Canadians have an annoying tendency to smugly flaunt their self-perceived superiority in situations where it isn't warranted, especially when compared to the US. We get snooty about our superior beer, our world-class health-care system or our proud peace-keeping heritage in spite of the fact that Coors Light is the top brand in Canada, sick people wait years for treatment and our soldiers fly helicopters that are literally falling out of the sky.
So it came as no surprise to read in this story that Canadian limestone is apparently far superior to American limestone, and that people are shocked - shocked! - to learn that contractors are using stone from (gasp) Indiana to complete a renovation project on a heritage building in Ottawa:
The federal government plans to use cheaper American stone to clad an addition to the Sir John A. Macdonald building instead of the original Canadian stone recommended by a foremost heritage expert.
Indiana limestone has been chosen for the extension to the former Bank of Montreal building at 144 Wellington St., opposite West Block on Parliament Hill.
However, Julian Smith, a conservation architect with extensive experience in the parliamentary precinct, says Queenston limestone from Niagara-on-the-Lake is the “obvious choice” based on heritage conservation principles and Canada’s tradition of showcasing its building materials.
“For buildings in the public domain it’s always preferable to use Canadian stone rather than American stone, as long as the Canadian stone is of equal or better quality,” says Smith, who was responsible for restoration of the Vimy Memorial in France. He is also director of the Willowbank School of Restoration Arts in Queenston, Ont.
“Part of how we reflect our Canadian identity is in the use of building stone,” he says. “This principle goes back to the original construction of the Parliament buildings in Ottawa. We have great building stone in Canada.”Oh for crying out loud - "part of how we reflect our Canadian identity is in the use of building stone". Really? I know that I, for one, feel a deep sense of self-loathing when I walk by a building made of foreign stone. It just sticks in my craw that a building directly across the street from Parliament Hill has American limestone in it, especially when we're celebrating the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 when we whupped those Yankee bastards at Queenston Heights. And guess where the quarry that supplied the stone for the original building is located? You guessed it - Queenston, Ontario - in the shadow of Isaac Brock's monument. Does Stephen Harper have no shame?
Two years ago, when Smith was consulted on the project by the federal Department of Public Works, he recommended stone from the recently reactivated Queenston quarry.
“Whenever work is done on culturally significant properties the effort always has to be made to use stone from the original quarry,” says Smith. “That applies to both restoration work and to additions and alterations.So why would the restoration contractors commit such a heinous cultural crime? For one, the Indiana limestone is considerably cheaper.
The price difference between it and the Indiana limestone has not been disclosed, but one estimate suggests it is in the neighbourhood of $300,000.
Lucie Brosseau, a spokeswoman for Public Works, said Queenston stone salvaged during demolition will be used to repair the exterior of the original building. However there is no “heritage conservation requirement” to source original stone for new structures adjacent to heritage buildings, she said.
The decision to use Indiana stone was made by the masonry subcontractor, Gem Campbell, she said. The project architects had identified suitable suppliers, which were approved by the department’s heritage conservation directorate. Firms bidding on the job were free to select from a pre-approved list, which included stone from France in addition to that from Indiana and Queenston.
“For the construction of the new annex, a contract for the exterior masonry of the building was awarded by (general contractor) EllisDon Inc. to the most competitive and compliant masonry bid,” Brosseau wrote in an email.
Gem Campbell’s operations manager Marc Langlois said they chose Indiana stone based on price and convenience; they had concerns about Queenston’s ability to supply on time. “It’s honestly just to simplify it.”Oh, the horror. The contractor is saving the taxpayers some money by using a product that is practically indistinguishable from the more expensive alternative, on a brand-new addition to the building that is not part of the original heritage structure.
Petty nitpicking about Canadian vs American building stone is a symptom of a deep-seated national insecurity, and our cultural elites love to pick at it like a scab. We're better than this.