A Modern Lift

The Fairmont Empress Hotel today

The digital age of elevators arrives at the Fairmont Empress Hotel.

The iconic Fairmont Empress Hotel stands proudly overlooking the Inner Harbour in Victoria, the provincial capital of British Columbia. Designed by famed British architect Francis Rattenbury, the hotel was opened in 1908 as a terminus hotel for the Canadian Pacific Railway. However, it quickly evolved into a destination for royalty and celebrities, and today, it is a National Historic Landmark of Canada.

In 2014, the Fairmont Empress was sold to Bosa Developments, which undertook a US$60-million renovation to restore the hotel to its former glory. The renovations, all of which will be completed by mid 2019, cover most of the hotel, including the guest rooms, spa, meeting spaces, restaurants and cafés, as well as the lobby. But, perhaps the biggest renovation is the least visible – a complete modernization of the hotel’s existing elevators.

From the start, it was clear the diversity of the Fairmont’s existing elevator equipment demanded local engineering and manufacturing capabilities with a flexible controller solution capable of integrating with the existing system during the transition. On top of that, any impact to hotel guests had to be minimal to maintain the high level of service associated with the Fairmont Empress.

Leading the Way

The Fairmont Empress turned to thyssenkrupp Elevator Canada to lead the renovation. The project began with a focus on the hotel’s two service elevators, which support more than 500 operational staff members. The two service elevators were installed in 1908 and underwent an upgrade in 1984 when their generators were removed. Two other service elevators were also removed at that time, and their hoistways were permanently closed.

This first phase of the elevator modernization was completed in 2016, when thyssenkrupp Elevator Canada’s Victoria team successfully merged the critical operations of the hotel service elevators with new elevator technology, which included the adaptable TAC32 control system. The advanced dispatching algorithm and an intelligent load-monitoring system allows the TAC32 controller to better manage the needs of staff. For example, elevators fully loaded with linens and silverware can now bypass other calls as they travel to their destination floor, further improving service by sending only elevators with sufficient capacity to waiting staff.

The smooth ride from the new gearless machine is complemented by the accuracy of the Absolute Positioning System (APS) as it tracks elevator speed and position down to the millimeter. An added feature of the APS system that will benefit this installation is the ability to compensate for building compression while maintaining accurate floor levels.

The next phase of the modernization will include the main lobby elevators. The four geared elevators were installed in a tower constructed during Operation Royal Restoration, a large renovation carried out in 1989 that included the construction of a new lobby, as well as the extensive Victoria Conference Centre, which connects to the hotel via its conservatory. These elevators will be replaced with gearless machines and the TAC32 control system. The improved traffic flow from the intelligent dispatching of the controller will ultimately improve the guest experience, while providing a high level of safety and reliability.

This area of the project will benefit from the Cross-Assignment Overlay and allow the project mechanics the ability to have the hall push buttons accept and dispatch calls to any elevator in the group. The existing hall push buttons were on a serial network creating a unique challenge for the project team that was overcome with creative local engineering.

After the completion of the four main lobby elevators, the team will then replace the two original lobby elevators. When they were installed in 1908, they were powered by a steam plant on the adjacent lot that supplied the rest of the hotel with power and housed the laundry. These two elevators, as well as the other six original units, were hand controlled by elevator operators for almost 60 years.

The operators safely transported guests to the more than 400 hotel rooms until 1968, when a major renovation, dubbed Operation Teacup, took place. This brought the Fairmont Empress into the age of automatic elevators and delighted guests from abroad with its ornate cabs, touch-tube buttons and automatic leveling. Controllers with fully mechanical relays were installed to handle dispatching and signaling, and cabs were detailed with hardwoods by master craftsmen.

The elevators had their own generators installed, as this was the period when the steam power plant was shut down, and the hotel was hooked up to the city power grid. The large generators and awkward control equipment had to be transported up narrow, twisting stairwells and through large timber rafters to reach this unique machine room perched high up in the vaulted, chateau-like roof.

The thyssenkrupp Elevator Canada modernization team will experience similar challenges in the replacement process, although the new equipment is much lighter and far more compact.

In addition to major improvements in ride quality, dispatching, safety and reliability, the modernized elevators will be networked to a central computer running thyssenkrupp’s Intelligent Management System. This software enables hotel engineering staff to monitor the elevators in real time, providing numerous benefits in operational efficiency and reporting. The connectivity of the TAC32 system enables an adaptive, future-ready solution to advancements in elevator networking.

Looking Up

The need for routine inspections and preventive maintenance is still as important today as it was when the hotel opened in 1908. thyssenkrupp Elevator Canada will remain busy long after the modernization is completed, providing ongoing maintenance and service to the 14 elevators at the hotel. Diagnostics and data logging designed into the new control system allow service crews the ability to monitor and make accurate adjustments to keep the elevators running smoothly.

The digital age of elevator service has officially arrived at the Fairmont Empress. The days of tape selectors, carbon contacts and mechanical relays are long gone, and the loud machine rooms once full of rotating equipment and live electricity will be made safer and quieter with the advancements of a modern system. Relay panels with thousands of contacts requiring steady maintenance will be replaced with a single circuit board, and large machines with heavy castings and open windings that clink and clank as they rotate will give way to their modern compact counterparts. Now, it’ll be the soft purring of a drive fan and the gentle clapping of a machine brake that will quietly declare that a new generation of elevators has arrived at the Fairmont Empress.

Not everything is different. Despite numerous renovations throughout the years, one elevator remains untouched since its installation in the Humboldt Wing in 1928. The hand-operated lift remains a functional tool for the staff authorized to operate it. Names inscribed on the walls of machine rooms dating back to the early 1900s reflect the sanctity of the place and affirm the accomplishment of those who’ve been lucky enough to visit.

Maintaining the delicate balance between preservation and modernization is paramount to the legacy of such a masterpiece. The completion of the architectural renovation revealed a fitting blend of new and old in all the right places. At the Fairmont Empress Hotel, the digital age has arrived, and it stands ready for the future and the ups and downs of another century.

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