A $1-billion renovation project for the classic Supreme Court of Canada complex in downtown Ottawa is running over budget, with no final cost figure currently available, says the federal department overseeing the effort.
Announced in 2017 amid concerns about the state of the granite edifice, the project’s aim is first to transfer Supreme Court operations from the current building overlooking the Ottawa River to a renovated office complex – the West Memorial Building – across the street.
Once that move is completed, likely at some point next year, the main building, which has been the home of the court for more than seven decades, will undergo at least eight years of renovation work – the first major upgrade in its history.
But the $1-billion budget won’t be enough for the work, which includes the continuing renovations of the decades-old West Memorial Building – which was closed in 2008.
“Due to overall market increases in construction since 2017, and the need to properly and safely address the unique structural requirements at the West Memorial Building, we expect the final cost of the entire program will be higher than planned in 2016-17,” said a Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) statement to The Globe and Mail this week.
“Once we have completed the schematic design phase of the Supreme Court of Canada Building, a construction cost estimate and detailed execution plans for the full rehabilitation of the Supreme Court of Canada Building will be formalized,” said spokesperson Michèle LaRose in the statement.
Asked about the shifting costs, the office of PSPC Minister Jean-Yves Duclos replied Friday with a statement, saying, in part, that the Supreme Court of Canada is an important heritage asset that should be preserved for coming generations.
“Changes to the initial cost estimates are the result of a number of variable factors including market increases in the construction sector, as well as the specific requirements of the West Memorial Building,” said Olivier Pilon, press secretary for the minister, in the statement.
The department said the government has provided all required authorizations and related additional funding for the completion of the West Memorial Building as an interim accommodation for the Supreme Court.
At least 200 workers per day are at the West Memorial Building working on the upgrade effort, but the redevelopment has faced a series of “unexpected challenges,” the Public Services and Procurement Department said in its response this week to Globe and Mail questions.
The work on the Supreme Court of Canada building is part of an overhaul of some venerable structures in the country’s capital – notably the Centre Block of Parliament, which is undergoing years of work, expected to cost up to $5-billion and take until 2031 to complete.
“The modernization of our building is necessary to meet current building codes, health, safety, seismic, security, environmental and accessibility standards,” Supreme Court spokesperson Stéphanie Bachand said in a statement.
Also on the to-do list, according to PSPC: removing asbestos, restoring heritage elements on exterior walls, windows and interior finishes, as well as replacing mechanical, electrical and life-safety systems.
The Supreme Court building is now covered in scaffolding, but PSPC says that’s not part of the $1-billion rehabilitation plan, but rather a separate effort to repair the envelope of the building ahead of the larger project.
Canada’s Supreme Court as a legal institution was created in 1875, and initially sat in rooms in the Parliament Buildings, then had its own small downtown building. In 1946, the court moved into its current location, designed by Montreal architect Ernest Cormier, and heard its first case there that year.
The Supreme Court building is home to the court, its judges and staff as well as two courtrooms and chambers of the Federal Court of Appeal and the Federal Court.
A spokesperson for the Canadian Bar Association says it has received general updates on the project as part of its regular discussions with the Supreme Court administration.
Ottawa lawyer Jean-Simon Schoenholz, chair of the bar association’s Supreme Court liaison committee, says he expects more information will be provided as the court’s move from the classic building becomes imminent.
“We’re all going to miss the beautiful classic building, with all its gravitas, for the years that it’s being renovated, but we’re always well served when we appear in front of the court,” he said in an interview.
“It’s always an easy, straightforward and enjoyable experience, and I think we all expect that’s going to continue in the new [temporary] building.”