Dominion Chalmers United Church, Restoration and Renovation
Ottawa, Ontario


Built as Chalmers Presbyterian Church in 1912-1914 to the designs of Alex C. Hutchison of Montreal, the Church shows Romanesque and Byzantine influences in its layout and decoration. The sanctuary geometry is derived from an octagon within a square, with a single large domed space and arched perimter galleries focusing on a central altar and pulpit. Classrooms, meeting halls and support spaces bracket the sanctuary space to the north and west.

Over the years, a series of renovations and re-decorations had altered the overall character of the Sanctuary interior and other building spaces. In 1955, a disastrous fire caused extensive damage to the north and west portions of the church building and some damage to the Sanctuary. During the renovations to repair the fire damage, the windows in the dome were infilled.

A master plan report for the church, prepared by Julian Smith Architect in 1990, identified building deficiencies such as lack of universal accessibility, building code infractions, poor circulation and deficient building infrastructure as impediments to sustainability and growth of the congregation and its community outreach programs and events. Existing gravel and asphalt parking areas were problematic and entry to the building from the north could only be achieved through the kitchen or via a passageway that was difficult to navigate.

Dominion Chalmers United Church, Restoration and Renovation
Ottawa, Ontario


Phase 1: Based on detailed survey and as-found drawings prepared by the firm, this phase involved a complete restoration of the original interior finishes of the Sanctuary. Paint sampling and microscopic analysis of the layers of paint revealed the historic colours and paint types. In conjunction with the restoration, the project also included barrier-free accessibility upgrades, upgrading of the balcony structure and railing modifications to meet building codes and the integration of sophisticated lighting and control systems.

Handicapped accessibility modifications required rebuilding of the Chancel and sensitive integration of a new ramp using matching millwork details and custom brass fabrications. Due to the balcony structural inadequacy, excessive loads and vibrations had caused extensive delamination of the plaster from the lath requiring state-of-the-art methods and materials to stabilize, in-situ, the plaster ceilings below the balconies. Lost plaster sculpted elements were carefully recreated with rubber moulds and carving. The original dome openings were reinstated and new dome stained glass windows were designed and installed.

Phase 2: This phase involved complete replanning of the site including relocated building entrances, improved circulation and barrier-free upgrades throughout the complex. Portions of c. 1960 kitchen areas were demolished to allow for an enlarged and relocated kitchen within a new addition which filled in the corner of the building footprint and harmonized with the rest of the building. Scope included expanded and relocated Church offices, classrooms, a caretaker’s apartment and installation of an elevator and a barrier free entrance at a new north entry pavilion.

The massing and exterior detailing of the pavilion was designed to match the Chapel portion to the southwest façade and faces onto a newly designed and landscaped urban garden. Complete new HVAC systems were sensitively integrated into the heritage fabric. Masonry restoration, stabilization, new additions and the entrance pavilion required coordination with heritage masons and quarries to source matching stonework. Heritage stonework and profiles of masonry trim courses and sills were matched.

Dominion Chalmers United Church, Restoration and Renovation
Ottawa, Ontario

Goals / Challenges

  • An irreplaceable Cassavant organ had to remain in place during restoration of the Sanctuary. RMA designed special dust tight four storey-hoarding for protection of the pipes and the console was supported in place while new construction was completed.
  • Challenging Designated Substance abatement within tunnels and shafts below and through the building was integrated into the overall scope of work. Contained access was especially difficult both for consultants and contractors, requiring special safety protocols.
  • Loose portions of plaster on the upper dome presented a serious life-safety hazard to the congregation. Decorative cast plaster elements in the dome and on the columns capitals were stabilized, repaired and, in some areas, new elements were cast from rubber moulds.
  • In order to sensitively integrate new barrier-free accessibility modifications without adversely impacting heritage character, the Chancel required complete rebuilding and the ramp was designed using matching millwork details and custom brass fabrications.
  • The new lighting system, based on theatre equipment, needed to be designed and discreetly installed to accommodate an infinite range of settings to suit the needs of both liturgical and cultural events.

  • Structural upgrades to the balcony required extremely inventive solutions to meet building code requirements while not changing exterior appearances. Careful insertion of specially profiled engineered laminated wood beams within the balcony cavities, bolted to new steel ledgers mounted on the perimeter masonry walls, addressed floor loading deficiencies. Balcony railings were strengthened by means of concealed brass fittings and threaded steel compression rods cored through millwork and fastened to the balcony floor structure.
  • HVAC systems, not only for the addition but also for other portions of the building, were designed with great care. Bringing air-conditioning into the main Sanctuary space was an extreme challenge and the placement of ductwork and grilles within heritage finishes was designed to be as discreet as possible.
  • The sizing of the HVAC system was carefully assessed in the context of the mass masonry base building, which provides a ‘buffering’ or lag time in temperature and humidity changes. Initial design of the new HVAC system would have required an expensive replacement of the main electrical transformer; a solution based on ‘pre-conditioning’ the space and mass masonry for high occupancy events, allowed the Owner to avoid the significant initial and ongoing capital expenses of a new transformer and larger-than-needed HVAC units.
  • Numerous and significant challenges arose during phase 2 construction, including hidden and unrepaired building damage resulting from the 1950’s arson fire that required structural re-design, discrepancies with City site servicing plans and sub-surface debris.

2008 Certificate of Merit
- Preservation Category Canadian Association of Heritage Preservation Awards (CAHP)

2006 Award of Excellence, Addition
- City Of Ottawa Heritage Awards
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2003 Award of Excellence, Restoration and Rehabilitation
- City Of Ottawa Heritage Awards

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