Monday, 26 January 2009

A Reno Story From Ottawa

P.M. Harper has agreed to vacate 24 Sussex to allow for a $10m renovation. This with the blessing of the National Capital Commission, (the building's landlord), and Auditor General Sheila Fraser.

A long list of PM's carried out their own sort of 'demolition by neglect' by refusing to vacate for fear of looking lavish to reporters, the opposition and taxpayers. Harper, himself, said no less than a year ago:

"The PM and his family find 24 Sussex adequate to their needs and see no reason for a substantial renovation at this time. "

The 140 year-old Official Residence spent much of it's life as a private home. In the early 1940's the government expropriated it along with other lands along the Ottawa River. The house was rented on a month by month basis until 1946 when it sat empty. From 1947 - 50 the Australian government rented it as their High Commission. When they moved out the decision was made to spend $400k to rejuvenate it into a house befitting a P.M., though Louis St. Laurent didn't want an official residence in Ottawa.

As far back as the 1970's the notoriously leaky windows and casings were well known when, as reported in this National Post story, Joe Clark's wife said of 24 Sussex "you would bloody well freeze to death in the house."

The NCC in 2007 carried out an extensive inspection on the property and last year it was examined by the Auditor General who agreed with the figures and the condition. A summary:

Exhibit 6.3 (above) shows the elements of the residence that are in poor or critical condition.

The windows and caulking are cracked; and the tracks and windows are loose. These deficiencies cause extensive heat loss, increase the building's heating costs, and greatly reduce the energy efficiency of the residence. The air conditioning units installed in the windows are nearing the end of their useful lives. They are noisy and inefficient; they weaken the windows in which they are installed.

The house was wired for electricity some fifty years ago, and the electrical system is operating at nearly maximum capacity. It cannot meet increases in demand or new operational requirements. The plumbing system is deficient.

This building, which functions as a reception area for distinguished national and international guests, does not have universal access for persons with reduced mobility. The service elevator dates back to the 1950s and cannot accommodate modern wheelchairs. Service areas such as the kitchen and the basement laundry are not functional.

....the only element of the exterior at 24 Sussex that is in good condition is the roof, which was re-done in 1998. The other elements are in poor or fair condition.

McTeer isn't heartened by the news of the repairs writing in a column for the Montreal Gazette "Just Tear Down 24 Sussex Drive" and makes a pretty good case that the $10m would be better put towards a brand new, Canadian architectural showpiece with all of the latest mod-cons.

Despite being a heritage buff, I like McTeer's idea of exploring a completely new residence. Create a 21st century building with the best in design, function, energy savings and security features to serve the many needs that the Official Residence has to perform. It sits on 4 acres so the work could be done while the old house is still in use.

Sadly, though, any sitting politician to suggest such a thing would end up pilloried by the press, opposition and taxpayers.
Sometimes in politics it's better to go with the least amount of grief even if, in the end, it might costs more.

- A photo gallery and virtual tour of 24 Sussex.
- "
How the Experts Would Fix 24 Sussex" (Ottawa Citizen,pdf)
- Rick Mercer, Paul Martin go to Canadian Tire to buy DIY stuff to repair 24 Sussex

1 comment:

cancelbot said...

We always hear it said that basic upgrades aren’t done to significant buildings because the public would supposedly freak out – this is the popular rationale as to why 24 Sussex is a shambles, why there is no air conditioning in the Legislature, etc. But what evidence do we have that this is true?

Maybe in 1970 when Sussex still wasn’t totally outdated, or when air conditioning was still a rare luxury, those might have resulted in a public outcry. However, I doubt many people would get too upset about doing whatever it takes to keep 24 Sussex from being condemned (how embarrassing would THAT be), or to provide a basic amenity like A/C to the grunts who spend the summer working in the Ledge.

But all that being said, perhaps the dilapidated state of 24 Sussex might give us the opportunity to do an official residence right, from the ground up. If the feds hired a good architect (and there are many of those in Canada) and provided a decent budget, I’d be all for it. My only fear is that the current government would do a cookie-cutter Pritchard Farm style Mcmansion and then pat themselves on the back for their supposed fiscal prudence.