“The real story is the buildings,” asserts Chris Pal intently. Pal is a Vice President at NORR, a full service architectural, engineering and interior design firm, and when I sat down to discuss NORR’s origins, projects and future trajectory, I was immediately struck by the pride and focus that Pal displays for NORR’s work…
With over 35 years of experience on both foreign and domestic construction projects, Pal is a seasoned veteran in the kind of hallmark, award-winning work that his firm is known for. In particular, our discussion ranged from NORR’s origins, and moved to a focus on some of its major early projects, and finally came to centre on two landmark government projects that NORR has recently helmed, both located in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada: the rehabilitation of the Wellington Building – an exquisite Beaux-Arts heritage building that was originally constructed in 1927 – and the rehabilitation of the Sir John A. MacDonald Building.
Both of these projects have won multiple awards and it is clear why Pal feels that they showcase the multitude of talents that a firm like NORR can bring to bear for its clients.
“We are an integrated firm,” he says. “We have a strength in engineering as well as in architecture and project delivery.”
Pal notes that in Canada, the approach toward being an integrated firm was resisted in the past, but now the emphasis on this type of organization is becoming much more prevalent. Clients see the efficiency achieved by being able to go to one provider who will take responsibility for all aspects of a project.
“Back in the day, there was the architect and there was this tension, and clients kind of liked that tension between the architect and their subsidiaries,” Pal explains. “But now, with the integrated design process, which is a different way of working, it’s a much more collaborative thing.”
NORR’s lineage is rooted back to John B. Parkin Architect, a firm that was founded over 75 years ago. Pal notes that NORR was a fully integrated firm long before that type of construct became fashionable.
“My involvement with NORR goes back to 1990, and back then it was a fully integrated practice. At that time we really only had the one office in Toronto, but we had a very vibrant structural, mechanical and electrical segment, and a lot of our work was full service. Sometimes we worked outside with other engineers, and sometimes we worked with other architects, but the integrated model is really what we’ve espoused from day one.”
NORR’s roots in Toronto have now been extended across Canada and into the United States and Great Britain. The firm has also had a solid presence in the Middle East for a very long time – most notably being commissioned to deliver comprehensive architectural and engineering services during all stages of the design and construction of Atlantis / The Palm Resort in Dubai – a stunning, 46 hectare resort on a man-made island. NORR’s reach is now so extensive that it even has a presence in Antarctica, as partners in the British Antarctic Survey Technical Advisory Team, where it will support a host of projects in Antarctica for the seven year period of the appointment.
Pal notes that there are a number of “keystone projects” that set the tone for his company. In Dubai, NORR provided architecture and interior design services on the Emirates Towers, the first major tower in the region, which rises to 360 metres and 305 metres respectively and stand as the 42nd and 100th tallest buildings in the world. Pal suggests that this project, which was completed in 2000, informed Sheikh Maktoum’s overarching vision for the city. The project was also key to NORR’s future in the region: “[The Emirates Towers project] set us on a course for working in the Middle East,” observes Pal. The Emirates Towers project was soon followed by NORR’s involvement in the Atlantis / The Palm Resort, thereby establishing the team’s solid credentials in the Middle East as a firm that delivers stunning and ingenious work.
In Canada at NORR’s Toronto operations, the company’s focus was centred on commercial buildings during much of the 80s and 90s, until a deep recession ended this market activity. At that point, NORR shifted its emphasis to the government / public sector. “We’ve done some very major work – Union Station is a project that we are currently in the middle of. There’s an engineering feat involved because we are digging down underneath the active railway line in order to create a retail concourse level, and we are doing that without interrupting service. With the extent of the work that was done, and that is being done still, it’s amazing that the station wasn’t shut down at all.”
Pal also cites two key heritage rehabilitation projects, the Wellington Building and the Sir John A. Macdonald Building. These two projects showcase NORR’s strengths in delivering high-end design work and complicated architectural remediation. Pal notes that NORR faced some significant challenges in its work to bring these beautiful, old buildings forward in time, to be used for modern purposes while still retaining their heritage features and architectural charm.
