A real Northern mystery has settled on the RCMP’s new $18-million Iqaluit headquarters, which is sinking into the permafrost for reasons that almost no one wants to talk about.
More than two years have passed since part of the three-storey detachment office began to crack and settle, yet only one person connected to the project will offer a full explanation – and he says it’s sabotage.
Bill Watt of Arctic Foundations of Canada Inc. (AFC) said the passive foundational cooling system he installed to keep the ground solid was deliberately damaged. No amount of spring runoff, he said, could have caused the havoc he found when he inspected two non-functioning thermosyphons among the 34 he installed in the foundation in 2006.
“Somebody sabotaged two of them,” said Mr. Watt, whose Winnipeg company has installed flat-loop thermosyphon systems in projects all across Northern Canada, including eight other buildings in Iqaluit. “Someone opened the valves, and injected water into the pipes” – which then froze and prevented that part of the system from drawing heat away from the ground, he said.
The imposing structure was designed with help from Inuit elders, and features a prow-like atrium of glass and steel that sets it apart from every other building in town – though some say that signature element may compound stress from a shifting foundation. The finished building opened with much fanfare in April, 2010. Seven months later, Mr. Watt was told that part of his cooling system had failed, and that the building was settling.
Thermosyphons are convection heat exchangers driven by differences in temperature. Sealed pipes charged with carbon dioxide run through the foundation and up into finned outdoor radiators. The air around the radiators chills and condenses the carbon dioxide, which sinks down the pipe to the foundation, where it draws warmth out of the ground and reascends.
The RCMP referred all questions about its Iqaluit headquarters to Public Works and Government Services Canada, which developed the project. FSC Architects & Engineers and Almiq Contracting Ltd., which together designed and built the structure, said they were contractually barred from talking about it.
Tom Corrigan, a spokesman for Public Works, said via e-mail that about 30 square metres of the building are directly affected, through cracks in walls and floors and a “downward settlement” of that part of the structure. Mr. Corrigan said his department and the RCMP are still investigating how water got into the pipes. “It would be premature to speculate on the cause,” he said – even though the problem was discovered more than two years ago.
Mr. Watt said the thermosyphons at the building “functioned perfectly for about four years.” They were installed at least a year before work began above ground, to let the foundation – which also included concrete footings and a special gravel pad – establish itself in the permafrost. AFC monitored the ground temperatures remotely for two years, and saw nothing in the data to indicate any trouble.
Mr. Watt said that after the second year of monitoring, he was told that Public Works would keep tabs on ground temperatures from that point on. But when he heard about the damaged thermosyphons in November, 2010, he looked at Public Works’ ground temperature log and found no records for eight of the previous 12 months.
When he inspected the system, he said, he found that caps on two valves on an outdoor radiator cluster had been removed, and two of the pipes were flooded. “The water came up the pipe more than five feet above ground level,” he said. “There’s no way that can happen naturally.” He believes only a small pump could have put that much fluid in the system.
The valve, used to charge the system with carbon dioxide, was about chest height from the ground, Mr. Watt said, and removable with an ordinary Allen key. He said the RCMP later got him to change the valve caps so that they could only be opened with a less common, more secure Allen key.
AFC’s installation was designed with enough refrigeration capacity to keep the ground solid even if one pipe failed, Mr. Watt said, though his current temperature readings still show a warm spot in the ground around the damaged pipe. That could mean that warmth is coming from the building, or from water on the ground, though Public Works’s Mr. Corrigan said a permanent system to drain away standing water was installed when the building went up.
Mr. Corrigan also said that Public Works will decide how to fix the warming problem by the end of March, and plans to do any necessary remedial work by the fall. But Mr. Watt said the building could sink further unless an active cooling system is installed to relieve the damaged pipe before the spring melt. He also said that continued uncertainty about the cause of the damage is hurting his company.
Wayne Guy of Guy Architects, a Yellowknife firm with an office in Iqaluit, called the detachment “a very striking building,” but said that the atrium’s high open space “might aggravate any failure of the foundation.” Differential stresses tend to concentrate as they rise through a structure with few interior surfaces to disperse them, he said, especially with glass at the top. “That wouldn’t be sympathetic to even minor shifts at the foundation level.”
Mr. Corrigan said the atrium is “a significant source of natural light for the building, and also houses a series of louvers which provide ventilation during the summer.” No word on its usefulness during the dark Iqaluit winter.