A Beaver in Bulldog Country

Canada House defines the western flank of London’s iconic Trafalgar Square, one of the western world’s most prestigious addresses. In the early 1990s, however, expensive repair needs led a deficit-plagued Canadian government to consider selling the Grade II heritage building and consolidate all the High Commission’s functions at its Grosvenor Square location. Cooler heads prevailed, thankfully, and after upgrades were undertaken Canada House re-opened in 1998. Twelve years later, further refurbishments commenced when the stately, neo-classical pile was transformed as the temporary hub for the Canada’s 2012 Olympic contingent. Shortly after the last athlete departed, Canada purchased the adjacent Sun Life Assurance Building (1929) at 2-4 Cockspur St. and work consolidating dispersed functions into an expanded Canada House location began. Funded by the subsequent lucrative £306-million sale of Grosvenor Square, the enlarged High Commission reopen in 2015 as an excellent example of restoration, adaptation, sustainability, creative office design and, most notably, a showcase for Canadian products, art and the design crafts.

Prior to Sun Life’s acquisition, Canada House comprised two conjoined buildings, both designed in 1823-27 by British National Gallery architect Sir Robert Smirke. Together, they present a uniform, almost classically balanced façade to the Square with two Ionic porticos at either end providing entrances to the originally separate buildings. The south-end Union Club was purchased for the Canadian High Commission in 1923 with the north-facing Royal College of Physicians acquired and connected in 1963. Unfortunately, High Commissioner Gordon Campbell admits candidly that renovations to the College at the time were less than sympathetic.

Edmonton-based Stantec and its U.K. architectural practice, was selected by the Canadian Government to undertake the consolidation, and contracted Arup to act as the project’s mechanical, electrical, structural/fire engineers as well as handling transportation, sustainability, IT/communication and security services. “We had two very different buildings with different histories and different pedigrees that had to be combined and modernized where necessary into one efficient working space,” says Peter Bull, Arup’s Global Building Services Engineering Leader. “The end product had to be capable of meeting energy, comfort and security standards for the very specific needs of an embassy.”

The first challenge to intervening in the protected Grade II-listed buildings was to establish each structure’s unique but largely unknown “input data,” including earlier updates. The second challenge was to merge the U.K. code with Canadian codes for service performance, security and fire protection. This required a continual process of comparing and agreeing on standards. “Strictly speaking,” says Bull, “the Embassy can apply Canadian standards but in the end if there is a fire, for example, the response is going to be by U.K. fire services.”

As a third challenge, this major adaptation had to be accomplished in a tight time frame of two years on a very visible site. To add yet another complication, the upper two stories of the Sun Life Building were leased by the secretive U.K. Serious Fraud Squad office, necessitating infrastructure work carefully phased to minimize disruption to that organization. The survey revealed the original conjoined Canada House buildings required only minor structural upgrades. However the Cockspur side, refurbished in the 1980s, demanded significant interventions. Electrical transformers/panels and the complete HVAC system (new high efficiency boilers and air conditioning/ventilation units with heat recovery) were replaced. Most of the lighting throughout was upgraded to LED for lower energy use. Building links, adjusted for different floor levels, were punched through the walls, careful not to compromise structural integrity.

Most conspicuous, the Arup and Stantec team stripped out the now re-named Queen Elizabeth Atrium and installed a striking signature steel and Canadian hemlock staircase that soars through the towering space topped by a large skylight. “This intervention illustrates key design principles including the infusion of natural light, the celebration of Canadian materials and the introduction of an interactive environment,” says Campbell. Indeed, natural light is key to the renovations’ success with seven original skylights uncovered and renovated along with the introduction of several new ones. Thus, the various open areas accommodating modern workstations are washed with sunlight.

Over at the College wing, parts of its roof structure were strengthened to support a new stylish outdoor terrace, a planted roof with a “Bee Hotel” and a living wall. Inside, its delightful double-height library topped by a skylight, lost in the 1960s interventions, was recreated, providing cheerful but elegant office/library space. Throughout both wings, historic details were touched up, restored or uncovered (such as original marble floors) and a brighter, light-reflecting colour scheme introduced. The original staircase, whose extremely slender profile remains a marvel of early 19th century engineering, remains the highlight. Exterior areas showing signs of “Regent Street Disease,” the separating of the original Portland stone cladding, were fixed. Skylights, windows, copulas and domes reappeared or were refurbished, again emphasizing Campbell’s passion for natural light and views to the Square.

Yet another compelling story is Stantec’s remarkable interior design that includes 281 pieces of Canadian-sourced art including craft furniture, lighting, accessories and rugs that fill the meeting and function rooms, each representing a province or territory are well as key Prime Ministers and Canada’s three oceans. Works range from 29 competition-winning carpets to the light fixture cascading down the original staircase designed by Vancouver’s Omer Arbel of Bocci.

The real success of the Canada House intervention is less derived from introducing new eye-popping wow factors, notwithstanding the new Queen Elizabeth Atrium staircase. It is first its sense of organic flow and historical integrity but, second, a richly textured layer of modern design showcasing a nation’s talents and deep creative capabilities.

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