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REMEMBER THIS: Re-purposing heritage buildings builds bridge between old and new

In this week's column, History Hound Richard MacLeod highlights the many values of bringing new life to older buildings, like Newmarket's former post office

This is a topic very close to my heart; the re-purposing of heritage buildings to preserve them for posterity. In September, I featured the story of the re-purposing of the Doane House into the Doane House Hospice and how successful that effort was both for the community and our heritage preservation.

This article is the first of a two-part series, with the first focusing on the pros and cons of preservation, and the second taking a closer look at the heritage projects that have been completed and in the midst of being completed and judging their level of success given our guidelines.

Heritage preservation projects fall under the legislative oversight of both the Ontario Heritage Legislation and Town of Newmarket bylaws, and must comply with said regulations.

In architecture, there is a discipline called adaptive reuse, which is the repurposing of buildings that have outlived their original purpose. Its main goals include preserving architectural and cultural heritage, transforming urban blight and igniting social change.

Adaptive reuse, also called building reuse, in Newmarket has included converting an old house into a restaurant, an old fire station into a brewery, and a factory into lofts or condos. 

Commercial real estate developers most commonly handle adaptive reuse projects because they have the financial means and construction expertise required to renovate these structures successfully.

Both adaptive reuse and historic preservation can indeed save historic buildings, however, the approach taken can be quite different.

Historic preservation sustains a building’s existing form, integrity and materials. Exterior additions and alterations often don’t fall within the strict guidelines with minimally invasive mechanical, electrical and plumbing upgrades and work required to meet existing new building codes generally appropriate.

One of the biggest benefits of adaptive reuse over historic preservation is affording the flexibility to use new, efficient materials while still paying homage to the structure’s history.

Adaptive reuse, by design, implies renovation. Renovation is generally limited to repairing and refinishing a building, while preserving the building’s original purpose, adaptive reuse implies a transformation of use.

If we look at the Hockey Hall of Fame, we see an excellent example of integration that involved constructing around an original structure – in this case, the historic old Bank of Montreal – preserving that structure while encompassing it inside a new building.

Adaptive reuse can also involve what is call “facadism,” an urban design tactic of preserving a building’s facade while demolishing the bulk of the rest of the building to replace it with a modern structure. A “facadectomy” preserves the streetscape view but is expensive because the facade, which is usually built from fragile historical materials, needs to be supported and protected during construction.

Historic preservation advocates tend to consider facadism a poor substitute for preserving an entire building, but supporters consider it a better alternative than erasing a city’s historic footprint.

Adaptive reuse within an urban centre not only offers a counter to sprawl but can create a new community beacon, like the rebirth of the old Post Office on Main Street as a boutique hotel and the development of the Mulock Estate as a park.

Adaptive reuse is an excellent option for many building projects in Newmarket because it can lower construction costs. Overall, adaptive reuse uses more labor than it does building materials, and while material costs have skyrocketed, labour costs have increased only slightly. Adaptive reuse also forgoes demolition expenses, which are often expensive.

As well, there are often federal tax credits for adaptive reuse of buildings.  

Ultimately, these projects are popular with the community because people enjoy the historical preservation of significant buildings in their neighbourhood and new unique landmarks. If you’re a commercial builder, reusing an older building can be a key factor in driving customers to your establishment, whether it’s a restaurant, a hotel or a commercial facility.

But are there disadvantages to this approach? The first perceived disadvantage is cost as in some cases it is cheaper to construct a new facility rather than adapt an existing heritage property. Government regulation, whether it be provincial or municipal, can certainly impede the project. That is where coordination with existing legislation is vital to the project’s success.  

Over the years, I have learned that the key to the success of any project is planning and the adherence to a strict set of guidelines / policies.

Whether you’re an aspiring homeowner looking at an historical structure or a commercial builder ready to turn an old historic landmark into something new, here are the accepted general steps:

  • Assess the building. Hire a professional to assess the old structure to ensure it’s a good candidate for adaptive reuse. Along with the assessment, one must research local and provincial heritage guidelines to ensure your idea is viable.
  • Survey the neighbourhood. Will the community be interested in the type of building you’re planning? 
  • Determine the budget. While adaptive reuse has lower costs than building from the ground up, it can be expensive. You need to have a contractor estimate how much your project will cost.
  • Hire the right team. Adaptive reuse is not a DIY endeavour. Professionals will need to work on every facet of the project. A restoration contractor and a design professional (preferably an architect or architecture firm specializing in adaptive reuse) are essential in a restoration project. If your project is focused on a historic building, you may want to consult a historic conservation professional or even the local preservation office to determine if any of your changes harm the historical integrity of the structure.
  • Create plans. During the planning process, determine what elements you’ll reuse or replace, from the roof to the doors to the windows to the walls. In the best adaptive reuse projects, every element that can be reused is reused to respect the building’s historic features and materials (as well as any unique features). 
  • Begin construction. When working with an old building, it’s essential to take special care to avoid damaging or destroying viable materials. Avoid harsh surface treatments or haphazard demolition approaches – these can irreparably damage parts of the building that you may want to be visible in the finished product.

A report from environmentalist indicates it takes about 65 years for an energy-efficient new building to save the amount of energy lost in demolishing an existing building. Re-using an existing building also means less construction materials in landfills. Reuse is usually more sustainable than new construction.

However, there are a few challenges in reuse, like any project. When reusing an existing building, careful planning is required. Unlike in a new project where the materials are new and mostly predictable, repurposing an old building requires working around an existing frame. There may be materials that are harmful, which require extra care to remove and replace safely.

The other challenge is one that occurs early in the project; deciding the use for the building. Finding a compatible new use is vital so that important historic character is preserved. Changing a church into housing would not be a compatible use since much of the interior would have to be significantly altered as was discovered when the Baptist Church was being discussed.

Newmarket, I believe, missed the boat back in the late 1970s when it decided to sell off land behind what is now Staples to developers rather than to follow through with the plan to establish a heritage park on the site. If we had followed through, then I would certainly have a different view concerning the preservation of our heritage properties. I would have much preferred heritage preservation as a option, perhaps moving the structure to this ‘heritage park’ and returning them to their glory days of the past. That, however, is no longer a possibility, it appears.

I believe most of us agree that preserving historic buildings is important as they are part of our collective cultural past. Just as we recognize the value of art and artists, historic buildings embody a vast array of crafts and artistic skill that are no longer utilized in modern construction, a window into the past if you will.

Saving buildings by repurposing them is a fantastic way of keeping our culture alive. These new buildings can be a bridge between old and new. The outside of the building reflects the history of the area, while the inside is utilized for a modern purpose.

Next time we will take a closer look at past and current heritage repurposing projects locally and evaluate the winners and losers based upon the criteria outlined in this article.

Sources: Dave Ruggles, Town of Newmarket Planning Departmentm Ontario Heritage and Culture Ministry, Heritage Newmarket Committee meeting; Article - How Adaptive Reuse Gives Defunct Buildings New Leases on Life By Sarah Jones; Why Adaptive Reuse Matters: Repurposing Historic Gems by Kelcey McClung; What Is Adaptive Reuse Architecture and Why It's Important written by MasterClass; Adaptive Reuse: Adding Life to the Abandoned Heritage Structures - The Design Institute Website

Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod — the History Hound — has been a local historian for more than 40 years. He writes a weekly feature about our town's history in partnership with Newmarket Today, conducts heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest, and leads local oral history interviews

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About the Author: Richard MacLeod

Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod — the History Hound — has been a local historian for more than 40 years
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