Saddledome needs $48M+ in repairs but most work may never happen

Even before city council voted in 2019 to pay half of the cost of a new $550-million downtown arena, it knew the Scotiabank Saddledome needed major repairs to keep it going.

Condition report spells out big problems for aging arena, including deteriorating roof

The Saddledome, home of the Calgary Flames, is seen in this file photo.
The Saddledome, home of the Calgary Flames, is seen on March 12. An engineering firm has concluded the arena would need $48 million in repairs if it wasn't being replaced. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Even before city council voted in 2019 to pay half of the cost of a new $550-million downtown arena, it knew the Scotiabank Saddledome needed major repairs to keep it going.

A building condition assessment report from December 2018 obtained by CBC News under Alberta's Freedom of Information legislation concluded the Saddledome needs $48.7 million in repair work over the coming decade.

"The recommendations in [this] report are provided based on keeping the building in an acceptable standard for the people using the facility," states Entuitive, the engineering consulting firm which wrote the report for the City of Calgary.

The list of repairs is extensive.

The 119 suggested projects cover all aspects of the building and its surrounding structures, like a parkade and the LRT walkway.

Crumbling concrete, rust, water leaks, sealants giving way and even pesky squirrels working their way into the building are all mentioned in the report.

Roof problems

However the bulk of the recommended repairs, $38.5 million, would be for fixing the Saddledome's structural issues and the building envelope.

The condition of the building's roof is a key concern. While the report notes there has been deterioration, there is no suggestion the dome is unsafe. 

An acoustic monitoring system was set up in 1998 to detect any failure of the cables and the post-tensioned strands which are part of the roof system.

The report indicated that 10 post-tensioned strand failures have been noted. 

Precast concrete panels are suspended from the cables and the assessment found them to all be in good condition.

However, pieces of concrete have been falling off of the perimeter ring beam which forms the outline of the Saddledome's distinctive roof shape.

Pieces of crumbling concrete are seen on the exterior of the Saddledome in this photo from the report commissioned by the city. (City of Calgary)

The report recommends a drone be used to regularly inspect the beam to help observe any trouble spots.

What isn't known is what's going on inside the roof structure itself.

"Most of the building's internal structural systems are not visible, and no attempt was made to expose them for review. Hidden defects may be present and not observed," notes the document.

The report breaks the needed work into seven categories, and details the cost for each over 10 years. Here are the estimates, rounded up:

  • Architectural, $33.8 million.
  • Building envelope, $1.7 million.
  • Structural, $3.1 million.
  • Mechanical, $3.5 million.
  • Refrigeration system, $1.7 million.
  • Electrical, $4.9 million.
  • Elevator, $90,000. 

Dome is still safe

An engineering professor at the University of British Columbia, Shahria Alam, reviewed the report. He said the building is safe to continue using.

"Although it's a concern, it should be OK to be used. Obviously, it will need constant operation and maintenance over the years that it will be used," said Alam.

The challenge with the building's roof is that its design is relatively unique so Alam said there really aren't many other similar buildings to compare the Saddledome with in order to understand how the passage of time will affect it.

    A leaky roof at the Saddledome, above the concourse, is pictured in this photo from the report commissioned by the city. (City of Calgary)

    Spending millions of dollars to repair or replace the roof won't likely be part of the building's future.

    Under the terms of a cost-sharing agreement between the City of Calgary and the owners of the Calgary Flames, construction of a new event centre in Victoria Park is slated to begin in August 2021.

    It is scheduled to open in May 2024. As part of the agreement, the Saddledome will be shut down soon after that and then be demolished.

    The condition assessment report does suggest that $1,377,500 in repairs to the Saddledome across 30 different projects are needed through 2024.

    The list includes repairing crumbling concrete steps, work on the roof's ring beam, repairs to the parkade, fixing chillers and replacing heat exchangers.

    Necessary work will go ahead

    The Saddledome Foundation is the body that ensures the building is properly maintained. 

    City council's representative on the foundation's board said work required to ensure the safe operation of the arena will get done even though the Saddledome's expiry date is approaching.

    "If there's any safety issues, then we have to do [the repairs]. From the time the new building starts, it'll take three years to build it so the responsibility of the Flames is still there," said Coun. Ray Jones.

    Crumbling stairs are seen outside the Saddledome in this photo from the report commissioned by the city. (City of Calgary)

    Although the Saddledome is owned by the city, he said the Flames oversee and pay for repairs through a fee that's collected on every ticket sold for events in the building.

    Neither the city nor the Flames would comment on how much money that fee brings in annually.

    The problems uncovered by the assessment report have been discussed by the Foundation and the Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corporation, which owns the Flames.

    "We're all in agreement that we can't have concrete falling off the building because it's a safety issue," said Jones.

    'A great building'

    The president and CEO of the Calgary Flames, John Bean, tells CBC News that the team still considers the Saddledome to be "a great building". 

    He said ensuring the health and safety of patrons and staff will guide decisions on maintenance.

    "We work collaboratively with the City of Calgary, with structural engineers and other consultants and we'll look at a variety of topics that present themselves," said Bean.

    "We'll come up with a plan to make sure we deal with it in an appropriate fashion."

    The Saddledome opened in 1983 and is the second oldest arena in the NHL.

    The new arena will be built just north of the Saddledome and is expected to be a key piece of the planned culture and entertainment district. 

    The Calgary Municipal Land Corporation is overseeing the building of the event centre which will have up to 19,000 seats.

    The design of the new building should be unveiled by the end of 2020.