Building the Canadian Firefighters Memorial: Integration of landscape, structure, stone, and art in memorial design

Photo © Steven Evans/PLANT Architect Inc.
Photo © Steven Evans/PLANT Architect Inc.

By Vanessa Eickhoff, PLA, OALA, Mary Tremain BES., B.Arch, LEED AP, and Chris Vopni, P.Eng .
In 2010, a two-stage, national competition was launched by the Canadian Fallen Firefighters Foundation (CFFF) to design a memorial park in Ottawa to not only commemorate those who have died, but also provide a place for an annual ceremony service. “We Were There” is the winning CFFF memorial design collaboration between Toronto’s PLANT Architect Inc., and Vancouver-based artist Douglas Coupland.

This article explains how the project team integrated the design intent with execution practicalities through extensive co-ordination with the general contractor, engineering teams, and specialty fabricators. A particular design challenge for this project was to bring a complex artistic rendering of stone to reality through material development and detailed elements, integrating all elements into a beautiful, durable, and long-lasting built landscape form.

Memorial projects must stand the test of time. They must support a future generation of use. The key design elements and execution of a successful memorial project, with focus on the longevity of materials and detailing, include:

1. Co-ordination between geotechnical and structural engineers to develop strategies for ground improvements, and for structural details of the Memorial Wall and complex granite outcrop.
2. Stone engineers with expertise in stone restoration work who can bring key detailing to both the Memorial Wall and complex granite outcrop, maximizing the life of the stonework.
3. Careful and ongoing co-ordination of fine detailing between stone fabrication, lighting, and custom bronze elements with construction sequencing.
4. Typography development, including consideration of the layout of names for the present and future, and the engraving process.CC_May13.indd

Design intent
The aim was to design an urban-planning memorial ensemble that could function as a ceremonial space for public gathering and collective remembrance, and as a site for private reflection and daily use—one that shapes, enhances, and inspires an experience of ritual performance. The collaborative vision for the project involved bringing together architecture, landscape architecture, and sculptural art in order to create an integrated concept for an iconic, living landscape.

The project’s design included large bronze firefighter statue, 18.2-m (60-ft) firepole, lone pine rock with dedication tree, a sloped grove, and engraved granite Memorial Wall. Smaller areas for introspection also include a sitting nook and reflection garden.

The largest move in this series of interpretations is the granite Memorial Wall—complete with its name wall and sitting nook, coupled with the crystalline rock form, a sloped granite outcrop and planted area. It stands as an abstract interpretation of the Canadian map, its surface engraved with the identities of fallen firefighters. The clouds of names floating across the length of the wall merges over time as names are added, underlying the unity of all firefighters across the country. This wall also acts as the ‘cut face’ of the crystalline landform that emerges from the street, and it alludes to the sheared stone walls of the Trans-Canada Highway.

CFFF partnered with the National Capital Commission (NCC) for the project’s development. The former fundraised to build the memorial, while the latter provided the site and will remain in charge of maintenance.

Memorial design requires special emphasis on the longevity and durability of design elements. This project had to meet NCC’s strict design standards and maintenance requirements, particularly because it is a project intended for a long lifespan.

The site plan of the Canadian Firefi ghters Memorial and ground improvements.
The site plan of the Canadian Firefi ghters Memorial and ground improvements. Image © PLANT Architect Inc.
Image courtesy Blackwell
Image courtesy Blackwell














Founding the Memorial: A solid base
The 3035-m2 (32,668-sf) site is a remediated landfill located in Ottawa’s LeBreton Flats area. LeBreton Flats was historically a mix of timber production, industry, and rail yards until it was devastated by fire in 1900. The area was rebuilt and continued in similar composition of uses until the 1960s. The site was remediated before it was turned over for the memorial project, but this history was still relevant for the Memorial Wall’s founding.

