Heritage homes in the Glebe

By Andrew Elliott

20 Clemnow Avenue. Photo: Brian Glenn
20 Clemnow Avenue. Photo: Brian Glenn
In recent issues of the Glebe Report, we’ve learned about the importance of trees on the neighbourhood’s streets and about the historical significance of its street names. We’ve heard about Lansdowne traffic and parking challenges, and preliminary ideas for the Glebe’s future look and feel. All these issues relate to one of the Glebe’s key features: it is an area of historical character. As such, its streets and buildings are worthy of commemoration and protection.

I recently read the article “Does Adaptive Reuse Pay? A Study of the Business of Building Renovation in Ontario, Canada” (www.seedengr.com/Does%20Adaptive%20Reuse%20Pay.pdf). Here, a trio of heritage conservation experts explain, “older buildings represent an important aesthetic, cultural and economic resource – as well as a non-renewable one.” Numerous historic structures have been demolished in Ontario over the past several decades because developers have argued, “the costs of renovating and adapting these buildings for new uses is too high. Demolition of the existing buildings and replacement with new structures … is the only way for investors to make a reasonable profit from the land.” These heritage conservation experts, reporting on interviews with contractors and owners about old building adaptive reuse projects, identified four main constraints affecting success. One of these constraints is the building code.

The Building Code

The building code constraint appears to cause the most trouble. On its own, the code is a fairly reasonable document that is meant to create standards for safety, but is also meant to be sufficiently flexible to permit adaptive reuse. There is even a section that allows inspectors to accept alternative standards in existing older structures.

As one developer noted, “The code is problematic; it should be handled case by case and not by fitting the project into a very general category.”

Problems arise when contractors try to get the code to interact with a) various fire regulations, site plan approvals and local zoning regulations; and b) accessibility issues such as handicap compliance or parking areas. Additional problems arise because of a general lack of coordination amongst the various inspectors, most of whom do not have training in heritage practices or historic designs.

Heritage Designation Myths

There is a belief out there that when a building is designated as “heritage”– either individually or in a conservation district – this limits what can be done to it, and may even result in reduced property values. The Heritage Resources Centre at the University of Waterloo has proven that these beliefs are unfounded. Two of its recent studies, entitled Heritage Districts Work! (2009 – http://goo.gl/Q6etD5 and 2012 – http://goo.gl/DAnozA) show that property values of heritage-designated buildings do better in the long run compared to buildings that do not have such designation.

Heritage advocacy groups, architectural heritage conservation experts, and city heritage planners will tell you that that the existence of a designation is mostly hassle-free: most protective easements apply to a building’s exterior, not its interior. Also, minor proposed changes to a designated building’s exterior will generally be accepted without much fuss. It is only when changes affect the building’s architectural character that further steps for approval are required (see www.ottawa.ca/en/city-hall/planning-and-development/how-develop-property/heritage-alterations). Additionally, a heritage designation allows a building owner to be eligible for grants of up to $5,000 in matching funding (for details, see http://goo.gl/gorZ2x). Other cities have larger grants and generous tax rebates as well.

Next Steps

So, if you’re interested in moving forward in an adaptive reuse or restoration project, here are some tips to assist you:

1. Consult Standards and Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places in Canada and for additional assistance, the Ontario Heritage Toolkit and the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario’s Preservation Myths and Facts.

2. For further advice or guidance, contact the Canadian Association of Heritage Professionals (www.cahp-acecp.ca).

3. For inspiration, check out architectural design resources, such as Willowbank School for Restoration Arts or the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (www.heritageottawa.org/organizations/architectural-design-resources).

4. For additional historical background inspiration, research local or national archives for evidence of past architectural practices (or hire a professional researcher.) You might find original designs or historic streetscape photos.

5. Contact companies that have the training and expertise to do a good job: one is Denys Builds Designs; another is Heritage Grade Architectural Restoration Services; or the Glebe’s own 707 Construction (www.707construction.com).

6. Employ people who have taken courses at the Algonquin Trades Heritage Institute, located in Perth, Ontario (see example: www.habicurious.com/framing-fine-carpentry/).

7. Read the City of Ottawa’s policy statements, procedures and guidelines relating to heritage resources: (http://goo.gl/70Sous).

Restoration: the good, the bad and the ugly

Here’s what happens when a perfectly good-looking old building is ruined by a bad job. In the Glebe Annex, there was once a red brick house with a wraparound veranda on a corner. Now there is an awful addition covered with aluminum siding that makes no attempt to fit in with the streetscape or existing historical structure (see Glebesite for further details, www.glebeheritageblog.wordpress.com).

Compare this example to the more sensitive restoration, addition or infill projects that were recently recognized at the city of Ottawa’s Architectural Heritage Conservation Awards. One award was for excellent work done on 20 Clemow Avenue. Another was for stunning work done on 31 Sweetland Avenue, an 1884 house in Sandy Hill. The award recognized the effort made to use historical materials in the restoration, and to follow historical evidence in bringing back a building that was in a “severely degraded condition.”

The jury noted, “the addition harmonizes well with the existing structure, and demonstrates that a combination of careful attention to details, materials and scale does not add significantly to immediate costs but adds value to the property over time … This restoration project proves that heritage structures can be brought back from the brink, and should be.”

Too often, we overlook the importance of things that are right in front of our eyes. Isn’t it worth it to conserve and reuse the old buildings that we’ve inherited from our ancestors? Although we generally think we “own” our old buildings, perhaps we should start thinking of ourselves not as owners but more as responsible stewards. As stewards, we are less interested in ourselves and more interested in community. As stewards, it is our duty to respect the work of past generations and pass it on in reasonable shape to future generations.
Maybe this is the radical idea for our times.

Andrew Elliott, Glebe resident, writes for the blog Apt613 and is the creator of the blog Glebesite. He is a member of the Glebe Heritage Committee and Heritage Ottawa and is an archivist at Library and Archives Canada. He can be reached at ajg.elliott@utoronto.ca.

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