Nova Scotia

N.S. construction industry happy with QEII redevelopment plan

An association that speaks for Nova Scotia's construction sector is pleased the provincial government has broken up the redevelopment of the QEII hospital complex into bite-sized pieces.

Bite-sized builds will allow more local contractors to bid on work, association says

A person walks by a hospital.
Work at the Halifax Infirmary has so far included a new pedway linking the hospital and a new parking garage, and renovations to the entrances on Summer Street and Robie Street. (Michael Gorman/CBC)

The Houston government's decision to rework the QEII redevelopment plan left behind after the Liberals were voted out of office means local contractors will now likely bid on the more spread-out construction projects, according to Duncan Williams, CEO of the Construction Association of Nova Scotia.

"The reality is we just don't have the workforce to staff up a major project of that magnitude now without spreading the work out a little bit," Williams told CBC News. "I think the way it's being presented, it's going to be much more manageable."

"There's still going to be challenges because there's a lot of projects, a lot of multi-residential, private development as well — and frankly — we've got a labour challenge."

When the province presented the PC government's new vision for the project last week, senior public works official Gerard Jessome said part of the rationale for the multi-site approach was to help the industry.

"This new approach is better for the Nova Scotia construction industry," Jessome told reporters at last Thursday's briefing. "By having more builds, spread out, we anticipate much more opportunity for local firms to bid these projects and local skilled labour to be involved in these projects."

He said the province would "maximize those opportunities."

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"Based on the way the parcels are done, it will certainly catch the eye of additional contractors," said Williams.

The original plan was so daunting an undertaking the province ended up with only one potential bidder, Plenary PCL Health, which remains in negotiations with the province over the revamped plan.

The Nova Scotia government agreed to pay the consortium $7 million as compensation for the work it has done to prepare its bid on the original plan. Some of that work can be used for the revised project.

John Volcko with PCL said the hope was to begin prep work at the site this spring, with the first building ready to open in five years.

The new plan for the Halifax Infirmary site includes a new emergency department, 72 more in-patient beds than originally planned and 16 new operating rooms, four more than originally planned. That work will be staggered over five to seven years. A new cancer care facility and replacement for the MacKenzie lab will also go ahead after that.

Beyond the work in downtown Halifax, the province is looking to expand the Cobequid Community Health Centre to create a new 36-bed in-patient unit and a larger emergency department. The Dartmouth General Hospital will also get a new, larger emergency department, along with 108 more beds. There are also plans to build two transition-to-community centres, one adjacent to the Bayers Lake outpatient centre which is still under construction.

A man wearing a suit and tie staring forward.
Duncan Williams, CEO of the Construction Association of Nova Scotia, says "bite-sized" builds will allow more local contractors to bid on work. (Construction Association of Nova Scotia)

Although more manageable, as a whole, Williams anticipated companies involved with the revamped projects could face challenges finding enough workers, as well as building materials.

According to Williams, about 35,000 Nova Scotians currently work in the construction sector and almost all of those people are currently busy. 

"Let's put it this way, if we had another 2,000 to 3,000 people, they would probably be employed pretty quickly," said Williams, adding the projects spanning more than a decade might lure some workers to Nova Scotia.

Steady work

He said the steady work provided by the staggered building schedule would be more attractive to workers than the "boom-bust cycle of the construction decades of past."

"The beauty of these type of projects, they are generational in nature and a lot of people want to be part of them," said Williams. "It's actually a huge attractor to folks who want to come and live in Nova Scotia, that there's going to be predictable employment for a long time in a stable market."

As for material, Williams said ongoing supply chain issues might hamper efforts to keep projects on schedule.

"It's not like you can go out to your local hardware store and pick up things that you're going to need generally in this type of construction," said Williams. "Some of them are custom made, they take two, three years to build."

Those involved in the revised plan, and the cabinet ministers charged with overseeing it, refused to hazard a guess on its price tag. Williams said he wasn't surprised, given the many uncertainties faced by the industry.

"Normally there is a lot of predictability in the market," he said. "We don't have that right now. In terms of trying to nail down prices on goods and supplies, it's still a challenge, especially when you're looking at some of the lead times that we're looking at for the things that will be needed in these types of projects."

$70M spent

During last week's announcement, the province said about $70 million has been spent on the project to date.

On Friday, the provincial government publicly posted two cabinet orders, one authorizing the Minister of Health and Wellness to spend up to $5 million "to support program planning and design for transitional care facilities" and another $103.3 million to be spent on the Halifax Infirmary portion of this project, over the next four years.


Jean Laroche


Jean Laroche has been a CBC reporter since 1987. He's been covering Nova Scotia politics since 1995 and has been at Province House longer than any sitting member.