Built in 1920, the Manitoba Legislative Building is one of Western Canada’s most impressive heritage structures. At the heart of the Legislative Building is Manitoba’s Legislative Chamber. This richly decorated space houses the fifty-seven seats in a horseshoe shape, a form unique among Canadian provincial legislatures. The Chamber is the heart of the province's democratic process. But until 2017 it was not possible for a person with a disability to serve in the Chamber without barriers to access. Through this project, two-thirds of the desks have become barrier-free, as have the Speaker's platform, areas used by clerks, Hansard, French Translation Services, other staff, and all spaces where users might be required to go while performing their work.
The constraints and challenges facing this project were acute. The Chamber hosts legislative functions throughout the year. The only break in this schedule is a short span of time from mid-June to the end of September. This reality meant that the construction period for this project was severely limited. Likewise restricting the options available to the project team was the need for accessibility solutions that did not compromise the security of the occupants. Most particularly, the nature of work within this significant protected heritage space meant that all upgrades had to minimally intervene with the Legislative Chamber’s historical character and be physically and visually compatible, subordinate to, and indistinguishable from the historic place.
To resolve its complex challenges, this project was delivered in tandem with a construction manager and an Accessibility Advisory Committee – a volunteer community committee whose members represented all of the organizations in the Province that advocate for individuals with disabilities. The solution pursued by the team was both bold and surgical: to raise the Chamber's floor 2.5 feet above its original level. To properly design for this solution, the team proceeded in a careful, conscientious manner. A height difference between the three rows of desks was maintained to ensure proper sight lines between the Speaker, Hansard, and French Translation Services staff and each user. The Chamber's existing 97-year-old finishes and materials were carefully matched in new installations. New marble floors were sourced from the exact Tennessee quarry that had produced the Chamber's historic flooring. New bronze railings were painstakingly detailed and fabricated to match those of the existing Chamber. In keeping with heritage best-practice standards, the original character-defining elements of the Chamber were to be preserved throughout our process of project delivery. The new floor design, for instance, is fully reversible and preserves the existing floor in good condition below. A new audio-visual system was carefully integrated within original walnut and ebony-inlay desks of the Chamber, without any harm to their overall condition. As a result of this project, Manitoba’s Legislative Chamber now demonstrates that the preservation of our heritage can successfully coincide with the goal of accessibility and inclusivity today and in the future.
Photography by Stationpoint Photographic.