Heritage buildings and the evolution of workspace

Restored heritage interior

Photo: Restored heritage interior


Michael Emory

Economics of heritage, Buildings and architecture, Adaptive reuse

Published Date: Oct 01, 2019

I work for Allied Properties – a leading owner, manager and developer of urban workspace in major Canadian cities. Allied’s units are publicly traded on the Toronto Stock Exchange.

Allied was known initially for its leading role in the emergence of distinctive urban workspace in Toronto. This began in the 1980s and accelerated in the late 1990s. It involved the adaptive reuse of heritage buildings constructed over a century ago for light-industrial use. Properly restored and retrofitted, these buildings were ideal for contemporary office and storefront-retail use because of their high ceilings, abundant natural light, exposed structural frames, interior brick, hardwood floors and architecturally distinct façades. It felt a lot like Back to the Future at the time, and it still does.

Though not the first, Allied was early to recognize that heritage buildings could be reused to serve knowledge-based organizations at the vanguard of our economy. Allied also recognized that operating these buildings in a concentrated and coordinated manner enabled them to become a vital part of the urban fabric and to contribute meaningfully to a sense of community, especially in the midst of a dense and monolithic city.

Interestingly, Allied’s experience with restored heritage buildings guided it to the future of workspace. If you ask workspace users today what matters most, their answer will be light, air and an open plan, which are the very attributes that led to the remarkable emergence of restored heritage buildings two decades ago. Abundant natural light and fresh air contribute enormously to human wellness and productivity. An open plan improves collaboration and creativity. When people can move around and freely interact with one another, good things happen. Communication is improved, along with mutual understanding, and those wonderful random sparks of ingenuity occur.

Thanks to user attitudes and building technology, we no longer have to destroy the old to create the new. We can restore and retrofit older structures worthy of preservation and integrate them with new ones, as Allied has done in Toronto and other major Canadian cities. New-format office space that successfully integrates old and new is a big part of the future of workspace.

Heritage staircase

Heritage staircase

Allied’s experience with heritage buildings also increased its sensitivity to design. When people migrated to the suburbs in the 1950s, the sensitivity to design in the inner cities seemed to diminish, if not disappear altogether. Heritage properties were destroyed to make way for non-descript, inward-looking buildings, and synthetic materials seemed to cover everything everywhere. You can’t imagine how many beautiful hardwood staircases Allied discovered beneath sheets of arborite.

Design now matters, and design now pays. The workspace that Allied created at the Queen Richmond Centre West in Toronto is an excellent example. Our architects, Sweeny&Co., came up with a creative and beautiful way to build a new office tower above two fully restored heritage buildings. Although the design entailed additional cost, the ultimate economic and social return on the investment was exceptional. The design paid off in every conceivable way.

While it’s largely counter-intuitive, the intensification of major Canadian cities and changing attitudes toward workspace actually created favourable conditions for revitalizing heritage buildings. While public policy can certainly be helpful in this regard, the best guarantee is economic viability. Because of changing attitudes, with emphasis on distinctiveness and authenticity, adaptively re-using heritage buildings is likely to remain viable for the foreseeable future, which bodes well for cities and for city building.

Allied’s business is underpinned by the economic viability of restored heritage buildings. Allied went public in 2003 for the express purpose of consolidating urban workspace that was centrally located, architecturally distinctive and more cost-effective than conventional office towers. The consolidation that ensued was continuous. Starting with assets of $120 million, a market capitalization of $62 million and a local urban workspace portfolio of 76,180 square metres (820,000 square feet), Allied now has assets of $8 billion, a market capitalization of $6 billion and a national urban workspace portfolio of nearly 1.2 million square metres (13 million square feet). I mention this not as an advertisement for Allied, but rather as compelling evidence of the fact that restoring heritage buildings is both economically viable and socially desirable. [Photos courtesy of Michael Emory]

Allied discovered one of the best two-tone brick façades in Toronto beneath sheets of tin siding.

Allied discovered one of the best two-tone brick façades in Toronto beneath sheets of tin siding.