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The ups and downs of maintenance costs and stalled elevators at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights

It’s arguably the most spectacular architectural structure in Winnipeg, honoured with many awards for its design. But the Canadian Museum for Human Rights is like any other building when it comes to its elevators: sometimes they malfunction. With people inside.

Museum says yearly maintenance costs for unique building are lower than at other museums

Maintenance costs for the building that houses the Canadian Museum for Human Rights were lower than at many other cultural institutions in an international survey, a museum spokesperson said. (John Einarson/CBC)

It's arguably the most spectacular architectural structure in Winnipeg, honoured with many awards for its design. But the Canadian Museum for Human Rights is like any other building when it comes to its elevators: sometimes they malfunction. With people inside.

There were six cases of people being stuck in an elevator in the national museum in 2017 — just one of the problems that can happen in operating a large building like the $287-million museum.

Annual maintenance for the elevators cost $43,583 in the most recent year, part of the museum's $846,000 operating and maintenance cost for the building in 2017-18 — costs the museum says are lower than for many comparable museums.

The figures were released to Ottawa-based researcher Ken Rubin in an access-to-information request for building maintenance costs since its opening in 2014.

The building has five elevators. Three of those elevators each had a single "entrapment" last year. 

Among the five elevators at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, there were six cases of people being stuck in an elevator in 2017, a museum spokesperson said. There have been none so far in 2018. (John Einarson/CBC)

But one elevator was more prone to problems and had three entrapments during the year, said the museum's media relations manager, Maureen Fitzhenry.

She said that exceeded the performance standards in the elevator maintenance contract, which call for no more than two entrapments per elevator in a year.

"So we got our elevator service provider to make sure the elevator is maintained to better standards and this year, so far, we've had no passengers stranded in these elevators," Fitzhenry said.

'Frustrating' experience

The numbers are a reminder to Winnipegger Dinah Santos of her own experience being trapped in an elevator at the museum in April 2015.

She said she and her husband had attended an evening event there and as they were leaving, they were trapped in an elevator for about an hour.

"At the start, we thought it was funny," Santos said. "We thought we were going to get out right away.

"In the end it was frustrating.… I could see that if anyone had any anxiety, it would not have been a good situation," she said.

Why Fitzhenry says the museum's unique shape is worth the cost:

Maintenance costs more expensive for CMHR but worth it: spokesperson

4 years ago
Duration 0:29
Canadian Museum for Human Rights spokesperson Maureen Fitzhenry says the museum's architecture is a benefit.

"That was just the worst part, feeling like we were stuck there and nothing was being done," she said, even though she realized someone must have been working to fix the problem.

She said museum staff on site needed to do a better job of communicating with people who become trapped in an elevator to help keep them calm.

"I just wanted information.… No one apologized, no one contacted us after."

Incident prompted changes

"I think she's absolutely right," said the museum's Fitzhenry. "Communications is really important in those kinds of instances."

The incident was reviewed and discussed at the museum, she said.

"All of our staff have been given more instructions on what to do in those kinds of circumstances."

Protocols and training at the museum have changed to ensure staff communicate with people in stalled elevators via the phone in the elevators, and "follow up courteously upon their release," Fitzhenry said.

The Office of the Fire Commissioner inspects elevators and identified 3,565 violations of elevator regulations across the province last year. (John Einarson/CBC)

At the time of Santos's incident, though, the museum had only been open for a few months.

"There were a lot of things that we were trying to get all of our staff up to speed on and unfortunately, that particular incident, things didn't happen as well as we would have hoped," Fitzhenry said.

"We are very sorry if the passengers involved in this incident did not experience appropriate communication or follow-up."

Provincial government records show there are about 3,100 buildings with elevators in the province, and they're inspected regularly by the Office of the Fire Commissioner.

Although elevator entrapments aren't tracked, inspections provincewide last year identified 3,565 violations of elevator regulations for items such as burned-out lights, oil leaks and issues with the machine room, hoist equipment or log books, an OFC spokesperson said.

Last October an inspector told the museum to fix a few items, including an emergency light and alarm.

Maintenance costs lower

The museum says overall, it's doing well on its building maintenance. Fitzhenry points to an international survey of operating costs for about 50 museums and cultural institutions in Canada, the United States, and other countries.

The survey, done by a New York company and endorsed by the International Association of Museum Facility Administrators, looked at maintenance cost measured in U.S. dollars per square foot of space. 

The median cost per square foot for the group was $2.93 and the CMHR's cost was $2.67, Fitzhenry said. She said the museum's expenditures for utility bills and groundskeeping were also well below the median.

Some of the white soffit beneath the distinctive glass 'cloud' atop the Canadian Museum for Human Rights needed work costing about $280,000, according to records released by the museum. (John Einarson/CBC)

A repair item that did show up in last year's bills was about $280,000 to fix the soffits — the flat surface beneath the distinctive glass roof area known as the "cloud."

"We had to do some work to prevent problems with moisture and condensation which were issues identified in some localized areas of the soffit," Fitzhenry explained.

She said repairs were done under warranty by the original builder, but the museum wanted to make improvements that went beyond the specifications.

"We thought that now that the museum's been open for several years, it needed some additional protection against the climate conditions," said Fitzhenry.

Some of the glass panels atop the building have also been replaced, which cost about $31,000 last year, museum records show.

"Obviously a square box is easier to maintain than a not-square box, and a small building is easier to maintain than a large building," said Fitzhenry.

"But really, the unique architecture of this place is a distinct benefit. The museum has become this recognizable and iconic image that really attracts interest and awareness right across Canada and around the world." 

The facility is driving economic activity and tourism, with more than a million visitors during its first three years, she said.

The ups and downs of maintenance costs and stalled elevators at the CMHR

4 years ago
Duration 2:15
It's arguably the most spectacular architectural structure in Winnipeg, honoured with many awards for its design. But the Canadian Museum for Human Rights is like any other building when it comes to its elevators: sometimes they malfunction. With people inside.

Got a tip for the CBC News I-Team? Email iteam@cbc.ca or call the confidential tip line at 204-788-3744.​

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