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A Historic Facelift: Three Ottawa ECs partner up to upgrade Parliament Hill

By Susan Bloom | Aug 14, 2023
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With its soaring Peace Tower, copper roofing and local nepean sandstone, the Gothic Revival-style Centre Block within Ottawa, Ontario’s Parliament Complex has housed Canada’s government and been a symbol of Canadian nationhood for over 150 years.

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With its soaring Peace Tower, copper roofing and local nepean sandstone, the Gothic Revival-style Centre Block within Ottawa, Ontario’s Parliament Complex has housed Canada’s government and been a symbol of Canadian nationhood for over 150 years. Thanks to the largest and most involved retrofit of a national landmark in Canadian history—involving Ottawa-based electrical contracting joint venture firm TWZ Group Inc.—Centre Block will receive a range of upgrades to bring the vital and historic structure into the 21st century and position it for future functionality and success.

In Ottawa, “we knew that the Parliament Hill project was coming for 15 years,” said Johannes Ziebarth, president and CEO of second-generation Ziebarth Electrical Contractors Ltd., Ottawa, CEO of TWZ Group and current chair of the Electrical Contractors Association of Ottawa. “Seven years ago, the project gained momentum as administrators reached out to area contractors for prequalification and shared details on the scope of the $5 billion, 10-year project and how the federal government would be structuring it.”

One of Canada’s most iconic landmarks, “Centre Block is the main building on the Parliament campus and houses the chambers for our Parliament and Senate as well as offices for Parliamentarians and Senators,” Ziebarth said, noting that Centre Block also houses Canada’s famed 302½-foot, 28-story Peace Tower, which was built in 1859. 

“Spanning some 800,000 square feet in size, Centre Block sits at the highest point in Ottawa, backs up to the Ottawa River and is the centerpiece of our whole downtown,” he said.

Strength in numbers

Founded in 1977 by Ziebarth’s father Paul and serving eastern Ontario and the Ottawa Valley, the 105-employee Ziebarth Electrical is a full-service commercial, industrial and institutional electrical contracting firm that has long been known for its strong project management skills and ability to tackle complex projects. Among others, “we completed a 900,000-square-foot hospital addition a decade ago that involved a new critical care ward, a research lab with 30 operating rooms and extensive lighting control systems, and we’re currently working on a major part of Canada’s light rail extension project with PCL Construction, Canada’s largest general contractor,” Ziebarth said.

But even with their unique expertise, the prospect of participating in such a large-scale heritage project was daunting.

“Parliament Hill was a larger project than what our firm could be prequalified for, so we formed a new company called TWZ, which represents the first initial of each of three local companies—including Toban Electric [Stittsville, Ontario], Wired Synergy [Ottawa] and Ziebarth Electrical—to bid on this project,” Ziebarth said. “We joined forces with two other firms, because once we reviewed the prequalification documents, we realized that no local contractors would be able to prequalify, and that the project would have gone to a contractor from outside of Ottawa if we didn’t team up.” 

As it turned out, each of the TWZ companies—all board members of the Electrical Contractors Association of Ottawa—brought something essential to the table.

“Toban Electric is a strong provider, and it was Toban president Stacy Anderson’s idea to form TWZ in the first place,” Ziebarth said. “Wired Synergy and their CEO, Roch Picknell, have worked on a variety of commercial and industrial projects and have had a great relationship with general contractor PCL over the years. Ziebarth Electrical has amassed extensive market experience as the oldest of the three companies.” 

A project of epic proportion

Parliament Hill chimneys have been outfitted with lightning protection while excavation takes place below.

Upgrades to Centre Block, which sits on a granite bedrock, will include “shoring up the building, adding a three-level basement to create adequate space for a new visitors welcome center and other modern-day uses, and renovating the building as well,” Ziebarth said. “The building contains fine architectural details and original artwork, stonework, woodwork and even handmade lighting that dates back to the original structure, some of which will be archived and stored while we do the renovation.”

“We started conversations about the project in late 2017, began our pursuit in fall 2018 and were awarded the job in spring 2019,” Ziebarth said of the bid process for the decade-long project. “We’ve been on-site for the last several years and are currently in the heavy design and mock-up stage as joint-venture general contracting entity PCL/ED activates the civil work underground. The renovation portion of the project will ramp up over the next two years.”

As for the magnitude of the work, “the temporary power alone for this unique building is a $20 million project,” said Ziebarth, who noted that the building has been closed and its former occupants relocated to other office spaces throughout the city so the project can proceed unencumbered. 

