Copywriter, technical writer, translator (FR>EN, ES>EN, IT>EN), journalist

Niagara Peace Bridge

originally published in Award Magazine

As today’s travelers traverse the second-busiest border crossing in Ontario, the Peace Bridge over the Niagara River, they might get the impression they are passing a massive overturned canoe that resembles, in shape if not in size, the canoes that First Nations people once used to cross the same river.

The similarity is intentional, Ron Rienas explains. The general manager for the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority (PBA – says elements from local history and geography dominate the design for the bridge’s Canadian Plaza.

Rather than using the ubiquitous, functional, oversize gas station design for this border crossing, David Clusiau, principal in architectural design for project architects Norr Limited, says Rienas and his team were looking for “a landmark-type solution to put the border crossing on the map.”

This landmark five-building campus consists of a toll-booth system, administration building, primary inspection line (PIL), Canada Customs and Immigration building and an impounding space for detailed inspection of vehicles.

Patterns of natural stone on building walls and retaining walls visually connect the plaza to limestone found along the Niagara Escarpment. The desired effect: a blurring of the division between the buildings and their surroundings.

The primary roof’s canoe silhouette connects to the Canadian landscape metaphorically. Connecting it physically, steel columns rise up to gluelam beams that support a wood deck roof.

That took some doing, recalls Kevin Farrow, project manager for Bird Construction Company, the general contractor on the project. The slopes of the taurus-inspired roof called for “a top-down approach,” Farrow says. “The design of the roof governed the design of the structural steel that supports it.”

The structure of the adjoining canopy over the PIL was no less difficult to erect. Border crossings like the Peace Bridge stay open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. For this reason, the team installed the canopy “slabs”, designed for rapid installation, over one half of the crossing while the other half’s lanes stayed open.

The canopy’s 15 radial units were built in Pre-Con Limited’s Brampton, Ontario facility. Each unit weighs 34 tons and measures 2.8 metres by 11.5 metres.

Planners kept the always-open requirement in mind as they scheduled what Rienas calls “a very delicate phasing process” that started in 2004 and is projected to end on time in 2007. First came a toll facility in Canada so that the one in the US could be demolished. Space for more US inspection and customs booths resulted from this demolition and the move of the US Duty Free shop.

The Norr team ensured these booths would prove comfortable for people who work in them. Groups toured full-scale Norr-built mockups and interviewed with designers before the real things were produced.

During those interviews, the importance of fresh air in an area often dominated by exhaust fumes came to the fore. Norr devised underground tunnels to take air from nearby buildings to the booths. Energy efficiency was a side bonus since air already tempered in the buildings is actually used rather than vented off.

New administration and Canada Customs buildings began to rise in May of 2005. The former opened in September 2006 The latter is slated for completion by Christmas 2006.

The main Canada Customs and Immigration building posed further challenges for the builder. Glue laminated timber (“gluelam”), structural steel, precast concrete, natural stone and metal siding are but five of the materials that went into the building. Members of the construction team had their work cut out for them as they married materials with difference tolerances, coefficients of expansion and other properties. “It took about four months to design and coordinate everything properly,” says Farrow.

First Nations also hold a stake in the project. “There’s been some kind of settlement on this location for 10,000 years,” says Clusiau. “The area is rich in archeological remains.”

Planners kept the location of known archeological sites in mind as they laid out buildings and roads. Builders employed a caisson and grade beam system to avoid disturbing archeological remains. Where such disturbances proved unavoidable, archeologists stood by to observe.

All this effort and respect of the area’s history provided a profile-raising bonus to the PBA in the form of an archeological interpretive display that resides in the atrium of the administration building.

As the Peace Bridge celebrates its 80th anniversary in 2007, the Fort Erie Museum Board spearheaded a Peace Bridge exhibit on the 2nd floor of the administration building. Both the first and second floors have already attracted school groups and tourists.

All these design, building and educational accomplishments grew from an unwelcome turn in the Peace Bridge story: September 11, 2001. After 2001, trucks that once breezed by in an average time of 57 seconds saw that average climb to two minutes.

Backups stretched 10 or 12 kilometers into Canada and traffic authorities recorded more “queue-end accidents”, including four fatalities in 18 months, as vehicles slammed into the back of the queue. American motorists approaching the bridge fared no better. Controlling the centre b-directional lane of this three-lane bridge provided little relief.

Relieving traffic congestion became a priority, and in 2003 the Canadian government’s Border Infrastructure Fund Program launched many border improvement initiatives, including the Peace Bridge project.

Mission accomplished. Additional booths increased throughput capacity for commercial shipments to the US by 75 per cent. Cars now queue in a Canadian plaza 350 per cent larger than its predecessor, instead of on the bridge. “By keeping standing traffic off the bridge, we can configure the bridge as we want from a traffic management perspective – either two lanes into the US or two lanes into Canada,” says Rienas. “The bridge will function like a bridge and not a parking lot. That’s the most important element of the project.”

Surveillance, a watchword at border crossings, played a part in just about every aspect of the project, although its implementation is largely invisible. Cameras mounted on overhead gantries scan cars for security and toll purposes while sensors under the road determine the number of axles on vehicles to ensure drivers pay the right toll.

In some ways, electronic surveillance considerations influenced the plaza’s design, says Peter Sharp, Senior Telecommunications Consultant for Giffels Associates Limited. “Telemetry required for toll collection dictated the position of booths and devices, as well as lane alignment,” says Sharp, explaining that many devices use radio frequency signals that must maintain line-of-sight contact and not interfere with each other.

Other missions crept into the project when the Peace Bridge Authority took the unusual step of turning the design competition over to the community. “We had the mayor of Fort Erie choose a design jury,” Rienas recalls.

The jury’s choices have led to award-winning design. In 2005, the canopy earned Norr the Precast Concrete – Structural Design Innovation Award. The reconfigured American side of the plaza was the Engineering Project of the Year in New York State. The administration building won the Town of Fort Erie Heritage award. (Apparently the mayor did not influence the award process.)

Once complete, the entire project is also eligible for a wood award. “We put a lot of wood into these buildings, which is unusual given their size,” says Rienas.

“It will probably be the most stunning entry into Canada of any of the border crossings,” he boasts.

Project Highlights:

Border crossing complex administration building: 100 Queen Street, Fort Erie, On L2A 3S6


Norr Limited

General contractors

Bird Construction Company
The Hard Rock Group
Newman Brothers Limited

Landscape Architect

Envision – The Hough Group Limited

Structural Consultant

  • Customs and Immigration: Blackwell Bowick Partnership Limited
  • All other buildings: NORR

Mechanical Consultant


Electrical Consultant


Total Building Area

  • Peace Bridge Administration Building: 1834 square metres
  • Refugee Building: 1235 square metres
  • Customs and Immigration Building: 2732 square metres
  • Primary inspection line canopies and secondary inspection canopy: 3210 square metres
  • Toll booth canopy: 502 square metres

Total Project Cost

50 Million CAD