Canadian Consulting Engineer

History Matters

December 1, 2014
By Jessica Krippendorf

The built environment in Canada tells a story. From the sturdy Baroque-style homes that created mini-fortresses across the country’s early landscape, to Canada’s distinct architectural variations — Château Style,...

The built environment in Canada tells a story. From the sturdy Baroque-style homes that created mini-fortresses across the country’s early landscape, to Canada’s distinct architectural variations — Château Style, Neo-Gothic — the country’s economic and political history can be read on the facades of its many heritage buildings.

Even later, when Art-Deco and Classic Modernism began to take hold, Canadian designers had their unique signatures, leaving an architectural legacy that spans nearly 400 years.

But when it comes to preserving these heritage treasures, the past three decades may have been the most important in the history of Canada’s built environment.

Donald Luxton, principal with Donald Luxton & Associates, a cultural and resource management firm based in Vancouver, says that thanks to a friendly regulatory environment, community emphasis on adaptive reuse, and a deeper understanding among building professionals, these are happening times for heritage conservation.

When Luxton started out in 1983 there were no heritage training opportunities in Canada — a person learned on the job or at American conferences. The 1980s were crucial to the industry, in fact, because the U.S. introduced Historical Preservation Tax Incentives and the Secretary of the Interior released Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties. Canadian designers used these until Canada released its own standards in 2003.

Although 20 per cent of Canada’s heritage buildings have been demolished, since establishing guidelines and an ocean of tax credits, grants, and restoration initiatives, Canada has designated thousands of heritage buildings — 1,700 in the Ottawa area alone. The Standards and Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places in Canada are used across the country, ensuring the language, principles, and standards of practice are the same from coast to coast. And heritage consultants make up a niche but essential component of successful restoration projects, working closely with engineers and code consultants to create flexible, appropriate solutions to complex problems.

“The projects have to be comprehensive and make sense,” Luxton says. “We come from a place of research at first, documenting and understanding the building and then making technical suggestions.”

Always a surprise

Seismic requirements, building envelope, and energy performance are all important facets of restoration that often call for individual and creative approaches. Sustainability is also a serious issue, along with building performance, longevity and human safety. These factors all have to work and function together.

Restorations can be messy — the team rarely understands the building before they open it up and really look at it. “You never know what you are going to find,” Luxton says. “The Woodward’s building in Vancouver is a good example; it must have had about 27 additions and different types of construction, and the materials had deteriorated.”

“At the same time,” he adds, “you can find solid brick and stone, first growth wood, and materials with inherent good performance to work with.”

Buildings are assessed on a case-by-case basis. In some projects the basic structure may be preserved, while in others only the facade is retained because there is no way to make the building work, for example to include new parking underneath.

Challenges often arise from a fire protection code perspective despite the existence of alternative compliance paths. “You can solve a lot with sprinklers,” says Luxton, “but these are highly technical and not easy projects.”

Water Street Revitalization

Vancouver’s Water Street Revitalization project is a prime example of the complexity and creativity that comes with heritage restoration projects.

The three-phase project completed in 2009 breathed new life into five adjacent historic buildings and became a cornerstone of Vancouver’s Gastown neighbourhood. The revitalization increased the buildings’ density 100 per cent, and created a vibrant mixed-use quarter with space for living, working, socializing, and commerce.

Each of the five buildings brings its own architectural importance to the half city block. Mark Ostry, principal with Acton Ostry Architects who oversaw the entire revitalization, says the company spent 18 months working with the City of Vancouver’s director of planning and completed extensive 3D modelling to achieve the urban design goals. These included not wanting the block to appear homogeneous.

At the same time, the floor-to-floor heights were different between buildings and had to be aligned. There was enormous variation in the existing buildings’ construction systems, such as places where concrete, timber, and wood met and had to be connected, each with different fire-ratings and seismic considerations. “Nothing was uniform,” Ostry says.

At the east end of the row, the Alhambra, constructed in 1886, is one of the city’s oldest intact structures. It required extensive restoration of its storefronts, doors, granite thresholds, roof and windows. The adjacent Garage building of 1930 is one the earliest purpose-built garage and service stations in Vancouver. Art-deco style stepped-profile brackets at the ground floor openings were among the facade elements that were preserved. The adaptive reuse took care with the building’s large-span ground floor concrete structure openings and duplicated its early board-formed reinforced concrete construction.

The adjacent Cordage, built in 1911, was an early mixed-use Classic Revival building. Next is the Grand Hotel erected in 1889, and at the end of the stretch is the Terminus Hotel, which burned in a fire in 2000 and afterwards was reduced to a free-standing facade.

Garage, Cordage, Terminus and Grand received upper level additions, which required a thoughtful approach to marrying contemporary features with the heritage aesthetic. Garage for example received a three-storey residential addition, and because it was designed to match the original board-formed concrete, the city allowed it to be constructed in the same plane as the existing building.

The additions at Cordage, Terminus and Grand were set back and heavily glazed, with bridge and exterior components made of glass and steel. “The city wanted to ensure the modern parts didn’t detract from the historical components,” says Ostry.

The complexity came down to the finest details — the existing buildings presented almost no tolerances, where a half inch could prevent the project from meeting the accessibility codes and requirements.

The buildings use high efficiency water and energy systems, and active and passive mechanical systems. A geothermal heating system services the Terminus and Garage buildings. The units’ floor plates and window placement were designed with an eye on efficiency. In Terminus, for instance, circulation is concentrated in the middle of the building to maximize daylight and natural ventilation.

Ostry speaks proudly of the revitalized stretch of Water Street, noting that the changes “bring vitality to an area rescued at an opportune and important time.”

The project recently won a 2014 Heritage Canada National Trust Award. cce

Jessica Krippendorf is a freelance writer based in Vancouver.


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