The founding and structural base of the wall was critical to achieve stability for its projected lifetime; any shifting due to soil settlement would impact the walls and stonework. The structural engineer worked closely with the geotechnical engineer to evaluate the location of bedrock, and composition of subsurface material to assess existing conditions and their structural capacity for the wall. The geotechnical report1 concluded the existing subsoil conditions consisted of granular backfill layer (approximately 1.5 to 3.6 m [5 to 11 4/5 ft] thick) followed by a fill layer mixed with demolition debris to depths of approximately 5.8 to 6.5 m (19 to 21 1/3 ft) below the existing grade. Bedrock was encountered at 6.6 to 10 m (21 3/5 to 32 4/5 ft) from existing site elevations.

The engineered design strategy to improve subsurface conditions and support the memorial included a system of ground improvements. Due to the proposed depth of bedrock and the founding depth of retaining foundation walls (2.1 m [6 4/5 ft] below the proposed elevations), the engineering team recommended using a combination of rapid impact compaction (RIC) and granular piers (geo-piers) to support retaining walls. RIC consolidated existing fill materials and produced a more uniform material in terms of compaction state. The geo-piers were installed under the proposed structures to maintain total settlements of less than 10 mm (0.39 in.) over the structure’s design life.

Approximately 500 mm (19 3/5 in.) of bearing surface material (crushed stone) was installed over the geo-piers to evenly distribute the load of the retaining wall foundations. The Memorial Wall spread footings required 2.1 m of soil coverage for protection against sub-footing frost action.

The Memorial Wall is a 42-m (137 4/5-ft) long retaining wall to the sloped landform behind. Adequate drainage between the wall and the planting soil was needed to guard against frost heave to the structural walls. The potential for lateral frost action against the retaining wall stems was significantly reduced by placing 75 mm (3 in.) of insulation on the back face of the walls in conjunction with free-draining granular fill behind the wall, connected to a positive drainage outlet. Waterproofing and drainage board was also installed on the footings and walls to provide additional protection for the concrete.

The crystalline rock form is a series of faceted stone and planted planes, starting at the back of the wall (up to 3.1 m [10.1 ft]) and facet at various angles to meet the ground. The paved slopes are designed as a series of on-grade concrete slabs connected by a series of reinforced concrete beams that tie the structure together. The material used to raise the site in the crystalline landform is free-draining and non-frost susceptible crushed stone. The landscaped planes are free-draining, and movement due to frost action is not expected.

The wall’s height ranges from 1.8 to 3.1 m (6 to 10 ft) above adjacent paved surface. The reinforced concrete walls are 435 mm (17 in.) below grade and 300 mm (11 4/5 in.) thick to accommodate granite slabs hung from its surface.

The concrete for the Memorial Wall is in progress during construction. Images © PLANT Architect Inc.
The concrete for the Memorial Wall is in progress during construction. Images © PLANT Architect Inc.
The ground improvements are in full swing.
The ground improvements are in full swing.











Stone selection, engineering, detailing, and fabrication
Extensive research and consultation was done during the design process to find stone suitable to the design intent and details. Québec’s Picasso granite was used for the Memorial Wall and names wall; it has a uniform composition to provide a good surface for engraving. Ontario’s oversized slabs of Elite Blue granite were chosen for the crystalline rock landscape. At the quarry, the Elite Blue is split along the grain-line to provide ‘sheets’ to fabricate the sloped stone landform. The stone engineers played a critical role in the slab inspection and engineering of the panels’ hanging system.

Before delivery of the stone slabs to the fabricators, the stone consultant visited the quarry for an initial inspection of the material following the first pass through the primary saws. At this point, the stone appeared to be of high quality without any visible fissures or inclusions. The visit to the quarry also included a look at two quarried blocks earmarked for the monument. The stone was deemed suitable for a high-profile project such as this. After the initial inspection, the consultant examined the slabs at the fabricators, and then again onsite before installation to flag any problematic panels. The granite panels for the Memorial Wall are 64 mm (2 1/2 in.) thick for vertically installed panels, or those close to a vertical plane. For the sloped panels installed closer to a horizontal plane, the thickness was increased to 75 mm (3 in.) to accommodate additional stresses from gravity loads.

