By Alison King

Adaptive re-use. It seems the term is everywhere these days, from high-end condo concepts to proposals for infill housing projects. Far more than just the latest marketing term or industry buzzword, however, adaptive re-use is a powerful tool that can be used to protect heritage structures, conserve greenspace and contain sprawl. It can provide very real economic, environmental and social benefits that are attractive to developers and buyers alike.

Although often associated with the conversion of historic properties, adaptive re-use goes much further. By taking abandoned or underused buildings and re-purposing them, developers breathe new life into these physical structures, and often their surrounding communities as well. Such projects are a key means of achieving intensification, and as they are generally located in mature neighbourhoods, they tend to have immediate access to the amenities, service and transit options that can take years to develop in new communities.

The economic advantages seem obvious: re-using existing materials and structural elements such as foundations and exterior walls can result in significant cost savings. A study conducted by the Heritage Resources Centre at the University of Waterloo found that adaptive re-use projects could realize a cost savings between 10% and 20% over building new. However, the key word in that finding is “could.” The same study also reported that some conversions can cost twice as much as new builds. Why the discrepancy?

The most significant pitfall with conversion projects is the element of the unknown. Unlike new builds, where materials and time can be accurately predicted, the demolition phase of conversion projects can reveal some unwelcome surprises. Structural issues, site contamination and environmental concerns can all lead to quickly escalating costs. And even if all goes as planned, preserving and restoring heritage details such as original tile, stone or plaster work may require the services of specialized artisans—at considerable time and expense.

However, the financial rewards can outweigh the potential risks. Often benefitting from desirable locations, unique architectural details and the added cachet of a storied history, well-executed conversions can command a significantly higher price per square foot, both from commercial tenants and residential buyers. As well, many municipalities offer developers incentives to re-use and convert existing buildings and vacant or underused lots.

The environmental payoff is more clear-cut. Re-using existing structures and materials as much as possible reduces the resources required to manufacture and transport new products. Existing mature landscaping can often be preserved and enhanced, while the addition of efficient, modern HVAC and lighting systems can minimize the environmental impacts of an older property.

Many discussions about the social benefits of adaptive re-use focus solely on the redevelopment of historic buildings and praise its role in preserving our cultural heritage. Honouring the past is certainly an important element of many such projects, but the ability to transform the present and future success of communities is where adaptive re-use projects may have the biggest social impact.

Consider what happens to properties when they are neglected for lengthy periods. Empty lots become a dumping ground for garbage and other waste. Buildings may be vandalized or attract squatters. The value of surrounding properties is lowered; businesses and residents look to move elsewhere.

When a long-empty lot or building is re-purposed, however, it spawns a renaissance in the entire community. There is a sense of pride among buyers who choose to live in such properties, a shared appreciation for the unique character and inherited quirks that older buildings and established neighbourhoods offer. Existing local businesses can thrive from the influx of new residents, while increased demand creates opportunities for new business in the neighbourhood. Property tax revenues increase, allowing municipalities to add and improve services for all.

Two leading Ontario developers are banking on that transformative power with an ambitious project in downtown Hamilton. Formerly a booming industrial city, Hamilton had fallen on hard times in recent decades, but thanks to its affordable housing prices, innovative development projects and concerted efforts from its municipal government, a renaissance has begun.

The Royal Connaught is a symbol of the city’s prosperity, decline and turnaround. In its heyday, the elegant Edwardian-style hotel opened its doors to a who’s-who of the time, hosting glittering social events and counting captains of industry, Hollywood stars, prime ministers and royalty among its loyal guests. Until recently, however, it sat neglected, a sad reminder of the city’s glorious past. Developers The Spallacci Group and Valery Homes have teamed up to save the building and play a key role in Hamilton’s downtown revival.

The project is not for the faint of heart. The exterior and grand lobby have been carefully preserved and restored, while the interior of the original hotel building is being transformed into stunning modern condo units and common spaces. Future plans call for three new glass towers and a total of 700 condo units.

Valery Homes’ principal Ted Valeri admits they could have turned their money over faster—perhaps even multiple times—by demolishing the building and starting from scratch. However he and partner Rudi Spallacci agree the Royal Connaught is worth the wait.

