Piling Canada

The West Block Rehabilitation Project

Tomlinson Group was involved in bringing Parliament Hill to the 21st century
Written by Pat Rediger
October 2019

Tomlinson Group was involved in bringing Parliament Hill to the 21st century

By Pat Rediger

Kyler Hammel can truly say he saw history in the making while working on a project that restored and modernized the West Block on Parliament Hill.

“This was pretty memorable for me because I was heavily involved in the project. I was actually pulled out of my project co-ordinator and estimator role and

moved up to project manager, and was on-site for about two to three years. Then I was involved indirectly for a couple of years,” said Hammel, a project manager with Tomlinson Group.

The recently-concluded West Block project was designed to restore and modernize Parliament Hill to meet the current and future needs of Parliamentarians while respecting the historic quality of the building. The $863 million project began in 2011 and the West Block became home to an army of stone masons and carvers, architects, engineers, cabinet makers, woodcarvers, sculptors and much more.

The restoration and modernization work included the refurbishment of exterior masonry, sculptures and decorative iron work; window and roof replacement; asbestos abatement and demolition; the construction of an interior courtyard; enhanced accessibility; and the replacement of electrical, mechanical and life-safety systems.

Tomlinson Group was involved in excavating extra space for mechanical
systems which featured tunnels,
blasting rock near a building of historical significance with strict vibration criteria,
interior bedrock excavation to a 40-foot depth and removal of rock from a central courtyard via tower crane.

40,000 cubic metres of bedrock

Workers blasted through about 40,000 cubic metres of bedrock to create three new underground levels that extend below the House chamber. Two of these floors would eventually contain committee rooms and offices, and connect to other parliamentary buildings through a tunnel system, while the other floor was constructed for mechanical and electrical systems.

“They wanted to expand the mechanical space within the Centre Courtyard and the North Wing to create more access,” said Hammel. “Most of Parliament Hill is supplied with heating and cooling from Cliff Street Plant so we had to bring in additional tunnels and access shafts. We were the prime contractor on some of this work and then we had a subcontractor that did some of the work on the tunnels.”

Tomlinson Group began work on the project in August 2013 and completed their tasks by July 2018. Hammel said that it was probably the largest project he has been involved with. One of the biggest challenges was to coordinate the equipment in and out of a busy worksite.

“We had a lot of equipment that was landlocked by the Centre Courtyard. We were breaking up the bedrock and then had to use tower cranes to load it up and bring the material out on tri axles. These trucks had very little access due to security measures and had to make their way through Public Services and Procurement Canada. They had a checkpoint on the way in to make sure things went well, but obviously there was heightened security at Parliament Hill, and some of our trucks were having to go around Centre Block while Parliament was in session,” said Hammel.

Before the project began, the Tomlinson Group developed an action plan that was revised as the project unfolded. With so many trades working on-site, it was important to remain flexible and accommodating to other contractors. There were also
opportunities to streamline operations as some work was complementary.

For example, Tomlinson Group as a PCL subcontractor worked with PCL to get approval on shaft construction at the same time as the courtyard renovations to help accelerate the renovation schedule. This approach allowed Public Works to have access to several quasi-permanent shafts that could be used to excavate materials to the surface and provide better access to bring materials if required.

“It was definitely difficult to plan in advance,” said Hammel. “I remember when we were excavating the Centre Courtyard, we brought in some brand new CAT 324s on lease to minimize any maintenance if we required them. We actually had to bring in a 300 tonne crane that we had just purchased and we actually used that to lift the shovels into the Centre Courtyard so we could do the excavation.”

Special equipment used

In terms of special equipment, Hammel said the company brought in a Brokk machine, which has “more of a punch” for the size and space requirements that they were working under. The subcontractors who worked on the tunnelling also had to make special arrangements.

Tomlinson Group used two main subcontractors: Marathon Underground (formerly Marathon Drilling) for the tunnelling portion and M-Roc for the blasting. Since Parliament was often meeting in Centre Block, noise and vibrations had to be kept to a minimum. In order to meet these requirements, M-Roc placed the spacing of the holes closer together to minimize vibrations.

“It’s more of an art than a science. If they don’t put enough charges in, the rock doesn’t fracture and it creates more vibration, so you have to trust your driller and blaster with their experience,” said Hammel. Fortunately, the company had done similar work in the past and used lessons learned from those projects in this one.

Another unique aspect of this project was the stonework. Almost half of the building’s 140,000 stones had to be removed, numbered and reinstalled. Laser technology was used to clean the stones by vaporizing the contaminants and providing a uniformly-clean surface. When Tomlinson Group conducted its work, they had to ensure the recently-redone stonework was protected with wood and fabric to prevent damage during the blasting and other construction.

As with any major construction project, safety was a primary concern. The trickiest part of the project for Tomlinson Group was the tunnelling operations. The company needed to have trained employees on-site, using proper equipment and techniques in case a tunnel collapsed. The company held monthly training sessions with eight staff members to review how to safely remove personnel in the event of a tunnel collapse.

Now that the renovations to West Block have been completed, Public Services and Procurement Canada will be turning its attention to Centre Block, which is also in need of rehabilitation. The West Block now includes the interim House of Commons (a glass-roofed structure built into its courtyard to provide the building with 50 per cent more space). 

“Right now, they have moved the House of Commons from Centre Block over to West Block,” said Hammel, while the focus shifts to rehabilitating the Centre Block, a project expected to take 15 years. “There are prequalification’s out for that work already.”

Now that the project is complete, Hammel says he is looking forward to perhaps returning to Parliament and working on the Centre Block project where new challenges and solutions await. 🍁

Category: Projects

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