Understanding adaptive reuse

The former Bank of Montreal in Hamilton was converted for use as the Gowlings Law Office

Buildings and architecture, Adaptive reuse

Published Date: Sep 11, 2008

Photo: The former Bank of Montreal in Hamilton was converted for use as the Gowlings Law Office

In our efforts to conserve heritage properties, finding a use can be our greatest challenge and our greatest opportunity. An unused, vacant heritage building is a property at risk. Only through physical intervention aimed at preservation – or reanimation through new use – can a vacant heritage property be fully conserved. Not every use, however, is right for every building; the most important step is finding the right match.

Adaptive reuse is a logical, obvious and practical means of conserving these properties. But what do we really mean by this term? What principles, criteria and questions must we consider in evaluating a proposed adaptive reuse project?

Adaptive reuse is conservation neutral. Some examples use a rehabilitation approach, sensitive to the heritage value of the property by utilizing good conservation principles. Other adaptive reuse projects are more destructive with little regard for the heritage value of a building or property. Attributes that could be retained and put to new use are often removed, replaced or otherwise destroyed. Such insensitive projects may involve renovation (i.e., where old is replaced with new), partial retention (i.e., where only a portion of a heritage property is kept, such as the façade) and reconstruction, whereby a considerable degree of demolition and unnecessary loss of heritage attributes occur. Ultimately, the conservation success of an adaptive reuse project can be gauged by the degree to which the heritage attributes are preserved.

Architectural adaptation is the act of making changes to a building in order to facilitate a use that was never planned or contemplated in the original design. Traditionally, we assume that the easiest fit for a building in terms of potential reuse is the use for which a building was originally intended. But is this really the case?

Toronto’s Bathurst Street Theatre was originally the Bathurst Street Wesleyan Methodist Church (later the Bathurst Street United Church), built in 1888. In 1985, the congregation no longer used the space and rented it to the theatre company. The Bathurst Street Theatre bought the building in 2002.

Let us consider the adaptation of an early 20th-century bank to modern needs. Modern banking is quite different than its historical counterpart. Adapting an old bank may require considerable adaptations, including: changes in the circulation plan; different furniture; conduit and ductwork for information technology and ventilation; additional space for computer equipment and security systems; more space for automated tellers and fewer traditional wickets. Most significantly, the imposing and lavish bank manager’s office and traditional, steel walk-in vault – the very essence of a historical bank – would not be easy fits for modern use. Adapting an old bank to modern banking might be more physically invasive than simply converting it to a jewelry store or art gallery instead. For instance, the former Bank of Montreal in Hamilton (built in 1928) has been successfully converted to the regional office of the Gowlings law firm in a manner that may be more sensitive than if a modern bank had tried to reuse the facility.

Strictly speaking, reuse is the recycling of an existing building for a new use – for example, the use of an old church as a modern theatre. Changes, or adaptations, may also occur – both additions and removals – to make it useable, viable and safe as a theatre. In the case of Toronto’s Bathurst Street Theatre, now the home of the Randolph Academy for the Performing Arts, this former Methodist Church (built in 1888) has operated as a performing arts facility since 1985. The sightlines, acoustics and seating capacity of the space made the conversion to a theatre a logical progression that required minimal changes, while preserving the majority of the heritage attributes both inside and out.

The principles of adaptive reuse for heritage properties are identical to the principles of conservation (see Parks Canada’s Standards and Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places in Canada, the Ontario Ministry of Culture’s Eight Guiding Principles in the Conservation of Built Heritage Properties, etc.). But there are a number of features common to heritage-sensitive adaptive reuse projects, including:

  • Thoughtful research, planning and design
  • Preservation, utilization and celebration of the heritage attributes
  • Sufficient space to accommodate the new use
  • Realistic performance expectations for the existing building
  • More repair and rehabilitation than new construction
  • Grouping, limiting and externalizing of the modern services
  • Economic viability

Adaptive reuse is a key component in the conservation equation, but it is important to remember that not every use is a good fit for every heritage building. Selecting the right use is perhaps the most influential factor in the successful conservation of any heritage property.