Province House suffering serious structural problems

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Joe McGuirk from McGuirk Bros. Construction installs drywall in the main stairwell at Province House as part of the repairs needed after a large piece of plaster fell from the ceiling in January.

A building that once hosted the Charlottetown Conference couldn’t host a small tour group these days thanks to ongoing problems that have shut down historic Province House.

Foundation problems, a leaky roof and deteriorating masonry were some of the issues Parks Canada has dealt with in recent years at the site, with falling plaster adding to the list and shutting down the building for a few months of repair work.

But according to a report from an engineering firm hired to investigate issues with the building, there were more serious problems that threatened Province House’s structural integrity and public safety.

TC Media obtained a copy of the May 2013 report from Taylor Hazell Architects through the Access to Information and Privacy Protection Act. In that report, the firm detailed a host of problems with Province House, ranging from serious structural issues like crumbling foundation walls to window frames that were only half painted.

Doug Boylan, who worked in Province House for almost 20 years and who was a former clerk of the legislative assembly, said it’s arguably the most historic building in Canada and should have a level of attention to reflect that.

“It’s as simple as that,” he said.

“If we believe the Island myth about the birthplace (of Confederation), the place is pretty important isn’t it?”

The building opened in 1847 and was then known as the Colonial Building. Although it operates as a working legislature, Parks Canada maintains it due to an agreement the provincial and federal governments signed in 1974.

It was the site of the Charlottetown Conference in 1864, was designated a national historic site in 1966 and has been assigned Parks Canada’s highest level of national historic significance.

Parks Canada started to address some of Province House’s recent woes in 2012 and the initial round of repairs addressed issues with the building’s foundation.

In 2013 further work was done to fix masonry and install a steel beam to secure a wall that was leaning outward.

The most recent problem came when a section of plaster about the size of a large pool table fell off the ceiling last month in one of the building’ entrances.

Province House has been closed ever since and legislative assembly staff were forced to move to the Atlantic Technology Centre while repairs are underway.

Taylor Hazell Architects started its investigation in September 2012 and in October of that year use of the grounds was limited because of the apparent risk to public safety.

Emergency work was recommended and Taylor Hazell Architects said that without a comprehensive construction conservation program the building would become increasingly unstable with the potential for partial collapse.

According to the report, Parks Canada was notified in September 2012 that a sudden wall failure was a possibility and the engineers recommended taking immediate action that included limiting vibrations in the area, such as those created by the use of ground compacting equipment.

The report shows Parks Canada was aware of some of the issues with Province House after inspections were done in 2001, 2005, 2009 and 2011, although those investigations weren’t as extensive as Taylor Hazell Architects’ work.

Problems with Province House seem to exist throughout most of the building, starting with the basement where the engineering firm found a concrete slab that was installed in 1957 to reduce dampness has made foundation wall deterioration worse by pushing moisture into the porous sandstone walls.

“The deterioration of walls has caused great harm to the historic building fabric and undermined the structural integrity of bearing walls,” the report said.

Water infiltration from several sources has also led to further deterioration and possibly mold buildup in the basement.

The report described the condition of basement walls and brick support piers as ranging from fair to very unstable, including collapses in some areas of the walls while some of the wood has rotted.

Investigative work on a portion of the third floor exterior walls found the core of the rubble masonry between the sandstones had turned to sand and flowed freely when it was disturbed, so much so that it filled several buckets.

That deterioration likely carried down to the lower floor, the report said.

Before submitting a final report, Taylor Hazell Architects notified Parks Canada about some of the issues it viewed as urgent, including the possibility that exterior walls could fall.

Inspections also found some of the wooden roof trusses and floor beams were rotted where they connected with exterior walls.

There was also rot and deterioration of the wood because of carpenter ants.

Taylor Hazell Architects anticipated a 2016 start date for the major renovations necessary at Province House and gave a preliminary schedule that would take more than three years to complete, assuming the building was empty.

It would take even longer if the building remained in use throughout the construction, but due to the invasive nature of the work it likely wouldn’t be possible for anyone to use Province House while basement repairs were underway, the report said.

Taylor Hazell Architects expected the extra effort needed to accommodate continued use of the building while repairs were underway would add a minimum of six months to the project. The engineers also estimated Province House would have to be vacant for up to eight months while the basement work was underway.

As for how much renovations will cost, the report does provide estimates, but they are on 15 pages that were greyed out before Parks Canada released the document. A restoration project was started in 1977 and finished in 1984 with Parks Canada spending $6.6 million on the building since that time.

Taylor Hazell Architects found that maintenance of the masonry has been minimal since then and extensive work was needed to keep the outer sandstone facing from falling apart.

Boylan said those major renovations were done at a time when Parks Canada had the capacity to do the work, but it’s a capacity the organization doesn’t have any more and there doesn’t seem to be general maintenance going on.

“When you have problems where roofs leak and plaster falls down, they’re pretty basic aren’t they?”

Although he said he wasn’t up to speed on all the problems at Province House, Boylan said it was obvious there was something wrong with the building and it’s not being looked after the way it should be.

Premier Robert Ghiz is someone else who views Province House as an important building and said the provincial government will have to work with Parks Canada to ensure there is enough money available to avoid a similar situation in the future.

As for whether he feels Parks Canada is living up to its obligations, Ghiz said the agency has a responsibility and he expects the agency to do what is necessary to maintain Province House.

“This is a national treasure,” he said.

Ghiz said he wouldn’t be surprised if Province House does close down for a while like is happening with some of the aging Parliament Buildings in Ottawa.

“When I say a while, it could be a couple of years,” he said.

An attempt to contact Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq, who is responsible for Parks Canada, was referred to the agency.

A statement from Parks Canada said the federal government recognizes the historical significance of Province House and has made infrastructure investments in the building over the years. The statement said Parks Canada and the P.E.I. government will work together to define approaches to ensure Province House’s preservation.

“Our first step will be to review the consultant’s report which will guide future decisions concerning investments and occupancy of the building.”

In the recent federal budget, the government pledged $391.5 million over five years to Parks Canada for infrastructure improvements, but as for how much of that will be spent on Province House, the statement said additional details will be provided “in due time.”

Organizations: Province House, Parks Canada, Taylor Hazell Architects TC Media Atlantic Technology Centre

Geographic location: Canada, Charlottetown, Ottawa P.E.I.

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