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Minister of Public Services and Procurement Jean-Yves Duclos in the Grand Entrance Hall of the Supreme Court of Canada, in Ottawa, on Feb. 16.Justin Tang/The Globe and Mail

Canada’s Public Services Minister says the historic Supreme Court of Canada complex in downtown Ottawa needs to be renovated despite a cost for the project that has risen above a projected $1-billion and has no final figure in sight.

“It has never been refurbished, and what we are going to do in the next years will have a value that will extend over decades and decades to come,” Jean-Yves Duclos said in an interview in the lobby of the building where cases were first heard in 1946.

Mr. Duclos was talking after a tour of the complex through areas accessible to the public, and many that are not in the building designed by Montreal architect Ernest Cormier, who also worked on the main campus of the University of Montreal, and was a member of the international team that worked on the United Nations headquarters in New York. The Globe and Mail joined the walkthrough.

When the renovation project was announced in 2017, the minister’s department pegged the cost at about $1-billion. However, officials have said in recent months that it will cost more than that.

After the tour, Mr. Duclos said he was not in a position to be more specific.

Of the cost, Mr. Duclos said, “A) It’s an estimate. B) We know it has to be revised.“

He said he does not have an updated budget number to provide, but that his department is working to find a more accurate estimate.

The project cost includes renovating the decades-old West Memorial Building – closed in 2008 – across the street from the court. It will serve as the court’s temporary home while the renovation of the main building takes place over about eight years.

Mr. Duclos said factors including the pandemic’s effect on the construction sector, and efforts by his teams within his department to figure out how to proceed were complicating efforts to provide a final cost.

The exercise revealed a leaky parking lot under the complex with exposed rebar, and plastic positioned to protect vehicles from leaky water. In an area behind the library, there were plastic buckets to catch water resulting from leaks.

Martin Lelièvre, a senior project director for the Public Services Department, who led the tour, itemized a list of challenges. He recalled, for example, that marble detached from the ceiling of the grand hall lobby last year.

Visitors to the complex who rely on wheelchairs and want to get to the main courtroom need to go to a side entrance into the building, take an elevator up, and traverse a narrow corridor that doesn’t meet the current standard in terms of width, he said.

Within that courtroom, an iconic space where the justices of the court hear submissions, Mr. Lelièvre noted that IT equipment such as TV screens and cameras have been added, but not in a manner that always works. “It’s not always perfect, but it works,” he said.

Mr. Lelièvre noted there are new building code requirements that were not in place when cases were first heard in the building in 1946. Asbestos is an issue, though it is stable unless disturbed.

During the tour, Mr. Lelièvre noted that the lack of insulation in the complex is leading to a loss of energy of up to 45 per cent.

Ahead of the eventual renovation of the historic complex, the department is spending $35-million over the next two years on repairs to the building envelope, masonry repairs to the underground garage and stabilizing the escarpment and cliff park on which the building sits.

Mr. Lelièvre conceded that some might be taken aback by the renovation costs.

“It could be surprising for people not necessarily involved in the business but preserving involves a lot of different efforts and operations,” said Mr. Lelièvre, noting pieces of the court will have to be removed, properly stored and then placed back in the rebuilt complex.

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.

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