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Greening heritage buildings a trade-off

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Gair Williamson Architects is a Vancouver firm that specializes in refurbishing and adapting older heritage properties, so they can continue to function as thriving urban elements.
Greening heritage buildings a trade-off

Historical preservation

Gair Williamson Architects is a Vancouver firm that specializes in refurbishing and adapting older heritage properties, so they can continue to function as thriving urban elements.

But while adaptive re-use of heritage buildings can help to meet some of the goals of green planning and building, the process is a trade-off.

“An existing building is an invested resource of energy and material,” said Gair Williamson, owner of the firm.

“By preserving that, we’re meeting some of the goals of green building, but by any performance-based standards, these buildings are not green.”

One of Williamson’s recent projects is the $7-million Keefer Hotel renovation, located in Vancouver’s Chinatown.

The Edwardian building now hosts four lofts, a rooftop pool and a bar.

“The city places a lot of importance on the heritage aspects of the building, and understands that we can’t meet all of the modern criteria of the building code,” said Williamson.

“A building constructed in 1904 is not going to perform to modern standards. If we were to take the Keefer project and bump it up to LEED standards, it would be unrecognizable as a heritage building. If they replaced the single-pane windows with double-panes, for example, it would lose the character that made the building iconic.”

The hotel’s windows passed a leakage test that involved spraying water on the glass panes.

“But the brick walls located near the window acted like a sieve. The fresh, clean air comes in whenever it wants to,” he said.

“If we add showers and kitchens to these buildings, we have to add a semi-permeable sealer to the walls so that it lets the air in and lets the vapour back out as well. That helps to preserve the brick walls constructed with 100-year-old technology.

“Even some of the timbers in these buildings look like they’ve come fresh out of the sawmill. If you put up a full vapour barrier, these building components begin to age exponentially.”

Another of Williamson’s projects was the 2007 adaptation of and addition to the Bowman Block, located in Vancouver’s Beatty Heritage Block for developer the Salient Group.

The architectural firm created six loft condominiums in a two-storey addition set on the roof of the 1906 building.

“Those additional lofts achieve one of Vancouver’s green goals of increasing downtown density,” said Chris Woodford, senior associate.

“Also, anything new on the building is designed to meet current building and energy codes,” he said.

The company is working a project, which is still in the development stage.

It is essentially a brand new two-storey building constructed on top of two existing office buildings on Hamilton Street.

“That new addition will have everything you’d expect from a modern building and we want to build it to LEED Silver standards,” he explained.

Another term often used to describe green developments is, sustainable.

Woodford said that doesn’t apply to heritage renovations in a material sense.

But the buildings do have the ability to create sustainable neighbourhoods by preserving iconic structures that will grace the streetscape for years to come.

These in turn will attract more people to downtown core areas that are targeted for densification by the city.

If the new LEED Canada Neighbourhood Development standard scheduled for a 2010 roll-out mirrors the model developed by the U.S. Green Building Council, LEED points would also apply to some of Williamson’s niche projects.

The standard offers credits for creating walkable streets, existing building reuse, and historic resource preservation and adaptive reuse.

“There are inherent conflicts between heritage and green developments, and I don’t see a resolution for all of them,” said Williamson.

“There has to be a trade off on some green features. In Vancouver, the number of remaining downtown heritage buildings is 17 or 18 and we can’t afford, from a cultural perspective, to demolish those buildings.

“Trying to justify it entirely on the basis of whether these projects can meet a LEED standard for new buildings is like asking whether preserving the Forum in Rome, or St. Peter’s Basilica is a green project. We just do it.”

by Peter Kenter

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