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Adaptive reuse of older buildings helps meet density requirements, says expert

Dan O'Reilly

Using three projects his firm has worked on, a principal with a Toronto architectural firm made the case for the preservation and adaptive reuse of older buildings at a Construct Canada seminar.

Restored and redesigned buildings help meet density requirements, contribute to the fabric of city life, and are “cool places to work,” said Carl Blanchaer of WZMH Architects, using a series of slides to demonstrate how they can be can be reconfigured into flexible workstations.

One of the projects highlighted was the conversion of 222 Jarvis St. in Toronto, the former Sears Canada head office, into an Ontario government building housing a number of its ministries.

Constructed in 1971, “it was a large, but ugly building.” Workers had to use escalators or stairs to move around the nine-storey structure, as there was only one elevator and it was used for hauling freight.

As part of their design, WZMH created a more transparent exterior with the use of high-performance clear glass. As well, skylights were installed, meeting spaces were built around the elevator landings and the freight elevator remade into one that also carries pedestrians, said Blanchaer.

The LEED Gold-designated building is “one of North America’s largest green building retrofits.”

At 111 Richmond St. W. — one of the towers forming Oxford Properties Group’s Richmond Adelaide Centre development in Toronto — the architects had a mandate to retrofit the 1954 building so that it would appeal to today’s marketplace. But the estimated project costs had to be weighed against projected leasing rates, he said.

Some of the measures used to create a “special loft-style office space”, included retrofitting the original lobby, creating a second lobby which links to a redesigned courtyard, and removing false ceilings to expose the concrete slabs which have become decorative features.

Now designated as a LEED Gold building, 111 Richmond has a number of high-profile tenants, including Google, he said.

In adaptive projects it’s crucial to work with rather than against the building structure and that’s exactly what was achieved in the transformation of an old hydro generating plant into the new Nova Scotia Power Authority Headquarters in Halifax. Constructed in a series of modules since 1944, it had been decommissioned in 1999.

Some selective demolition of the concrete shell exterior was required. But the interior steel supporting system was left intact. Even so, more than 75 per cent of the work spaces receive day light, he said.

“It has a lot of steel which forms the character and texture of the building,” said Blanchaer, showing the audience a 3-D slide to illustrate that point.

Another much older slide showed the building’s smoke stacks which were removed before the conversion. But their importance as a defining feature of the building’s original purpose has not been obliterated. New skylights in the rooftop openings evoke the “architectural memory” of the smokestacks and are an important feature to the workers, he said.

Occupied in 2012, the 193,000-square-foot LEED Platinum building has been the recipient of several awards including the Nova Scotia Lieutenant Governor’s 2012 Design Award Medal of Excellence.

Adaptive reuse projects, however, are not easy. Some of the biggest hurdles are low sill and ceiling heights which may not meet modern day tenant requirements and the obstacles to making them energy efficient, said the architect.

But the biggest impediment is the cost when compared to new construction. Cost for the Nova Scotia Power Headquarters project was $240 a square foot and $220 and $160, respectively for the 222 Jarvis St. and 111 Richmond St. W. buildings. A comparative cost for new construction would be in the $175 to $200-square-foot range, said Blanchaer.

Those figures prompted one member of the audience to question the whole concept of adaptive reuse.

In a counter response, the architect said: “We have mandate to make a statement about sustainability.”

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