

The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

The daily Speaker’s parade into the Chamber will be less visible in the West Block, due to smaller hallways and the general configuration, but officials said it will be televised when the House moves in to allow people to continue to see it.

The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

The entrance to the opposition lobby sits to the left from this angle between the two steel beam “trees” supporting the roof. Effort was made to maintain an outdoor feel to the courtyard space. Lots of masonry restoration work went into the renovations, with new laser-cleaning technology used. Roughly 140,000 stones make up the outer wall; 15 per cent of those were replaced, along with 1.5-million bricks in the inner wall.

The opposition lobby. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

The government and opposition lobbies are identical in size to the lobbies in Centre Block, but will have better acoustics, said Darrell de Grandmount, chief architect of the House of Commons. The stairs pictured lead to a door that opens into the interim Chamber for MPs to get to their seats.

The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

Four committee rooms will be available in the West Block overall, three of which will be broadcast capable, and will also be used for caucus meetings. Mr. Wright said meetings room in the building have “higher standards” of sound security, both electronically and in terms of what could be heard from an adjacent room.

The committee room pictured above, which a House of Commons official said he believed would be numbered 0025B, is situated two-floors down, underneath the interim Chamber.

The West Block’s cafeteria The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

The new parliamentary dining room in the West Block (not pictured) is smaller than Centre Block’s, and features: seating for 108 people; a permanent, enclosed private dining room that can seat six; glass partitions that can be moved to create another private space for 16; and along one wall, exposed masonry. The building also includes a cafeteria and kitchen facilities.

The North Court The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

An underground “North Court” addition connects the Visitors’ Welcome Centre to the West Block building. A secondary security screening for visitors heading to watch Question Period will take place behind the glass partition pictured.

The Visitors’ Welcome Centre The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

The entrance-level of the Visitors’ Welcome Centre features elliptical arches and (unfortunately named) groin vaults, meant to echo the neo-Gothic style of the historic buildings. Two escalators and a staircase lead down to the route into the West Block building, with a parliamentary boutique located on this lower level.

It’s the first new building on the Hill in 100 years, and will continue to be in use even after Centre Block re-opens, with a second phase planned to go on the opposite, eastern side of Parliament Hill at a later stage.

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