ERA Architects

Senate of Canada Building (Government Conference Centre)

ERA Architects worked as the heritage architects with DSA-KWC Architects in Joint Venture, as well as John G. Cooke & Associates Ltd as structural engineers. The rehabilitation aimed to reveal the historical elements of the building that were concealed when Union Station was converted to the GCC, such as the theatrical character of the interior procession, the axial progression of spaces, the dramatic use of natural light, and the rich palette of materials, while meeting the project’s functional and technical requirements. In addition, previous insertions in the significant interior spaces, such as the General Waiting Room and Concourse spaces have been removed. Given the building’s rich character, it is well suited to accommodate the Senate program and support its ceremonial traditions as the new Senate of Canada Building.

Constructed in 1912 as Ottawa’s Union Station, the building served as an important railway hub in downtown Ottawa for over 50 years until 1966, at which time it was converted to a conference facility for the federal government, the Government Conference Centre (GCC). Today the buildinghas been refurbished as an interim home for the Senate of Canada while Parliament’s Centre Block undergoes a substantial conservation and rehabilitation project beginning in 2019.

This extraordinary building is a fine example of the Beaux-Arts tradition popular in the early 20th century and bears many similarities to New York’s legendary Pennsylvania Station.  Located just east of Parliament Hill and directly adjacent to the Rideau Canal UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is an impressive landmark in downtown Ottawa.

Ottawa’s Union Station (right) opened in 1912, the same year (the same day, in fact) that the Chateau Laurier opened its doors (left).

When the building was converted from train station to conference centre in the 1970s, modifications were made that led to the concealment of many of the qualities of the original train station. The current adaptive reuse project is a great opportunity to reveal some of the qualities of the building that have been forgotten, to define a new layer of contemporary design that complements the character of the existing building, and to allow the building to assume its place in today’s urban context. To facilitate the implementation of these objectives, a rigorous heritage character analysis was undertaken.  The role of the GCC in its urban context was understood as having been established by an early 20th century vision for the GCC and Chateau Laurier sites forming a gateway between Town and Crown, and having evolved since deindustrialization.

The architecture of the GCC was compared to that of other railway stations of the time to contextualize the inspiration, significance and character of the original building.  The exterior of the building was analyzed to understand formal composition, detailing and the classical devices employed.  The Interior Procession, the route taken by the public through the building, was analyzed to better understand its theatrical qualities, its use of natural light, and its establishment of a material palette and hierarchy that was consistent across the entire building.

The Heritage Conservation Approach that followed was inspired directly from the analysis undertaken.  An architectural vision for new interventions was developed that complemented and reinforced the building’s character in a contemporary design language.  Structural upgrades and stabilization (including seismic) were achieved in a number of different ways, depending on the heritage character of the spaces involved.

The biggest technical conservation challenge of the project was the rehabilitation of two magnificent suspended plaster ceilings.  Composed of precast coffered plaster panels hung from the steel structure above, the ceilings were in poor condition.  Testing was undertaken on a number of panels to determine their strength and typical failure mechanisms.  As no North-American precedent existed, experimentation with a conservation strategy from the United Kingdom was undertaken to determine its suitability for these ceiling.  After multiple mock ups and trials, the system was eventually adopted and implemented, serving as a new precedent for plaster conservation in Canada.


The Senate Chamber, 2019.

Innovative solutions were developed through close collaboration with the Construction Manager, allowing the fabric in the Interior Procession to be retained in situ.  An addition on the east side of the building completes the building’s transition to a pavilion viewed in the round and appropriately responds to the building’s role as gateway along Confederation Boulevard.


For a link to project details and renderings on the Public Services and Procurement Canada website, click here.

All historic images: Library and Archives Canada.
All renderings: DSA-KWC Architects in Joint Venture.
Photos: Tom Arban