The 30-year-old elevators at 201 Portage Ave. are undergoing a complete modernization, as downtown workers trickle back into Winnipeg’s tallest office building.

The 30-year-old elevators at 201 Portage Ave. are undergoing a complete modernization, as downtown workers trickle back into Winnipeg’s tallest office building.

Twelve elevators in the 420-foot tall, 33-storey building are getting a total upgrade. Every moving part on the elevators, every bit of wiring, all of the finishes, and the entire control system are being replaced or refurbished, a painstaking process that began at the Harvard Developments property last spring and won’t be complete until 2022.

<p>Supplied</p><p>The elevators at Winnipeg tallest office tower, 201 Portage Ave., are being completely overhauled and modernized.</p>

Supplied

The elevators at Winnipeg tallest office tower, 201 Portage Ave., are being completely overhauled and modernized.

"It’s a 100 per cent changeover," said Trevor Rebeck, the district manager of TK Elevator, formerly ThyssenKrupp Elevator. And in the company’s estimation, it represents the largest elevator modernization in the city’s history.

The elevators were first installed in 1990, and in Rebeck’s and modernization supervisor Vince Levenec’s estimation, they probably had a few years of mileage left. But the end of their lives was near: as they say, what goes up, must eventually come down.

Matt Geiger, Harvard’s senior manager of marketing and communications, said the elevator modernization project is an investment — part of an overall $10-$15 million renewal of the office building — geared toward more efficient experiences for tenants, plus increased sustainability.

A number of installations deal directly with both energy efficiency and efficiency of movement: a microprocessor controller with advanced diagnostics capabilities reduces downtime between floors, and a magnet AC motor runs only when the elevators are in use. Optional motion sensors turn the lights and fans off when the elevator isn’t used. The new driving system is a regenerative one: the older system would use about 10 per cent of a building’s total power consumption, Levenec said, whereas the new one will put about eight per cent of that back into the system, decreasing overall consumption.

All in all, it’s a far cry from Elisha Otis’s first safety elevator, introduced in 1852 and installed for the first time as a passenger lift in 1857.

"Elevators are very smart nowadays," said Levenec. "They know where to be and when." Software enables the cars to know when, say, the 31st floor unloads, with the system putting a priority on that tier.

For a building with upwards of 5,000 people coming through on a daily basis at peak levels, that’s not nothing, and the new system will help keep the system moving efficiently for the tenants’ and their clients’ sake, Rebeck said.

"When you’re talking tenants, in an office tower like 201 Portage, you have law firms, investment firms, high-profile customers," said Levenec. "If you’re paying $400 an hour and they’re 10 minutes late (because of the elevator), that’s something nobody wants."

And that’s a consideration that after 18 months of mostly remote work is becoming increasingly important for tenants as they return downtown: according to October data from the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ, only 24 per cent of downtown workers are back.

At 201 Portage, Geiger estimates the percentage to be significantly higher. Recently, about two-thirds of the building’s tenants’ employees had come back to work.

While the elevator modernization is about 75 per cent finished, with completion anticipated for the spring, much of the work so far was done in a semi-empty building, which Geiger says might count as a silver lining. Something that often prevents companies from tackling lengthy renewal projects, aside from up-front costs, is the worry of disrupting tenants’ business. With fewer tenants in the building, that proved to be less of a concern.

Tenants, Geiger said, were a main inspiration for the modernization, specifically with regard to their safety. While the system upgrades include a number of advanced safety checks and balances, Levenec and Rebeck said, the pandemic led their client to request a few more upgrades which might have seemed extraneous in 2019 but are invaluable in 2020.

TK Elevator is installing touchless elevator buttons — a new technology in Winnipeg, as far as they knew — as well as an improved air-purification system in each cab. The technology existed before the pandemic, but both elevatormen say local clients are increasingly requesting similar measures as they undergo modernizations.

And while there were concerns over the future of work in offices, Rebeck and Levenec said there was no slowdown in the elevator business, only a reallocation of resources. With fewer people coming to downtown offices, they had fewer repair and maintenance calls for business towers, but on the flip side, as people worked from home, usage of residential elevators — apologies — went through the roof. Meanwhile, new construction projects kept the company busy on the installation side.

But until April or May, 201 Portage Ave. is keeping the company busy on the largest modernization they’ve done in Winnipeg.

Is it typical to do a 12-elevator job in Winnipeg?

"No, because we’re in Winnipeg," said Rebeck and Levenec, laughing. There aren’t many buildings that big. Yet.

ben.waldman@freepress.mb.ca

Ben Waldman

Ben Waldman
Reporter

Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.