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Alberta legislature restoration a ‘once in a lifetime’ project

Grant Cameron
Alberta legislature restoration a ‘once in a lifetime’ project

The 108-year-old Legislature Building perched on a promontory in downtown Edmonton, is for the most part these days, enveloped in a maze of scaffolding and plastic shrink wrap, with much of its facade hidden from public view.

Behind the protective shroud, a small team of masonry workers is painstakingly doing a $22.5-million restoration and repair of the pockmarked, worn and sometimes crumbling sandstone bricks and windows of the storied 57-metre structure along 97 Avenue NW, known affectionately by locals as The Ledge.

The monumental repair job has been under way since 2019 and is expected to be finished in 2022. Workers are carefully repairing, removing or salvaging the blocks – roughly 18,000 individual repairs in all.

“This is one of those jobs that comes along once in a lifetime and it’s a real opportunity for us,” remarks Chris Ambrozic, president of Scorpio Masonry, the company doing the work. “You don’t see projects like this everyday.”

Indeed, that’s quite an understatement. Rob Pacholok, a masonry expert with Building Science Engineering spent several weeks on a manlift, scouring the building envelope and identifying all the repairs that were needed on the building. At the end of the exercise, he drew up a roadmap of needed repairs.

“The documents are very well laid out and he (Pacholok) spent a lot of time identifying each of the interventions,” notes Ambrozic. “He identified each intervention and put them on the drawing. Once we put the scaffolding up we just did a double-check with him to make sure what we’re doing is indeed accurate.”

For roughly a year, crews have been carefully fixing or removing stones and restoring them. Those that are beyond repair are replaced.

“We’re lifting and rigging up oddball shapes of all sizes and doing plastic repairs and dealing with stone carvings,” says Ambrozic. “All of these things are unique and highly variable so it’s been about getting good skilled tradesmen that have the patience and are driven to put out a quality product.”

The upper floors of the structure feature Paskapoo sandstone that came from the Glenbow quarry between Calgary and Cochrane. As there are no longer any commercial sandstone quarries in Alberta, Ambrozic’s crew has been cutting and harvesting sandstone pieces from an old quarry west of Edmonton.

“We were fortunate in that we found a local source, an Alberta source of sandstone which was critical to the execution plan,” says Ambrozic. “It’s from the same stream of beltway that the original stone is from.”

Often, masonry workers on the project must shape a brand-new piece for the building. When doing so, they draft a shop ticket and the piece is carved right at the site.

Sometimes workers find that the repairs are more extensive than originally planned and the approach requires a different intervention.

“We’re always vetting that out but it’s a quick process because the documents are so well done. That’s not done nowadays.”

Two special CNC lathe machines were brought in from Italy to help with the work. The lathe can be programmed to produce symmetrical balusters that can be carved right on site.

“Instead of actually having carvers on site, we’re doing the lion’s share of the carving with technology which has been saving us time and we can turn around the pieces a lot quicker,” says Ambrozic.

The project has faced its share of challenges, namely the condition of the stone.

“There are some areas that are in rough shape, especially the areas exposed to weather,” says Ambrozic. “There are some areas that are quite deteriorated and those interventions are long past due.”

Surprisingly, the bitter Prairie winter weather has not been a major factor in the restoration as the hoarding protects the workers. Heaters are kept running during the cold months so they don’t skip a beat over winter.

Noise is a concern at the site, as the building is still in operation so workers have to be cognizant of the schedules of MLAs. The company avoids issues by doing what it can to shift the work hours of some trades.

Scorpio has about 20 masonry workers at the site. The team is led by a senior project manager and site superintendent. There are a number of other trades on the project like scaffolders and window repair workers.

While Ambrozic isn’t on the tools himself, he’s very familiar with the ins and outs of the trade. The business was started by his father and, after graduating from school for business, he trained as a mason and then worked in the field for several years before eventually buying the company 17 years ago.

“I’m no longer on the tools but I’m still on sites a lot talking to the guys and bringing donuts and coffee and just keeping the guys plugged in,” he says.

His favourite project?

A tough choice says Ambrozic. He enjoyed working on the Kelly-Ramsey Building in Edmonton, a redevelopment of the Federal Building adjacent to the Legislature in Edmonton, and the Royal Alberta Museum.

“These are just recent and all really, really important to our community here in Edmonton so I’m proud of all those.”

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