Sheila Copps is a former deputy prime minister and former minister of the environment and climate change. Ken Grafton is a Quebec-based writer and director of Historic Ottawa Development Inc.
A trial balloon floated last week in Ottawa has everyone talking.
It was an anonymous leak, first reported by the CBC, of the government’s intention to drop 24 Sussex Drive as the prime minister’s official residence in favour of constructing a shinier, more secure new build at a different site in Ottawa.
Unnamed sources suggested the new building would be larger and have upgraded security, in order to permit the prime minister to host major events, including state dinners, without fear of air, sea or land attack.
The idea of building a new prime ministerial residence really started to pick up steam in 2021, when a report from the National Capital Commission estimated it would take almost $37-million to restore the rodent-infested premises at 24 Sussex. The home has now been vacant for almost a decade and is said to require major security updates, according to the CBC’s sources.
But the estimate of $36.64-million, as quoted in the 2021 NCC report, simply does not pass muster. How could it possibly cost this much to renovate an 11,000-square-foot house? We decided to dig a bit deeper to find some clarity on the matter, and the result is, well, murky at best.
In its 2021 report, the NCC attributed much of its 24 Sussex renovation estimate to “deferred maintenance” costs, a term that refers to the restoration work required when a property has been left to rot. To arrive at this number, the NCC referred to its “2018 Asset Portfolio Condition Report,” which stated that its cost estimates include “site overhead and profit,” a 30-per-cent “allowance for soft costs,” a 15-per-cent “construction contingency,” and a 25-per-cent additional, seemingly general “contingency” item.
So, 70 per cent of that huge, $37-million number is based on contingencies and soft costs. From an architectural perspective, it’s simply not a real number.
The 2021 NCC study indicates that “costs were validated by Turner & Townsend,” a Canadian infrastructure consultancy firm. Through an Access to Information request, we were able to obtain a January, 2017, report that Turner & Townsend submitted to the NCC, entitled “Final Report: Cost Assurance and Benchmarking Exercise, 24 Sussex Drive.” The NCC had asked the firm to take a look at previous cost estimates for renovating the prime minister’s residence, which sat at $10-million in 2008. Turner & Townsend found this estimate to be “reasonable and based on a sound and best practice approach to developing cost estimates.”
The question is, how did the cost jump from $10-million to $37-million between 2008 and 2021? Even with deferred maintenance, which can cause costs to soar (the longer a building dilapidates, the worse its condition becomes) we still don’t have clarity from the NCC on why the cost has skyrocketed, what “contingencies” they are apparently planning for, and how much those individual costs are estimated to be. Without this clarity, how can we say that it makes more sense to build an entirely new prime ministerial residence, instead of renovating the original?
Similar holes exist in the security argument for moving from 24 Sussex. The prime minister’s home and the Governor-General’s residence at Rideau Hall are around the corner from one another and currently occupy the same security footprint. The addition of another residence in a different location would likely increase security costs. Desiring a new build with more room for state dinners also ignores the fact there is already a huge entertainment space at Rideau Hall. The proposed scenario would also likely have taxpayers picking up the bill for two properties, one a new build and the other a renovation to prepare 24 Sussex for sale or another use.
The idea of a new building also runs roughshod over the fact that the prime minister’s residence is designated by an act of Parliament and enjoys the highest level of heritage building classification. Multiple levels of government review would be required to build a new one – meanwhile, 24 Sussex would continue to degrade. Not to mention, any demolition or tree removal involved at a new-build site would have a far higher carbon footprint than the known environmental benefits of restoration. It would be difficult to make the argument that this project is fostering sustainability during a climate crisis.
Any decision as to the future of Canada’s prime ministerial residence should be based on real security concerns and sound financial information.
The future of 24 Sussex Drive should be based on facts, not fiction.