This is the Memorial Wall’s section detail.
This is the Memorial Wall’s section detail.

Since each stone is unique, a custom engineered support system of stainless steel bent plates was needed. The geometric intricacies presented challenges in arranging a support system, requiring close co-ordination with the stone supplier who provided detailed drawings for each piece of stone. A 3-D model was prepared and closely examined to determine the required angles for the bending of the stainless steel plates. The anchor locations had to be arranged so they would not interfere with the lighting and bronze elements, adding to the complications at the names wall.

The stainless steel bent plates were installed into the cast-in-place concrete wall using expansion anchors. The connection to the stones was accomplished using a cramped bend into a kerf cut into the stone. Stainless steel was specified because of its resistance to corrosion and the longevity it provides to the installation.

Minor changes were made to the initial concept design to increase the granite panel’s lifespan. One such adjustment was the detailing at the base of the names wall. The original concept was to extend the granite panels below grade level, but this was modified because of the nature of the monument. The monument space is pedestrian-friendly; although not part of the current maintenance plan, this may eventually require use of de-icing salts in the winter. These salts would rapidly deteriorate any granite at the grade level, greatly reducing the lifespan of the monument.

The crystalline landscape form comprises three sizes of Elite Blue granite slabs. The slabs are a uniform 610 mm (24 in.) in width, and range from 610 to 1500 mm (24 to 59 in.) in length, with the thickness varying from 75 to 125 mm (3 to 5 in.). The concrete slopes on which these slabs were laid ranged from five to 35 per cent, so both the installation method and sequencing was co-ordinated with the stone installation team. The stone was laid in a pattern parallel to the long edge against the valley moving up the slope. The lowest edge of stone was secured with custom steel angles and heavy-duty metal pavement edging was installed every few rows to transfer the weight along the entire edge to the concrete slab below, and is visibly hidden in the gaps between the slabs.

Crystalline rock form backfi ll.
Crystalline rock form backfill.

The stone fabrication was a critical and intricate process that started with onsite measuring of the as-built concrete, shop drawings, templates, fabrication, installation, and additional adjustments. The general contractor co-ordinated the subcontractor so the as-built measurements could be completed in a staged process, allowing for stone fabrication and installation co-ordination to occur simultaneously. This installation also had to be staged in tandem with the lighting and bronze elements.

Co-ordinating the details
One of the most highly detailed and precise design elements on the memorial is where the specialty stone finishing, bronze flags, and light fixtures come together to mark the edge of the stone panels. The etched bronze numbered flags are installed on each stone panel on the names wall and provide a way to locate names of the fallen firefighters.

The stone is sandblasted to match the width and depth of the bronze flag so the flag is flush with the face and side of the stone panel—the entire strip reads as one large element. Every other panel incorporates a light fixture to illuminate the path along the wall at night. This light-emitting diode (LED) design provides security and is night-sky-compliant (i.e. minimal light pollution) with full cut-off. Mockups of the stone, light fixtures, and bronze flags were required before approval was given on the stone fabrication tickets to ensure alignment and position kept with the original design intent.

The general contractor had to sequence the installation of the individual light fixture boxes (which were attached to the back of the stone panels), and bronze flags (which were secured to the edge of the stone panel) in tandem with each stone panel installation.

Other specialty bronze elements include an acid-etched bronze plaque with the “Firefighters Prayer” recessed into a granite panel at the sitting nook—an intimate seating area. A non-directional waxed finish was specified to stand up to potential vandalism, as well as to allow the text to remain legible.

Another look at the backfi ll. Upon completion, the crystalline rock form is a series of faceted stone and planted planes.
Another look at the backfill. Upon completion, the crystalline rock form is a series of faceted stone and planted planes.
This image shows the Memorial Wall’s crystalline rock form stonework.
This image shows the Memorial Wall’s crystalline rock form stonework.











