For Successful Adaptive Reuse, Find a Structure with ‘Good Bones’

Spring 2010
The addition of seven floors to 130 Bloor Street required reinforcing the existing office building from its top down through the parking garage and around the subway system. This allowed support of the building load as well as structural upgrades to meet new earthquake codes.

Developers of successful adaptive reuse projects have a knack for finding creative solutions to transform aging structures to new, fresh uses in an exciting way. But according to architect Brian Curtner, a founding partner of Quadrangle Architects Limited, Toronto, Canada, those creative solutions are usually not a blinding flash of brilliance but instead depend on a careful analysis of the old buildings to fully appreciate their pluses and minuses.

"We have an expression at our firm that we call ‘good bones,’ which is based on understanding an existing building," said Curtner. "Besides wanting the building to have good bones, we also look for potential cost-effective solutions to employ and, in addition, we want to find a green or eco story to tell, relative to an adaptive reuse. The creative solution in an adaptive reuse project really hinges on these points."

Quadrangle has been involved in a substantial number of adaptive reuse projects throughout the Toronto marketplace and elsewhere. One project where the good bones the designer looks for were not immediately obvious was 30 Adele, the former headquarters of Revenue Canada (Canada’s IRS) in Toronto. The architect was asked to evaluate this 1959 semi-modernist building, which on the surface, with its narrow floorplates, aging electrical and mammoth HVAC system, seemed of little interest to an office developer. The building, in the estimate of Quadrangle, did not make sense as a condo project either.

Brian Curtner

Brian Curtner

But digging deeper, Quadrangle discovered not only good bones but also a downright inner beauty. "As we took a closer look at it," said Curtner, "we were able to see that the narrow floorplates could work to our advantage by setting up work zones near the windows to let in natural light along the lines of a European model."

The architects concluded that to change the economics of the building, the massive HVAC system had to go. By using modern heat pump technology, the developer gained a floor-and-a-half of space in the upper part of the building. Further, when the boilers and cooling system were removed from the parking levels, the developer constructed an extra level of parking to meet current parking standards for downtown Toronto.

"We were able to maximize the economic potential of this project as well as develop a green story, which was that a new, modern HVAC system and natural light made for a healthier work environment for its occupants," Curtner pointed out.

BMW Headquarters

Quadrangle was originally asked by BMW of Canada to design a new headquarters building, but BMW then thought using an existing office building and stacking new BMWs vertically might be the best solution.

The building that BMW had in mind--like the Revenue Canada building--had a narrow floorplate, which it turned out was perfect for displaying cars vertically, according to Quadrangle. Ultimately, the building was stripped down to its concrete and steel columns; the second floor was removed so that there would be double-height space to display BMWs on the ground level. To get cars to the upper floors, two large elevators were constructed to haul cars up and down the levels.

The building faces a highway so the architects created a picture window of clear glass on the third and fourth levels to show off the luxury vehicles to everyone passing by on the highway. Further a large panel was installed within the building that faced the highway behind glass, which was used for advertising. The company effectively got an enormous billboard on the highway, but since the graphics were inside the building, it was not considered a highway sign.

The Candy Factory and The Toy Factory

Quadrangle did two projects where existing space was converted into condos: The Candy Factory and The Toy Factory. These were brick and beam multi-story buildings that were stripped back to their wood beams and wood floors. Single- or double-story lofts were constructed within the existing warehouse facilities.

The key to these two projects was understanding how to manipulate the existing buildings to add units to the top of the building for more economic viability. Both The Toy Factory and The Candy Factory had extra floors added.

"This requires thoroughly understanding if and how much additional load the buildings can take," said the architect. "Then, the sub-grade of the buildings must be evaluated to determine if it is feasible to construct underground parking required by Toronto. In The Candy Factory structure, we had the challenge of taking a wood column, wood beam, wood floor, brick wall building and digging it out to create underground parking. In The Toy Factory, we took part of the building away to get the units to layout in an effective manner and then added extra floors on top."

130 Bloor Street

One of the most complex adaptive reuse projects that the architects have dealt with was 130 Bloor Street. "We had to understand the attributes of the existing building and then come up with the creative solution in a cost-effective way to create a new environment," explained the architect.

This mixed-use project was constructed in 1960. Typical of buildings constructed during that period, it was built on top of the Toronto subway system but had no access to the subway. There was retail on the first floor and floors two to 12 were typical offices of about 16,000 square feet per floor. There was a two-story penthouse on top of the office building of about 11,000 square feet where a member of Toronto society had lived for many years. "The building contained 40-year-old retail space, 40-year-old office space and a phenomenal penthouse that everyone had heard about but few people had actually seen," said Curtner.

The retail and the offices were upgraded to modern standards. The most exciting part of this project occurred at the top of the building. The architects added seven floors on top of the existing penthouse and the 11th and 12th floors of office space were also converted into residential. The original penthouse was also redone so that floors 11 through 21 were residential.

This involved reinforcing the existing office building from its top down through the parking garage and around the subway to carry the loads on top of the building as well as upgrading the structure to new earthquake codes. It also involved cutting away existing structure on the 10th and 11th floors to create large terraces and appropriate-sized residential spaces. Now, some of the floors have two residential units and some have just one. The units are in the 6,000-square-foot range and sell in the $10 million range. Some of the terraces are a stunning 1,000 to 2,000 square feet on the lower levels and units on the top offer 600 to 800 square foot terraces. The units have 11-foot high ceilings and floor-to-ceiling glass to capitalize on the dramatic views of the city.