A Towering Legacy
Renovating an Olympic landmark in Montréal made believers of a doubting public
2020 PMI® PROJECT OF THE YEAR FINALIST
PHOTO BY CHRISTIAN FLEURY
From left, Michel Labrecque, Maurice Landry, PMP, and Nadir Guenfoud, PMP
PHOTOS COURTESY OF PARC OLYMPIQUE
Rising 165 meters (541 feet) into the air and tilted at a 45-degree angle, the Montréal Tower in Québec, Canada is an iconic emblem of the city. Yet aside from being home to a popular observatory, the tower sat empty for decades after it was completed in 1987—arriving more than 10 years late for its scheduled debut at the 1976 Summer Olympics. The debt from building the tower and the attached Olympic Stadium (nicknamed the “The Big O” for its circular shape and “The Big Owe” for its expense) took three decades to pay off.
Over time, the tower became a constant visual reminder of both the impressive architectural achievement and its decay and costly upkeep.
“Pigeons were flying in the tower, there were feathers everywhere, and there was water on the floor,” says Michel Labrecque, president and CEO, Parc Olympique.
Tearing down the tower, though publicly scorned for decades, had become cost prohibitive. In 2014, the Parc Olympique decided to give the tower new life, as it had done for other Olympics venues such as the Sports Centre. By launching the five-year, US$113 million project, the goal was to turn Montréal Tower into a revenue-generating commercial rental space.
“For us, it was a no-brainer that we use the momentum of the other projects to further improve the versatility of the park and the public’s perception of it,” says Nadir Guenfoud, PMP, director, major projects, Parc Olympique.
—Nadir Guenfoud, PMP, Parc Olympique
The team also knew that it would have to convince the public that renovations for a highly visible structure would be done right—not to mention on time and on budget, Labrecque says.
“The Olympic Tower can be seen from almost everywhere in Montréal,” says Maurice Landry, PMP, executive vice president, construction and maintenance, Parc Olympique. “Everyone would be looking at it during construction.”
The project took on added urgency in 2016 after Desjardins Bank, one of Québec’s largest financial institutions, signed on as the tower’s main tenant, set to occupy 80 percent of its space. Landing a tenant helped the team finalize scope and triggered a key milestone: The bank’s employees would begin moving in by mid-2018.
“We could not miss that date, because we knew the eyes of the media, the citizens and the secretary of tourism in charge of the Olympic Park would all be on us,” Labrecque says.
—Michel Labrecque, Parc Olympique
The team needed to move fast to meet the tenant’s move-in date. In some cases, that meant scheduling some of the renovation work to happen simultaneously instead of sequentially, including the replacement of the concrete walls with glass ones.
From the start, team members knew the concrete walls would have to go. Not only were they leaking, but they also didn’t let in natural light—a must-have for any modern office space. To stay on schedule, the team had to start demolishing the concrete walls while the architects determined how the glass walls would be installed.
Designing the glass walls was an aesthetic challenge, in part because the team wanted to maintain the signature look of the world’s tallest inclined tower. “It’s like the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building, the Space Needle—we had to respect the architect’s intention,” Labrecque says.
The team started by conducting a study of the tower’s exterior geometry. It revealed that the tower comprised both inclined and curved surfaces. But installing curved glass wasn’t possible—it would have been too difficult technically to create glass that replicated the facade. Instead, the team would need to use traditional, flat glass panels.
“That was when it became very obvious that we couldn’t do this without the help of modern tools,” Guenfoud says.
For the first time in a Parc Olympique project, the team used 3D design and building information modeling (BIM), which meant consulting with external BIM experts and training their own members in BIM throughout the design phase. The tool helped determine how to alter the facade—changing it from curved to flat by extending each floor to create straight lines along the perimeter for the glass panels to sit on. For a real-life test to ensure the BIM-designed glass wall would hold up, the team used an airplane to generate winds of more than 120 kilometers (75 miles) per hour. The wall passed the test.