Reading the site
The typography was designed to convey memorial and commemorative information including two distinct typefaces and rendering methods. The names on the Memorial Wall are deeply sandblasted into the honed granite face to provide clarity in all weather and lighting conditions, as well as when rubbings of names are taken. The Sackers Gothic typeface is a modern reinterpretation of classical forms that has an appropriate formality yet contemporary feel. A contrasting typeface—Candida Stencil—was selected for the commemorative plaques, echoing the bold ‘working’ typography of the firehouse, but acid-etched into bronze with a deep patina to provide solemnity.

For the engraving of the names wall, the contractor performed an onsite, as-built confirmation of the stone panel sizes. This included measuring the joint size between each of the stone panels so the text could be adjusted to accommodate accordingly. The elevation was updated and the typographer used this as a base to finish the layout of the name clouds. The final type size, kerning, tracking, and line spacing was calibrated to allow the text to flow across the joints in the wall without gaps, looking forward to the future addition of names to the wall as required. After the final layout was completed, the engravers cut stencils of each panel and adjusted them onsite to ensure name alignment was uniform over the total 26 panels (31 m [101.7 ft] in length) before sandblasting.

The names of fallen firefighters are carved once a year into the granite wall, whose shape stems from an abstract version of a map of Canada. As mentioned, the names are carved in formations that leave ample space for future names, allowing for a merged unified field over the next century.

The names are organized regionally, carved deeply, and treated with a lithochrome wash to increase legibility, while the provincial boundaries are only lightly engraved and untreated. This results in the highlighting of the names and disappearance of the boundaries when the stone is wet—another reminder of the universal bond between firefighters.

The stone panel installation at the Memorial Wall.
The stone panel installation at the Memorial Wall.
Engineered steel clips for stone panels.
Engineered steel clips for stone panels.












Since its unveiling, the project has been formally integrated into Ottawa’s Firefighter Memorial Service Route and into the National Capital Commission’s Ceremonial Route, which leads to Ottawa’s Parliament Buildings. Not only is the site a memorial, but it is also a public landscape and community park that provides planting, open space, and seating for daily use as well as for commemorative ceremonies and events.

The Canadian Firefighters Memorial embodies the nation’s heritage and landscape. Plants that could change and grow with the seasons, including native flora recognized for their hardiness, colour, and form, were selected. Every inch of stone and bronze, and every plant was carefully selected from, or crafted in, local communities across Canada—from the bronze foundry in Edmonton and the stone suppliers in Québec and Ontario, to the metal fabricators in Toronto, and stonemasons in Ottawa.

The general contractor, Prestige Construction, understood the importance of this project and worked carefully to integrate and develop structure, stone, lighting, and specialty bronze detailing to achieve the design team’s objectives, attain realistic construction sequencing, and be durable for more than a century.

The Canadian Firefighters Memorial was completed in the summer of 2012 and inaugurated later that year. It was awarded a Canadian Society of Landscape Architects (CSLA) Regional Honour Award for Design.

1 For more, see Paterson Group Consulting Engineers’ document Geotechnical Assessment, Canadian Firefighter Memorial March 2, 2011. (back to top)

VE-Pic2Vanessa Eickhoff is an associate and landscape architect at PLANT Architect Inc. She has worked on institutional and public projects in both the United States and Canada and is currently project manager for the Nathan Phillips Square revitalization in Toronto. Eickhoff can be reached by e-mail at


MT P1120679 rgbMary Tremain is a founding partner of PLANT Architect Inc. She has 25 years of experience designing and managing public and private community projects that promote integration of architecture and landscape including the Canadian Firefighters Memorial and Nathan Philips Square’s podium roof garden. Tremain can be contacted at


ChrisVopniChris Vopni, P.Eng,. is a structural engineer at John G. Cooke & Associates Ltd. He is currently project engineer for the West Block Rehabilitation Project with Ojdrovic + Cooke Engineers in Joint Venture and for the Fairmont Royal York Hotel Masonry Conservation. Vopni can be reached via e-mail at

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