“Across the street from Parliament Hill there is an old insurance building from the 1920s – the Wellington Building,” he says. “You can imagine that back in the 1920s, the technologies, the things that they had to deal with, are not quite the same as what we have to deal with now. The building has to be air conditioned; you’ve got all kinds of IT and infrastructure that has to be routed through these spaces. So in order to deal with all this and the requirements for the Parliamentarians, such as their acoustic privacy, there were phenomenal constraints and challenges where you sometimes have conflicts. For instance, when you’re providing cooling you have to run duct work; when you’re providing acoustic separation, you shouldn’t run duct work. You have to provide IT lines in a cable tray and they have to intersect structural columns and then there’s an aesthetic that needs to be achieved… All these things have to come together in a 500,000 square foot building – it’s a massive undertaking!”
And these Herculean tasks needed to be performed on time and on budget. The Wellington Building was full of challenges for NORR. Not the least was working carefully around the masterpiece ceiling mosaic that was a central feature of the building. Referred to by the Toronto Star as the “Sistine Chapel of the insurance industry,” the work of American muralist Barry Faulkner is the focus of the building’s lobby, but was a challenge to preserve in the course of the extensive renovations to the building which included the removal of asbestos insulation and a demolition and reconstruction of the interior. NORR worked with fine art conservators to ensure that the mosaic was preserved through the course of the project, and also brought the building up to date in terms of the seismic load it can withstand.
Additionally, all the renovations were undertaken with environmental sustainability in mind. 21,700 metric tonnes of material were recycled throughout the project, and solar panels were installed to assist with water heating. One of the more striking environmental features of this project is the living green wall that was installed to help clean the air, dampen noise and maintain humidity levels within the building.
NORR’s work on the Wellington Building was recognized with a slew of industry awards: in 2017, the firm received the Ottawa Architectural Conservation Awards for Large-Scale Restoration (Award of Excellence) and for Adaptive Re-Use. In 2016, this project also won the Canadian Association of Heritage Professionals Award of Excellence in Conservation Architecture, as well as an INTERIOR DESIGN Best of the Year Award in the Institutional category.
NORR also worked on the project just down the street from the Wellington Building – the Sir John A. Macdonald Building.
“[It was] an old Bank of Montreal building. Imagine an old bank hall with very high ceilings from the 1920s, which has all kinds of interesting aesthetic features, and is a historically listed building. [The government] wants the hall to be a reception facility for the PMO’s office, so the Prime Minister wants to be able to host banquets or hold press conferences in a hall that we were really not allowed to touch the surfaces of because everything has heritage qualities. We had to come up with some rather innovative ways to deal with that.”
NORR installed cooling underneath the floor surface of the main hall so that the temperature in the room could be controlled. Other changes to this building included structural and seismic upgrades, the replacement of the mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and life safety systems, as well as upgrades to the IT/audio-visual/broadcasting capabilities, and the construction of an annex.
Similar to its work on the Wellington Building down the street, NORR’s work on the Sir John A. Macdonald Building won a number of awards throughout the project, including the CAHP|ACECP Award of Excellence, Conservation Architecture (2016), the National Trust Award for Building Heritage in Adaptive Use/Rehabilitation (2015), the Award of Excellence: Urban Infill Low Rise – City of Ottawa, Urban Design Awards (2015), and the CAHP/ACECP Award of Excellence for Heritage Planning – Adaptive Reuse Project (2014).
NORR’s work in Toronto is also booming. The company is very involved in the medical sector, with work on the new patient tower at St. Michael’s Hospital, and has also recently undertaken work for Pearson International Airport. NORR was even involved in the design of the iconic Toronto recreation landmark, SkyDome (now renamed the Rogers Centre).
Pal suggests that NORR’s key strength, and indeed, the secret to its success and growth, lies in its collaborative approach and emphasis on being an integrated, full-service firm.
“When you have an integrated culture, there’s a better sense of collaboration. We all come at things from different perspectives. Engineers have a different view on things than architects but we all respect each other’s views and we don’t succeed until everyone gets what they need.”
Another strength that NORR relies on is that it is geographically diverse, with offices in western Canada, in Ontario, in the U.K., and in the United States. At the time of the recent economic downturn, NORR’s Ontario operations were fortunate to be involved in two projects whose horizons stretched past the recession period, namely the renovations to the Wellington Building in Ottawa and Union Station in Toronto. “[The recession] was not a good time for anyone, but I would have to say that we weathered it better than some [in the industry],” says Pal.
What does Chris Pal see as NORR’s future focus? “We are clearly committed to the sectors that we work in, whether it is transportation, government buildings or health sciences – these are all areas that are going to be seeing a lot of change and we are seeing some fantastic work here.”