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Old Posted Jan 11, 2020, 3:13 AM
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Architects go through design gauntlet in planning new British High Commission at Earnscliffe property
The high commission's architecture consultants faced the city's urban design review panel on Friday to hear what experts thought of the concept for a new three-storey office building.

Jon Willing, Ottawa Citizen
Updated: January 10, 2020

A new three-storey British High Commission building nestled in the lush riverfront property of Earnscliffe is challenging architects to complement the existing historic residence with a contemporary office along Ottawa’s Confederation Boulevard.

The British government is moving its Canadian diplomatic headquarters from Elgin Street to the Earnscliffe property at 140 Sussex Dr., which the British government purchased in 1930 for the high commissioner’s official residence.

The residence, a Gothic Revival stone house dating back to 1855 that was once home to Sir John A. Macdonald and was declared a National Historic Site in 1960, will remain on the land. However, the high commission’s development plan calls for the demolition of an unused office building that is shuttered and has no heritage protection.

The high commission’s architecture consultants faced the city’s urban design review panel on Friday to hear what experts thought of the concept. The design gauntlet is a chance for project architects to receive compliments and criticisms from their peers, who are assembled by the city to provide objective analysis of proposed building designs in key locations.

HOK Architects’ Andrew Butler walked the panel through the renderings, describing the firm’s challenge of making sure the new building fulfilled the “obligations” of being along Confederation Boulevard, which is the national ceremonial route on Wellington Street in front of the Parliament Buildings, along Sussex Drive and across to Gatineau’s Laurier Street.

The concept so far calls for a white, grey and black building, with architects trying to match the colour scheme of the house. The materials include limestone and white porcelain panels.

The roughly 1,600-square-metre building would be between two and three storeys high, with the shorter side facing the residence in an effort not to overwhelm the stately home. The three-storey portion of the building would have its upper floor sitting among the treetops, except for the upper mechanical penthouse that would peak just above them.

Panel members encouraged the architects to put more thought into the mechanical penthouse, noticing that the view from the Ottawa River drew unfortunate attention to a black-coloured cap on the building. It was an observation with which Butler agreed.

Panel member John Stewart suggested the hulking Global Affairs Canada building across Sussex Drive was the “elephant in the room” when it came to blending a new building with the surroundings. Stewart wondered if the brilliant white colour of the building might become a “jarring element” in the landscape, although fellow panel member Heather Rolleston complemented the architects for using “handsome and impressive” materials.

Panel chairman David Leinster flagged the development’s impact to the existing trees, urging the architects to give “serious consideration” to the trees that needed to be chopped down.

A tree conservation report filed with the development application says removal of about two dozen trees is recommended to make way for the office building. None of the trees are considered rare.

The proposed development would largely comply with the city’s official plan and zoning rules for the land, but the city says the high commission will require minor variances.

The National Capital Commission has also received the development proposal for review since its land borders the Earnscliffe land.

The future of the current high commission building at 80 Elgin St., between Queen and Albert streets, is unknown. The high commission, which moved into the building in 1964, says it will divest itself, but there still isn’t a decision on the timeline and prospective buyers. There’s simply too much building for the high commission’s current needs, prompting the plan to consolidate diplomatic staff at Earnscliffe.

The panel heard 60 people would be working in the new office building.

The final construction cost for the new building is still being determined, the high commission said. The opening is eyed for early 2022.

Last edited by rocketphish; Jan 11, 2020 at 6:40 PM. Reason: Updated imagery
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