CommunicationGovernmentLeadership
December 1, 2016

Building “uncommon relationships”

“My responsibility is to fundamentally make sure the project is on time and on budget,” Dimillo explains. Many of the challenges are technically complex but a lot depends on achieving a consensus and being able to work together. “In order to do this, I need to forge what could be seen as uncommon relationships.”

Rehabilitating the West Block in considered the most complex restoration project ever undertaken in Canada, let alone on Parliament Hill. Part of the work being done on the Victorian High Gothic structure, built in 1865, is to enable it to accommodate the House of Commons. It will move into a new space inside the West Block’s quandrangle; its roof will be a new glass roof. (The chamber’s original home, the Centre Block, is deteriorating quickly and is in urgent need of all sorts of modernizations that are expected to begin in 2018.)

Bringing the West Block to the 21st century has been a massive undertaking and a race against time. With a budget estimated now at $863M has entailed reinforcing the building’s structural integrity, replacing roofs and stonework, installing energy-efficient LED lighting, introducing new mechanical and power systems, removing asbestos and installing safety systems. The modernization includes adding 115,000 square feet of new permanent building space (largely below ground) to the building’s existing 176,300 square feet of floor area. The work is mostly being done by PCL Construction, a deeply experienced, Calgary-based firm.

Apart from the engineering, architectural and construction expertise, the success of the project depends heavily on building “uncommon relationships.” At least that’s what Ezio Dimillo, director general for project management and delivery of the Parliamentary Precinct Branch at the Public Services and Procurement Canada (formerly known as Public Works and Government Services Canada), believes.

Dimillo is responsible for ensuring that Public Services and Procurement’s multi-billion dollar Long Term Vision Plan (LTVP) for rehabilitating and modernizing the West Block and a collection other heritage buildings such as the Sir John A McDonald Building, the Wellington Building and the East Block, all come together without a hitch. His accomplishment in bringing people together has earned him the Association of Professional Executives of the Public Service of Canada’s (APEX) Partnership Award for 2016. In conferring the award, APEX took note of his “management excellence and collaboration and his ability to build strong relationships which led to the success of various projects in the Parliamentary Precinct.”

The LTVP

The Long Term Vision Plan was developed back in 2001 as a 25-year program to upgrade aging buildings in Ottawa. The plan was updated in 2007 with the focus of implementing a series of five-year rehabilitation projects. Dimillo has been involved in the LTVP since 2005 and the project he currently overseas runs from 2013 to 2017.

Essentially, the rehabilitation projects focus on ensuring that 160-year old buildings like the West Block meet the 21st century needs of its occupants while preserving the buildings’ original character. “My responsibility is to fundamentally make sure the project is on time and on budget,” Dimillo explains. “This involves a lot of planning and not managing a very large team from my own department but also collaborating with various teams from other departments, trades and professions.”

Coordination and consultation

Dimillo credits his “highly-professional” team but also recognizes talented and capable “extended team” they are working with. Coordination is key in almost every step of the way. For example, work on the West Block needs to be completed in 2017 so that occupants of the Centre Block will have enough time to move in and work on the Centre Block can begin.

The West Block will be “fit-up” to accommodate House of Commons Chamber and support ceremonial functions, four committee rooms, as well as office and support functions necessary for the Prime Minister, House Officers, party leaders and party whips.

“I am not only dealing with architects, builders and trades teams, I’m also consulting with public servants, parliamentary administrators,” says Dimillo. “A lot of it deals with listening and communicating the concerns and requirements of one group to another group. Many of the challenges are technically complex but a lot depends on achieving a consensus and being able to work together.”

Uncommon relationships

To achieve this, the project manager needs to listen and understand the concern of each stakeholder beyond the “normal must-haves,” he explains. “In order to do this, I need to forge what could be seen as uncommon relationships.”

For example, technical data on the design of load bearing structures meant for heritage buildings as they relate to Canadian seismic and climatic conditions was essential to the project. However, such data was not available through regular construction industry channels. This was an opportunity to seek out the assistance of university students.

“They helped us with development and implementation of an evidence-based approach to obtain the needed data. The Schulich School of Engineering (University of Calgary) used their seismic ‘shake table’ in this process,” says Dimillo. “My team provided the masonry construction materials, such as wall anchors, that were used to construct large replica wall sections which were tested live on the shake table.” While working in this manner, Dimillo observed the development among the participants from various sectors of a “strong culture of partnership towards serving the customer.”

“I could see that we were all coming together to achieve the same goal,” he says.

A “Simple and Complicated” Management style

Dimillo studied architecture and building mechanical systems at Algonquin College. He has been with the PWGSC since 1983 when he joined the department as a senior mechanical systems designer after a one-year stint with Northern Telecom. He worked briefly as senior project manager with Foreign Affair and International Trade Canada from 2009 to 2010 and returned to PWGSC as senior director. Dimillo describes his management style as “simple and complicated.”

“I like to think of myself as a convincing person…in a sense I am good at bringing two people to a consensus,” he says. “But, at the same time, I am outcome-driven and a problem solver.”

These traits come into play many times in the LTVP project. Dimillo points out that he always has to listen to partners and stakeholders keeping in mind to “overlook un-related issues and always working towards a common goal.”

It’s not always that easy when you are working with a team of more than 55 public servants and some forty co-located project managers and some parliamentarians as well. But things tend to come together in the end.
Dimillo has the following advice for project managers:

• Seek input and seek advice and expertise. No one knows it all.
• Build a confident and competent team. Get a good cross-section of new hires and experts
• Building a good team is not a static process. Take the time to nurture, mentor and train people
• Move towards the problem. Be results driven.

He views project management as an “extremely measurable” practice. “We always need to meet hard deadlines,” Dimillo says. “If our time is not scheduled, things don’t open on time. It’s that simple.”

About this author

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Nestor Arellano

Nestor is a Toronto-based journalist who specializes in writing about technology and business. He is the editor of Vanguard Magazine and the associate editor of IT in Canada and a regular contributor to CGE.

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