“You can’t put a price on the history inside these walls,” says Valeri. “This is not your typical development project and it required a huge investment up front. Rudi and I took it on for pride, because we are both Hamiltonians and this is part of our city’s history that needs to be preserved. There was a genuine risk that this building could have been lost forever and that just wasn’t acceptable to us, or to the community.”

“The value is in the nostalgia, as well as in the unique architectural details and the quality of the original construction,” agrees Spallacci. “That’s a challenge in itself as we had to find craftsmen who had the skill to restore elements like the plaster and stonework, which originally would have been constructed by hand. This project isn’t about doing things the easy way; it’s about doing them the right way and creating something truly special.”

The partners knew the development could be risky, and say each day of demolition uncovered a new revelation that affected costs. However they minimized the risk by completing the demolition phase—“exposing the building’s bones,” says Spallacci—before designing the new interior, so that they knew exactly what they’d be working with and minimized surprises in the build phase.

Not all the surprises were unpleasant. After peeling back layer upon layer of flooring, the construction crew uncovered the original lobby tile dating back to the hotel’s 1916 opening. It was in remarkably good condition and, thanks to the restoration skills of a retired craftsman from Italy, is once again a signature feature of the grand lobby. “We also found incredible stonework behind marble tile at the entrance exterior walls,” says Spallacci. “We were expecting to find stone that at one point in time had been damaged by human intervention and/or nature. But once the marble tile was removed, we found the stonework to be intact, with little work required to bring it back to life. We won the lottery there!”

The developers believe repurposing the Royal Connaught for residential use can serve as a catalyst to kickstart the rejuvenation of Hamilton’s downtown. It already benefits from its location close to shops, restaurants and transit, and lies literally steps from Gore Park, one of the city’s most striking revitalization projects. The positive reaction from the public and strong sales supports that belief.

“People buying here feel the beginning of a renaissance and want to be part of it, shaping what the outcome will be,” says Spallacci. “For them it’s more than just investing in a property at a good price; they are invested in the community where they live. For us that makes the trials and tribulations of this type of project more than worth it.”

If anyone understands the trials and tribulations of adaptive re-use on a large scale, it’s Gary Switzer, the Toronto-based architect and CEO of MOD Developments.  Switzer has developed some of the most successful and award-winning projects in Toronto, including The Saint James, The Morgan,The Hudson, 18 Yorkville, X and Charlie, and is a driving force behind two of the city’s most ambitious conversions: FIVE Condos and Massey Tower.

FIVE is a true blend of old and new; the property takes a row of 19th-century buildings on Yonge Street and the 1905 brick facade of a factory on St. Joseph, and melds them with a new 48-storey glass condo tower. Located in the heart of downtown, just steps from the Queen Street subway station, the Massey Tower project will see the four-storey portion of the historic 1905 Canadian Bank of Commerce building completely restored and repurposed as the condo’s new lobby, while a graceful new tower designed by Hariri Pontarini Architects soars 60 storeys above.

Switzer points out that buildings have been re-purposed for thousands of years, citing ancient Roman temples that are now modern-day churches, and historic Roman theatres have been converted to residential apartments. Unfortunately, he believes Toronto was late to catch on.

“In the 1930s Toronto was a dense, thriving, urban city. If preserved, it could have been our version of Old Montreal,” he says. “We went through a very bad period in the ’50s and ’60s where the city was essentially torn down and paved over for parking lots. It looked like there had been a war. Luckily people caught on to the fact that new isn’t always better. From both an economic and environmental standpoint it makes sense for good, solid buildings to be adapted to new purposes.”

Switzer cautions, however, that there must be a valid reason for preserving and re-purposing an existing structure. It has to be a “good” building, structurally sound with unique architectural features that are appealing to modern tenants and buyers. With the goal always in mind of making the building better than it was pre-conversion, he feels the rewards of such projects are worth the costs and risks.

“People don’t want to live in a building that is identical to all the others on the block, and cheapest doesn’t always win either,” he states. “Today’s buyers are willing to pay more for quality and for character.”

Quality and character are two of the defining features drawing buyers to the small town of Almonte, a scenic mill town located 45 minutes southwest of Ottawa. Though the mills that played such a key role in the area’s history closed years ago, they continue to shape the town’s future. Two condominium projects—Thorburn Mill and Victoria Woollen Mill—have seen century-old industrial buildings lovingly transformed by architect Peter Mansfield into unique residential spaces.

“These are not heritage buildings in terms of the ornate churches and banks we’ve seen converted elsewhere,” says Mansfield. “They are workhorse buildings that have weathered the decades and are part of Almonte’s history. Repurposing them into condos is a wonderful way to connect people to their heritage and roots.”

Mansfield believes there is a lot of equity in abandoned industrial properties, and that developers are beginning to recognize the value is worth the potential risks and extra costs.

“The Almonte buildings were built well in excess of today’s residential requirements,” he says. “They are hard-working buildings—beautiful, big and robust, with features that allow them to have a long lifespan: giant beams, massive walls, thick floors and high ceilings. They’ve got some unique benefits that we would never have with a new build, such as their location right on the river. A new project would be subject to regulations that require much greater setbacks from the water. The result of adapting them is often an unpredictable, wonderful, surprising and quirky space that’s anything but cookie-cutter. Though restoration and renovation might take longer and can cost more than building new, the rewards are worth it.”

Mansfield notes that adaptive re-use is not only about re-purposing older structures but about designing properties—both renovations and new builds—to be flexible and adaptable in the future as well to increase their longevity. Tenants and owners will change several times over a building’s lifespan, as will fashions and tastes. Mechanical systems will require maintenance and replacement. All the HVAC, electrical and sprinkler systems in the Almonte projects were kept separate and left exposed, both for practical and aesthetic reasons. Buyers are attracted to the raw, industrial aesthetic that reflects the building’s past. More practically, when system maintenance is inevitably needed, they can be easily accessed with minimal disruption and reduced cost.

The pride Mansfield feels in the properties is exceeded perhaps only by that of the developments’ new residents. “Walking through these buildings is like architectural archeology,” he says. “They are wonderful storytellers, like the complexion of an older person. Every line, every layer tells you something about their history and their character. There’s a sustained sense of pride among the people who choose to live here, and a deep level of affection for their individual units and the common spaces. It’s really created a sense of camaraderie and community within the properties.”

Another company that’s made a living adapting older, previously-non-residential structures into infill custom homes is Curated Properties. Its latest example is Lanehouse, a distinct project of 13 loft-houses and three flats off Bartlett Avenue in Toronto. Featuring an industrial past—it was formerly a yarn factory and most recently the site of the Pendell Boiler Ltd.—Laneway is one of the first residential laneway projects in Toronto.

“There are certain things that you have to expect when it comes to working with an old building, such as the roof being in terrible condition and quite often windows that are not worth saving. That said, we were pleasantly surprised with the condition of the brick and brickwork inside the old industrial space that will transition to beautiful laneway loft-houses,” says Adam Ochshorn, principal of Curated Properties, whose design-heavy team included Nivek Remas and AUDAXarchitecture.

“The challenges in laneway development are that unless, in the City of Toronto, your laneway project has frontage to the street in some way, it’s impossible to develop a site on a laneway, since you don’t qualify for sewage, water access and other important things like fire route access,” Ochshorn explains. “In the case of Lanehouse on Bartlett, we own a house that fronts the street; therefore we don’t need the laneway for city services.”

Expansive 18-foot ceilings draw the eye up and allow natural light in at the Lanehouse project, as do skylights in the master walk-in closet and over the tub in the master bath. Double-height areas transition into intimate-feeling rooms. Private rooftop terraces are wrapped in custom-designed wood enclosures to allow for both privacy and air circulation. The various residences range from 1,000 sq. ft. to almost 2,000 sq. ft., plus balconies and rooftop terraces, and will start from the low $500,000s.

“We take satisfaction in respecting Toronto’s past by restoring old buildings, rather than demolishing and building new ones,” says Ochshorn. “With Lanehouse, we’re trying to convey what we anticipate to be the future of Toronto’s development scene—something more conscious and eclectic.”