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Inside Innovation: In praise of older buildings

John Bleasby
Inside Innovation: In praise of older buildings

Issuing predictions for a new year, let alone a new decade, is a mug’s game. However, there are events to which the construction industry can look forward with certainty over the next several years. These will impact how developers, owners, designers and contractors consider new projects over the next ten years.

Many of these events will be regulatory in nature. Changes to Canada’s National Building Code are expected later this year and will continue to evolve over the next 10 years as part of the country’s 2030 commitment to overall global GHG reduction.

As a result, the building industry will be motivated to look beyond green field construction and tear-down-and-replace projects in order to meet the housing, commercial and infrastructure demands for the world’s ever-increasing population. Some of that attention will be directed to something very familiar: older buildings.

Renovating or repurposing existing buildings is not an entirely new concept. Homeowners have been renovating with enthusiasm for decades. Old warehouses in former urban factory districts have been repurposed as trendy workspaces, restaurants, galleries and condominiums.

Through creative design, repurposing and renovation can offer new life even to existing shopping malls, high-rise apartments and commercial buildings without the complete demolition of what was standing beforehand.

There are examples everywhere. Calgary developer Strategic Group is converting the Barron Building, an iconic 50’s-era downtown 12-storey office building into a mixed-use space featuring retail and rental residences. The building’s art deco exterior will be preserved while modern residences are built inside.

In Hamilton Ont., the Ken Soble Tower, a 50-year-old, 24-storey municipally-owned senior’s residence, is undergoing a deep energy retrofit, the first of what will be many similar projects in cities across Canada.

Beyond the aesthetic appeal of many older structures, there is another reason for the growing interest in preserving buildings rather than replacing them with newly cast concrete and steel — embodied carbon.

New construction processes are very wasteful of carbon and other GHGs, accounting for eight per cent of all GHGs created around the world. Of course, the argument that new buildings are more operationally energy-efficient than older buildings is compelling, at least until one learns that construction of those new buildings accounts for 80 per cent of total GHG emissions over the structure’s lifespan.

In fact, the payback period for carbon expended during construction can take decades to recover through energy-efficiency gains. Toronto architectural firm Quadrangle conducted an internal Life Cycle Carbon analysis that indicated a carbon payback period for concrete construction of 43 years. Mass timber construction was better, at 21 years.

While this would seem to favour wood over concrete during a building’s expected lifecycle, it overlooks the carbon savings of renovated or re-purposed buildings. These existing structures represent the embodiment of tons of carbon expended decades earlier.

However, not everyone is sold on the concept of renovation or repurposing to extend a building’s useful life.

The 2016 IKEA building in London, U.K., promoted as the company’s most sustainable store in their global network, resulted ironically in the demolition of a 15-year-old supermarket that was itself a pioneer of passive and active solutions for heating, cooling and day-lighting.

In Canada, some leading developers are dismissive of apartment building upgrades in lieu of new construction despite the high demand for increased and improved rental housing supply.

RioCan REIT’s CEO, Ed Sonshine recently referred to such renovations in the Globe and Mail as attempting to put lipstick on a pig. “When you’ve got 50 years of cooking in a building, the walls smell,” he said. “And you can’t replace anything, because then you have to kick people out.”

The reduction of the construction industry’s contribution to GHGs will, of course, require several solutions: forced regulation, improved manufacturing and assembly methods, and increased use of carbon-reduced materials. At the same time, it will mean a new dawn for older buildings, and recognition that something old can be made new again.

John Bleasby is a Coldwater, Ont. based freelance writer. Send comments and Inside Innovation column ideas to

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