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Sustainability for old buildings: A developer’s perspective

Tip Top Lofts, Toronto (Photo: Context Development)

Photo: Tip Top Lofts, Toronto (Photo: Context Development)

By

Alex Speigel

Buildings and architecture, Environment

Published Date: Nov 15, 2007

Adaptive reuse provides a sound and sustainable approach to the renewal of our urban fabric, as illustrated by the conversion of three Toronto buildings to residential lofts by Context Development – Kensington Market Lofts was created from the abandoned Kensington Campus of George Brown College, Tip Top Lofts was constructed within and above the vacant Tip Top Tailors Building on the waterfront and The Loretto brought new life to the darkened façade of Loretto College in the Annex.

With older buildings, one inherits their density and height, which is often greater than would be allowed today. Window openings are also grandfathered, providing more opportunities than current codes permit. Retention of landmark buildings also draws strong community support, which helps with approvals.

The marketing benefits of a conversion are significant. Older buildings provide greater floor-to-ceiling heights, unique architectural details and historical façades. Purchaser demand for historical buildings translates into positive publicity, higher sale prices and faster sales. Sales were brisk in all three of these projects – a testimony to the public’s heritage appreciation.

The social benefits of retaining historical buildings are self-evident: protecting our heritage and retaining their established place in the neighbourhood. The Tip Top building, for example, has been recognized as a landmark since its construction in the 1930s.

Adaptive reuse also has strong environmental benefits. Retaining older structures conserves the substantial energy already invested in their original fabrication. Avoiding demolition results in less material in landfills, as well as reduced transportation and material costs. Use of infill sites satisfies public intensification policy in a low-impact manner, as well as using urban infrastructure and transit more efficiently.

Why isn’t everyone rushing to convert older buildings? There are challenges that must be understood before beginning these projects. For instance, there are limitations to introducing a new program into an old structure. Floor plans must be tailored to fit within existing floor plates. Underpinning to enable underground parking is often cost prohibitive. Upgrading building envelopes can be technically challenging, and remediation is commonly required to deal with environmental contaminants. Designation of heritage buildings requires additional approvals, patience and understanding from the owner, the public and local government.

The biggest challenge with conversions is the harsh reality of time and money. These projects inevitably take longer and entail more specialized skills than new construction. Careful budgeting is required, including large contingencies. There are also often unknown factors that arise during construction that require resourceful thinking and flexibility.

Conversion projects, however, provide new life for heritage buildings, ensuring their vitality in the community and their economic and environmental sustainability for years to come. They illustrate the joys and sorrows inherent in adaptive reuse. The process is not for the uninitiated or faint of heart, but the rewards certainly can make the journey worth the effort.