Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Crews working on the platform at First Canadian Place will completely rehaul one storey each week. (Peter Power//The Globe and Mail)
Crews working on the platform at First Canadian Place will completely rehaul one storey each week. (Peter Power//The Globe and Mail)

The Reichmanns' dreams of glory dismantled, one panel at a time Add to ...

For 506 years, 369 of them outdoors, Michelangelo’s David has endured as a masterpiece carved from soft Italian stone.

First Canadian Place, just 35, hasn’t aged quite as gracefully. Canada’s tallest corporate tower might boast some of the best bones on Bay Street, but the 72-storey building – clad in the same Carrara marble that produced David – has a serious skin problem.

Thus begins one of the most extensive high-rise makeovers the country has seen: a $100-million-plus project that includes exfoliation of all 4,000 tonnes of the tower’s marble, and its replacement with sleek, white-patterned panels of multilayered glass.

The goal of owner Brookfield Properties, which took The Globe and Mail on an exclusive tour this week, is to deliver a brighter, lighter and greener building with minimal disruption to tenants, the largest of which is Bank of Montreal, whose head offices occupy 30 floors.

With 45,000 slabs of greying, warped marble to remove and 5,986 glass panels to install over the next 18 months, that’s a tall order, but one the owners and their contractors appear ready to fill.

New heating and cooling systems and an overhaul of interior common areas are also part of Brookfield’s push towards coveted LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) certification at the tower. But the recladding, and its promise to restore lost sparkle to the city’s skyline, will make the biggest impact.

“It’s an enormous undertaking,” said Jim White, Brookfield’s vice-president of construction for North America. “It has taken tremendous effort just to get to this stage of the program, along with a lot of team work, custom construction and engineering.”

Up close, it’s alarmingly clear why the marble – distorted and discoloured by three and a half decades of freeze-thaw cycles in the harsh Canadian climate – was not a good choice, despite the pride Toronto’s Reichmann family took in their once-bright building in 1975.

As the tallest skyscraper in the Commonwealth at the time, First Canadian Place helped push the Reichmanns’ Olympia & York Developments Ltd. onto the global stage, where their fortunes soared to the stratosphere before crashing back to Earth under the weight of London’s Canary Wharf project in the early 1990s. The marble – favoured by the Reichmanns and their consulting designer, Edward Durell Stone, but discouraged by their Toronto architects at Bregman + Hamann – eventually took the same plunge.

Countless of the 90-kilogram pieces warped and were replaced over the years, but others – like one that crash-landed on the building’s three-storey podium in 2007 – worked themselves loose without detection. Another marble-clad Durell design, Chicago’s Amoco (now Aon) building, suffered a similar fate and was recovered in granite.

Marble is “just a dumb material to use,” said Douglas Birkenshaw, a B+H architect who, as a teenager, watched First Canadian Place rise, and worked on the overhaul design. In a cold, damp climate, “it absorbs water,” he said, “it starts curving and develops memory,” as though it were a flooded wood floor.

Meanwhile, the erection of more towers in Toronto’s financial district caused an increase in wind velocity and air-pressure changes around the building, which further loosened the slabs, Mr. Birkenshaw said.

When Brookfield acquired the building in 2005 in a $2-billion play for several Olympia & York properties, “we knew something had to be done,” said Melissa Coley, one of the company’s vice-presidents. Repair and replacement of the marble was considered but dismissed in favour of the glass panels, which consist of three glass sheets, each roughly two centimetres thick, laminated together. The top sheet is clear, but two of the subsurface layers have been treated with a ceramic white coating – one solid, the other in a triangle pattern – to create visual depth.

The panels, unlike the marble, have been subjected to a full battery of tests at a specialized laboratory in York, Penn., including exposure to extreme temperatures and hurricane-force winds. Not only did they perform admirably, but the entire building will now be far easier to clean.

“It’ll sparkle,” Mr. White said.

Until then, there’s much work to do.

The magnitude of the effort, overseen by lead contractor EllisDon, is clear when you look at the suspended elevated-platform system – now plainly visible on the top floors – that will wrap around the tower and gradually descend as the work progresses. The system was devised by Atlantic Hoisting & Scaffolding of Brooklyn, N.Y., for post-9/11 repairs to Brookfield buildings in lower Manhattan.

The platform system has taken a full seven months to assemble and mount. It is 16 metres high and has two work decks: the top one for installation of the eight-by-10-foot glass wall panels, made by Sota Glazing Inc. of Brampton, which workers will guide into place using an overhead monorail system; and the bottom one for marble removal and insulation replacement by Clifford Restoration of Toronto.

Suspended from the roof by heavy cables, the platform makes the window-washing stage hanging from the nearby Royal Trust Tower look like a low-budget relic. Immovable underfoot and sheathed in metal screening, the platform feels like a spacious, partially enclosed apartment balcony with a really good view, and is a far less dizzying environment than a visitor might expect.

It can comfortably carry 150 workers, but will typically hold 60 to 70 people at a time, who will work three shifts around the clock on weekdays and the occasional Saturday. They will start at the top and work their way down, completing one storey each week. Once a level is finished, the platform’s four segments will be lowered individually, in a corkscrew pattern, and line up again one level below.

Its four L-shaped quadrants, each of which hugs a corner of the building, can be moved up or down independently of the others, using 70 motorized rooftop winches bolted into the building’s beefy steel frame. “This is a very robust building,” said Michael Brodigan, EllisDon’s project superintendent.

“Man and material” elevators on the building’s west, north and east sides will ferry workers and take the glass panels up and bring the old marble down. All of it will be sold for recycling or reuse, with proceeds going to four local charities.

For all its original grandeur and Renaissance connotations, the marble appears willing to go quietly. On the platform Thursday, a pair of workers demonstrated the utter ease of removing a slab from its moorings, by loosening a few nuts and slicing through some caulking.

“One down, 44,999 to go,” Ms. Coley said, looking on.

Follow us on Twitter: @GlobeToronto

 

Topics:

In the know

Most popular videos »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular