By Tracy Hanes
The technical, legal and physical challenges of preserving the past
We’ve all heard the expression “if these walls could talk.” For the builders and renovators who work with aging houses and buildings, the stories those old walls have to tell are often not pleasant.
Dealing with rodents, faulty wiring, mould, leaky plumbing and asbestos insulation are just some of the issues presented by old residences. Inefficient building envelopes, structural issues and past mistakes by misguided DIYers are also common and can make renovating those projects very challenging.
Mike Hodgson, whose Old Castle Renovations in London specializes in old house improvements as well as newer homes, has seen it all. He’s done everything from classic farmhouses to former churches and says you never know quite what you’ll find once a demolition begins.
“We did one heritage house that had horsehair in the plaster and ground-up cork as insulation,” he says. “We went outside, held a match to the cork and it went up in flames as fast as gasoline does.”
Another time, he came across a safe buried in a wall that had been plastered over. A locksmith opened it to find nothing but 1920s newspapers. Some surprises aren’t as novel, such as lamp wire or old extension cords used to wire the home.
One of the biggest issues is flooring, Hodgson says. “Floors in old houses are usually very roly-poly, as builders didn’t used to use footings and the floor will sink over time. Levelling floors takes a lot of work, and we have to jack them up and use levellers. Floors have become a focal point in homes and a lot of people want to use the new vinyl planks and show their floors off.”
Hodgson developed a love for old houses when he bought a 1930s home “that was a wreck” and restored it to look original. Then, a neighbour had him restore his farmhouse, then Hodgson bought and renovated his own farmhouse. “I made a name for myself buying and fixing up old houses.”
Some of the common issues he sees include shoddy wiring or missing structural elements where do-it-yourselfers have cut into floors and joists to add a second-floor bathroom.
Despite the challenges, Hodgson relishes working on antique houses. “What my team loves is if a customer wants to recreate the house’s original look. We can get reproduction trim work and wood windows to the exact style. And if you go back to old kitchens, Shaker was the style then and is popular again, but it is harder to find other components. I don’t like to walk into a heritage home that looks old on the outside and all modern on the inside.”
Brendan Charters, founding partner of Eurodale Design + Build, says regardless of the age of a home, the biggest challenge is consumer management, but it can be even more delicate in old buildings. “With old houses, you are not able to see the true composition of the home until you open things up.”
Charters says if homeowners are restricted by scope or budget—for instance, just doing a kitchen reno or putting on an addition—part of the house will be built to old standards and part of it to current energy efficiency standards.
“You’ll have the new part hyper-insulated and 2016 Code-compliant, but the rest of the house is totally different,” says Charters. “It’s akin to putting on a Canada Goose jacket, leaving the zipper open and walking out in -30C weather.” That’s when it becomes a challenge to balance the mechanical systems too, he notes.
What happens when new technology meets old buildings? Charters says smart-home components such as thermostats, lighting, audio-visual components and home security that can be controlled from a cell phone or by devices from companies such as Google and Amazon aren’t a problem. “It’s relatively easy, no matter the age of the house,” he says. “You used to have wire everywhere, for the phone jacks and TV jacks and it was costly to run copper. Now, so much is wireless.”
Where modern technology is at odds, though, is with building science. Older structures breathe and are energy-inefficient. Making them tighter makes it trickier to mitigate moisture and condensation issues.
“We as renovators need to know home compositions across the decades, such as how a solid masonry home was built and how it deals with moisture, or how a brick veneer home built in the ’60s breathes, or one built in the 2000s,” says Charters. “We have to consider what the best changes are for us to make. Do we hyper-insulate and seal, or look at improving some insulation values and put in the most efficient mechanical system? Every home and composition provides a different building envelope.”
Laws of the Land
New home builders must heed guidelines for heritage conservation in land use planning under the Ontario Planning Act, Ontario Heritage Act and associated Provincial Policy Statement. These documents identify conservation of significant architectural, cultural, historical and archaeological resources as a provincial interest and enable municipalities the ability to conserve individual properties and areas. In many cases, municipal official plans and/or secondary plans provide further guidance in terms of preservation that must be considered through the draft plan approval process.
Mattamy Homes has dealt with at least a dozen heritage homes within the GTA over the years, says Jon Rafter, Mattamy’s senior project manager. Mattamy has built extensively in Milton and has worked collectively with the Town of Milton, Heritage Milton and its own consulting teams on four different heritage houses to integrate the old homes into its developments, either by restoring them in situ or in relocating them within the limits of the existing property prior to completing the restoration program.
Mattamy has partnered with a local Milton company that specializes in historic house restoration. Sedgwick Marshall Heritage Homes, founded in 2004 by Mandy Sedgwick and Mirella Marshall, has restored three historic homes that belonged to Mattamy and is currently working on a fourth, as well as a pair for other builders.
“A heritage building takes a lot of time, and if there’s a conservation report, you have to follow it, and it’s challenging,” says Marshall. “It’s not what production builders do, so we navigate those waters, get to the design stage so it’s accepted and go from there.” Marshall’s firm can arrange for the houses to be moved to a different lot, or disassembled and reassembled if necessary.
“Mattamy is doing a good job in situating the lots for these homes, such as at the entrance or as an anchor in a subdivision,” says Marshall. “They think ahead about where they can incorporate them. The current house we’re working on for them (known as the Bowes house) is not large and backs on to greenspace and the lot beside it has nothing on it, so it looks better than if it was stuck between two huge new homes.”
The 1827 Bowes farmhouse is believed to be the oldest house in the area. While not architecturally distinctive, it is historically significant as the site for community gatherings before any churches were built in the area.
Sedgwick Marshall was previously given the 1860 Featherstone farmhouse by Mattamy. In that case, they purchased a lot in the builder’s Milton subdivision, relocated and rebuilt the house, then sold it. It was a rare example of a five-bay Regency Cottage built with cut stone. It was set along a creek on land planned for a park, but because the structure was in such poor condition, it couldn’t be moved. It was deconstructed and its stone shell rebuilt, with new doors and windows recreated to match the era and a totally new interior build.
“The benefits of savings these homes is that if done correctly, they can provide a focal point and complement the new community, while respecting the historic aspects of the home associated with either its architecture, design, previous owner or significance in terms of the era in which it was built,” says Rafter. “The preservation of these historic buildings helps to maintain an important link with the past and the landowners who originally settled the area generations ago.”
Condo developers also have to deal with old buildings, whether they are required to save them due to heritage regulations, have a desire to create unique suites in an old building that will have market appeal, or to foster goodwill with the neighbours.
The day the Rockport Group closed a deal to buy a property on Yonge St. and Montgomery Ave. in midtown Toronto in 2012, 400 protesters gathered on the steps of Postal Station K, a 1937 Art Deco building on the property. They feared the developer would demolish the postal building on the former site of Montgomery’s Tavern, where William Lyon Mackenzie organized the Upper Canada Rebellion in 1837. As a federal government asset, the post office technically didn’t fall under the Heritage Act and could be demolished without a permit.
Jack Winberg, Rockport CEO, struck a deal: His company would preserve the post office’s limestone facade and redevelop Montgomery Square on that corner, but in return, Rockport required a certain density for its intended project (initially planned as a condo but now a luxury rental building) for it to be feasible. Rockport’s project got the support of all five ratepayers’ associations in the area and the three local councillors.
RAW Design fashioned a 27-storey tower that rises from the rear of the postal station while preserving the limestone facade. The post office is the only building in Canada to bear King Edward VIII’s insignia, as his rule was short-lived before he abdicated the throne to marry divorcee Wallis Simpson. It also features bas-relief depictions highlighting the era’s modes of transportation.
“The restoration is about 70% complete,” Winberg noted in March. “We replaced all the windows, all the doors, created a park area and used two shades of granite as a foundation for trees and planters.”
The former Postal Station K will house a 20,000 sq. ft. Terroni and Cumbrae’s food emporium and restaurant, scheduled to open this summer. Terroni is a popular Toronto eatery and Cumbrae’s is a Queen St. West butcher and sandwich shop.
The post office and its forecourt was a neighbourhood gathering place. The building is set back 40 feet, allowing for a new 4,000-square-foot park that will be one of the largest public spaces in the area. A public art piece, consisting of two stainless frames representing the doors to Montgomery’s Tavern, will grace the park, along with standing and fallen granite blocks, representing soldiers who fought in the 1837 uprising.
Keeping the old building was “a nightmare,” admits Winberg, and it was Rockport’s first experience with integrating a heritage structure into a new development. When a one-storey distribution centre attached to the original post office was demolished, it was discovered that it supported the limestone structure, so six months was spent underpinning the old post office. Plans to excavate under the building for part of the underground parking structure had to be scuttled, and two planned levels of underground parking had to be expanded to four elsewhere on the site.
“It’s not cheap, it’s not simple, but it was worth it,” Winberg says. “The building is going to be amazing and it’s going to be a better development as a result. It was a profound lesson for us—if you do something for a community, you get it back.”
Winberg is less enthusiastic about Rockport’s obligation to save an 80-year-old building on a site it owns at Yonge St. and Manor Road. In January 2017, another developer was issued a demolition permit and quietly took down a 110-year-old Beaux Arts bank building nearby without notice. It had been recognized as having historical value but had not yet been listed as a heritage site. The community outrage prompted the city to heritage-designate 258 buildings in the neighbourhood, including Rockport’s.
“This site doesn’t have a park, it’s not as important a site as Montgomery and the building doesn’t offer the same depth of history and character,” says Winberg. “I think preserving heritage is wonderful—if a building has a story and character and something to offer the community.” But in this case, he says, the building has little character and the stores are of more value to the neighbourhood than the actual structure.
Charters says with Canada’s extensive aging housing stock, there is a tremendous opportunity for renovators to update existing buildings, but there needs to be more education, especially about moisture management. “Nobody wants to create a building fraught with issues,” says Charters. “It’s detailing how envelopes are put together, it’s educating trades and homeowners (about HRVs, for instance). As an industry, it’s our job to firmly to stay abreast, to test products and understand them and develop clean and precise details about how they are to be installed in various types of buildings.” Charters says being proficient at renovating older houses comes with hands-on experience. “When I walk into a house built before 1900, I have a good sense of how it’s built. And right up through the ’70s and ’80s, as well, because I’ve done more than 400 projects,” he says. “I’ve opened them up and seen how houses were built through various eras. You don’t get that in classroom learning. It’s the experience of opening up a house and seeing it.”
Tarion and Condo Conversions
It’s hard to get used to the red tape, though. As of January 1, 2018, Tarion extended warranty protection to new condos in converted old buildings—a measure forced upon the warranty corporation by the former Ontario Liberal government. Marz Homes president Dan Gabriele, who has sat on Tarion’s board for eight years, was not in favour, however, and says it’s going to discourage builders and developers from taking on such projects.
For condo conversions, the vendor and builder must provide a property assessment report, a capital replacement plan and a pre-existing elements fund study before sale of any condos units to Tarion at least 90 days before construction. The documents have to be approved by Tarion before the project will be enrolled, and that enrollment fee is currently double the standard fee. Once the units are enrolled, the vendor must provide evidence to Tarion that a pre-existing elements fund with a required amount has been established with an authorized escrow agent.
“It’s not so much the cost, but the complexity,” says Gabriele. “It’s such a poor initiative and so Toronto in its idealism.”
Gabriele says most old industrial buildings in cities outside the GTA are in poor shape and are located in fringe or challenging locations. In Toronto, condo conversions tend to happen in desirable or up-and-coming neighbourhoods with many amenities, where condo lofts in converted buildings command premium prices, thus offsetting the added cost of the Tarion warranty. Conversions of old buildings helped spark the gentrification of former industrial neighbourhoods in Toronto, such as King Street West 20 years ago. But that was due to the city encouraging adaptive reuse, so it relaxed zoning rules and permitted virtually any use that wasn’t noxious; density limits were removed and parking and loading standards loosened. Rules are far more restrictive now.
Gabriele believes builders will be disincentivized by the Tarion condo conversion warranty. “These type of buildings are not in great shape, are usually are full of hazardous materials. And on top of an already complex scenario, you are layering on the new-home warranty,” he says. “It’s counter-productive to saving old buildings that likely have cultural or historic context.”
Gabriele notes that in cities such as Sarnia, Chatham or Thorold, rejuvenating old factory buildings could be the key to revitalizing downtowns or neighbourhoods, but builders will be even more hesitant to do so if they have to add Tarion coverage.
Gabriele is, however, forging ahead on a new project in Hamilton with Starward Homes: Chedoke Heights, a bungaloft and townhouse community on the 17-acre site of the old Chedoke Hospital. The builders will be saving one structure on the property, a 15,000 sq. ft. 1930s building used to treat tuberculosis patients. It was riddled with asbestos and will be gutted, then rebuilt into a rental apartment building with 15 units. There was no obligation to save the building, but the builders did it to encourage cooperation from the city for the project.
“It’s a very nice area on Hamilton’s West Mountain,” Gabriele says. “If it was a less desirable area, we wouldn’t be renovating that building.” There would have been a good market for condos in that location, Gabriele accepts, but the builders opted to convert the old building to rental units. Why? So they wouldn’t have to go through the rigours of having to provide Tarion coverage.