Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Cool Conversions

My piece on Vancouver's cool conversions appeared in last week's WE.

An unremarkable former schoolhouse in Strathcona was transformed  into a visually impressive and environmentally friendly five-unit  townhome complex. The Vancouver Heritage Foundation visits it on its  upcoming Cool Conversions tour.

An unremarkable former schoolhouse in Strathcona was transformed into a visually impressive and environmentally friendly five-unit townhome complex. The Vancouver Heritage Foundation visits it on its upcoming Cool Conversions tour.

Credit: supplied

In with the new while preserving the old

It might seem like the work of a magic wand or a pack of gently helpful animated woodland creatures, the achievement of turning decrepit, neglected, or nondescript shells of buildings into fiercely modern — and, occasionally, quaintly retro — homes. Yet a growing number of Vancouver structures are being spared demolition in favour of a fairy-tale ending, and the benefits to our city go beyond the simple cosmetic appeal of a stunning makeover. According to the Vancouver Heritage Foundation (VHF), by salvaging and preserving the past, we’re also going green.

“Demolishing a 2,000-square-foot house sends 60 tons of material to the landfill, 85 per cent of which could have been reused,” says Elana Zysblat, programming director for VHF, an organization dedicated to protecting and preserving Vancouver’s oldest structures and landmarks. “There’s also historical benefit to preserving community landmarks for posterity. An older building that is a landmark, that remains in the community and continues its history, is something valuable.”

The VHF will showcase this emerging trend during a one-day ‘Cool Conversions’ tour, which shows off several successful examples of major renovations, including a former church repurposed as an airy, open-concept home, and the brilliant Strathcona showpiece known as the Schoolhouse. Formerly a two-story stucco eyesore, the Schoolhouse has been converted into a five-unit homestead (three of the units have been sold, while two are currently being rented) that literally stops traffic with its visual daring.

Mark Shieh, a real-estate developer by trade, bought the original Schoolhouse property, and recognized that the benefits of retaining the old house over building a new one were threefold: (1) City zoning would not allow for a new house to have the same square footage as the existing structure, so it made financial sense to retain that highly coveted space; (2) environmentally, it prevented an entire house from hitting the dump; (3) by updating an existing building in a modern way, Shieh was able to challenge traditional ideas of preservation.

“Preservation is not about freezing something static,” Shieh says. “It’s about exploring what is important and why. Is it the building itself? What about the people and the activities that took place here? How do we honour the past while moving forward in a fresh way?”

It turns out Shieh answered his own question. The Schoolhouse has been recognized as ranking among the elite in environmental building practices, thanks in part to David Hamilton of Trillium Projects, who was responsible for overseeing the conversion. Beyond the usual ways of making a building more environmentally friendly (such as low-flush toilets and energy-efficient appliances), Trillium repurposed the original fir joists for new stair treads, handrails, and moulding details; installed geothermal and solar-panel heating; and utilized rainwater collection for watering the permeable landscaping. “The Schoolhouse ended up being the highest standard — Platinum — BuiltGreen multi-family project in B.C.,” Hamilton says. Shieh, meanwhile, calls it a “labour of love.”

Zysblat is encouraged by the Schoolhouse’s environmental impact, and hopes more people adopt this attitude toward conversion projects. “Rehabilitating an old house is probably the most significant recycling and reuse project a family can ever participate in,” she says. “Even Donald Trump says he’s always found that it’s cheaper to use an existing structure, as long as you know what you’re doing.”

Zysblat is also hopeful that projects like the Schoolhouse will convince others that Vancouver’s existing framework simply needs a makeover, that we don’t need to start from scratch. She’s seen the attitude toward conversion projects evolve as the city has grown, and believes large-scale renovations will play a vital role in sustainable urban development. “People love the character of old neighbourhoods such as Gastown and Yaletown, and their proximity to Vancouver’s business and cultural centres,” she says. “In return for cool heritage living spaces and no more commuting, people are willing to give up the suburban fantasy, which has also proven to be too consumptive for many people. This has brought new life to our old buildings and neighbourhoods. With people once again using this existing infrastructure, our urban core gets revitalized.”

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