2014: Parc Olympique launches the renovation, changing Olympic Tower’s name to Montréal Tower.
2015: The project team conducts a feasibility study.
2016: The team begins demolishing the tower’s concrete walls.
2016: Desjardins Bank signs on as the main tenant.
2018: More than 1,000 of the bank’s employees move into the tower.
December 2019: The tower project is complete.
BIM also helped the team solve a logistical puzzle created by the tower’s orientation. “The tower is inclined and that’s part of the problem, but the other part of the problem is the fact that it’s sitting on top of a sports complex, which meant we couldn’t even get close to the tower,” Guenfoud says.
The closest anyone could get was about 50 meters (164 feet). Plus, the team had to meet a tricky project requirement: “We had to maintain the park’s tourism revenue,” Landry says. That meant they couldn’t shut down access to the Tower Observatory at any point.
Project leaders landed on giving contractors access to the site through two cranes for the major construction work. One sat inside the sports stadium and rose through its roof to stand over 200 meters (656 feet) high—Canada’s tallest crane at the time. The other crane curled over the inclined tower’s funicular like an upside-down U, thus allowing tourists to continue to visit the observation deck during the renovation.
The team realized that the massive cranes would attract even more public interest, so they released a video about the project before building them. “When you post something on Facebook, you’re never sure what the comments will look like, but in our case everybody was really impressed that something tangible was finally being done with this structure,” Guenfoud says.
The cranes, however, answered only one part of the access problem. They were perfect for moving large pieces of equipment, but not suited to accessing specific points on the tower, such as allowing a construction worker to repair a small section of concrete. For precise work, the team employed a ropes access system. After mapping out each section of the structure, the team attached hundreds of ropes to anchor points. Workers used the ropes to get to specific locations—which proved essential when it came time to install the glass panels.
Keeping a vast group of stakeholders—the sponsor, client, engineers, contractors, subcontractors and external experts—on the same page helped ensure long-term benefits. But not before project leaders adapted engagement and the schedule at every turn.
“Coordinating some 30 specialized contractors, who often simultaneously employed over 350 workers on three shifts, seven days a week, proved challenging when it came to controlling the schedule,” says Patrick Mulowayi, project manager, Parc Olympique.
Project leaders divided the tower into several zones and created a schedule of activities for each zone—a move that helped maintain a firm grip on activities and progress and illustrated “the innovative management of the project schedule and the critical path,” Mulowayi says.
The communication plan extended well beyond building an on-site war room for daily meetings. To maintain public support, the team shared updates across social media and invited journalists to tour the site and see the work firsthand. The team also produced a documentary of the project that reached 1.6 million TV viewers.
The Montréal Tower renovation project turned unused space in disrepair into an exciting new office building:
Number of years the majority of Montréal Tower sat empty prior to the renovation
Number of people simultaneously working on the tower renovation project
Square feet (13,935 square meters) of newly renovated office space in the tower
Number of Desjardins Bank employees who now work in the tower
Satisfaction rate of the Desjardins employees working in the newly designed space
“We took control of the message,” Guenfoud says. “We knew this project would make the news, and we wanted it to be good news.”
The experience the Parc Olympique team gained, particularly with BIM, will provide a boost to future projects, such as replacing the Olympic Stadium’s roof. “The credibility we gained as an organization and as project managers will help us on our next projects,” Guenfoud says.
Rather than become a financial drain for the organization, Montréal Tower, completed in late 2019, now generates revenue. For the next 15 years, the tower has a tenant whose 1,500 employees will not only occupy the tower but also rent and own homes nearby and patronize the businesses around it. On social media, the bank’s employees have been posting images of the scenic views they enjoy. “They are the project’s best promoters,” Labrecque says.
Now when residents glimpse the tower, its present and future eclipses the shaky start. “Montréal sees we were able to deliver this big project, and it respects our team for it,” Labrecque says. PM