“We’re embedded with the design team and the general contractor on design-assist support so that we can validate the methodology,” he said.

 

The project team’s modular East Trailer complex is fed from a trailer electrical room, providing much-needed space for contractors.

 

More specifically, “we work on 3D models with the design team and in a government warehouse across town where mock-ups take place off-site (in addition to in situ), and we’re also in the field working with the consultants to help validate the practicality of plans and concepts on-site and ensure that everything will fit before we build it because the model can only tell you so much,” Ziebarth said. 

 

The Parliament Hill project team has a 15,000-square-foot warehouse across town in which to perform off-site mock-ups and tests.

 

While the building was a former hub of activity and occupants—Canada’s legislative center houses 338 members of parliament, 105 senators and a range of daily proceedings—“it took 20 years to ready the building for this upgrade and move the Parliamentarians and Senators to other space. The facility should be ready for their re-occupancy by or around 2033,” he said.

Logistically, “all of TWZ’s three companies contributed senior-level people to the new venture who are now permanently dedicated to the project,” Ziebarth said. “During the first two years, we had 50 people on site, which is now down to 15 because it’s mostly design work. Among our other current responsibilities, we maintain the property and the facility, but at the project’s peak we’ll have 250 electricians on-site. We’re unionized, so we’ll be drawing on labor from our businesses and the local union hall.”

 

TWZ Group electricians perform maintenance as part of an extensive, ongoing program for the site’s temporary electrical system enclosures, panels, generators, fire alarms and other components.

 

Among many challenges, Ziebarth said that “making everything fit” will be one of the biggest concerns on the project. 

“Technology and security requirements have advanced so much, and the challenge will revolve around installing everything that’s been requested in the space,” he said. “For example, the original building was heated by fireplaces, so we’ll need to find the routing to ensure that everything fits. It’s about bringing state-of-the-art technology and a full suite of modern capabilities to a building where every inch is a heritage piece of history and art. The process of designing cutting-edge amenities into this stunning structure while at the same time reintroducing its original vintage features and finishes is both the great excitement and challenge of the project.”

All for one and one for all

While Ziebarth noted that supply chain issues are currently worse than during the height of the pandemic and have affected every aspect of Ziebarth Electrical’s involvement in Canada’s light rail extension project, “Parliament Hill is such a long-term project that we shouldn’t have a problem—we’re hopeful that the supply chain will right itself by the time the upgrade ramps up in the next couple of years,” he said. “Certain day-to-day commodity items have since resolved nicely and become more readily available, although availability of complex components—including everything associated with power generation and distribution—is suffering. What used to be a 20- to 24-week lead time from the release of equipment to its delivery to the job is now 52–80 weeks. Everyone in the channel has allotted more time on the schedule for this situation, and, over the past two years, we’ve learned how and where to make adjustments in order to compensate for it. But the supply chain just can’t seem to catch up on heavy equipment.”

Despite that issue, Ziebarth confirmed that the unified atmosphere on the Parliament Hill project has contributed to its success. 

“Our federal government created a great team approach that brings major contractors together with design specialists such that no one is ever sitting on a project alone—rather, we work on issues together,” he said. “This very sound design-assist collaborative approach has removed the whole issue of design errors, change orders and other common pitfalls usually experienced in construction. All of the contractors are embedded together, share the same office space and have access to each other, which avoids the confusion or contentious issues that can often arise on projects.”

Once this project is completed, “Centre Block will be much more accessible, thanks to the brand-new visitors welcome center that will be constructed,” Ziebarth said. “This and other new and improved spaces will make the Parliamentary Precinct more user-friendly and open to the public than ever. Before that, it was awkward to move people through the building to give them a tour; the building was just no longer designed for the volume of tourists the city sees, but this upgrade project will rectify that and represents a bright new day for Ottawa.”

Professionally and personally, Ziebarth couldn’t be more delighted to be involved in such an epic project in his hometown.

“Here in Ottawa, it’s rare to get such a big project, and it’s exciting when my kids share with their friends and classmates that their dad is part of rebuilding Parliament Hill,” Ziebarth said. “I grew up in the suburbs of Ottawa and remember the first time I visited Parliament Hill and Centre Block on a school field trip. It’s a proud moment to now be part of making it a better place for future generations of Canadians.” 

 

stock.adobe.com / f11photo
TWZ Group Inc.

About The Author

BLOOM is a 25-year veteran of the lighting and electrical products industry. Reach her at [email protected].

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