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Repurposing old buildings gives them new life

Updated: May 4, 2023


Office space in a repurposed factory on the Lachine Canal in Montreal.

When Natalie Voland’s father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1996, he had one request for his daughter: to take over the family real estate business. Ms. Voland, a social worker at the time, had her doubts: “I thought social work and real estate were basically diametrically opposed,” she says.

Family responsibility won out in the end, but it didn’t hurt that Ms. Voland also saw a chance to marry her community work with her father’s for-profit business. He had recently acquired two early 20th-century factories on the banks of the Lachine Canal in Montreal, together comprising nearly 850,000 square feet of space. Ms. Voland didn’t want to see the buildings destroyed, nor did she simply want to maximize their economic potential by turning them into upscale residences.

Instead, she hoped to turn them into accessible, affordable office space for small-scale entrepreneurs in the neighbourhood – and show that she could stay in the black in the process.

Realizing that vision took years of work, struggles with skeptical financiers and constant head-butting with contractors, engineers and architects who had little experience in historical buildings. “Most people had the opinion it was too expensive to do anything with these buildings,” says Ms. Voland, who has since turned those first properties into a portfolio of historic buildings in Montreal with her company, GI Quo Vadis. “The beginning of my [real estate] career was a bloodbath – the learning curve to [repurpose] buildings is steep, and really requires a unique skill set.”

Nathalie Voland of GI Quo Vadis.


Today, that skill set is in growing demand, nationwide. As surface parking lots and other easy-to-develop locations become scarce in Canadian city centres, property developers are increasingly acquiring buildings which for, one reason or another (zoning, heritage designations, community pushback and so on), aren’t easily turned into blank-slate redevelopment sites.

“The simple sites, the parking lots and underbuilt sites, really seem to be taken,” says Riaz Mamdani, chief executive officer of Calgary-based developer Strategic Group. “Especially the inner-city sites that make good locations for residential projects.”

GI Quo Vadis now has a portfolio of historic buildings in Montreal.

Last year, a report by commercial realtor Avison Young backed up that observation, declaring that adaptive reuse – restoring and readapting old buildings to all-new purposes – has “never … been so prevalent in both urban and suburban areas” in Canada and the United States.

But plenty of challenges face developers dipping a toe in these waters: balancing heritage with functionality, dealing with antiquated building systems and unique zoning requirements and, of course, finding new uses for structures whose original purpose has become obsolete.

Halifax developer Norman Nahas faced that particular challenge in 2017, when his company acquired a neighbourhood cinema in that city’s west end. It couldn’t be repurposed as a theatre, thanks to a restrictive sale covenant put on it by Cineplex, the building’s former owner. For most other uses, the building’s cavernous open space and tremendous ceiling height was a liability. Community members hoped to see it become a performance venue, but a different adaptive reuse project nearby – an obsolete convention centre turned into an arts centre – made that unlikely.

The cost-benefit analysis was in favour of demolition, but the argument for preservation, while not as easy to present on a spreadsheet, was compelling enough to stay the wrecking ball.

“A brand-new, efficient building, maximizing the permitted space, would have yielded the most economically,” says Mr. Nahas of Nanco Developments. “But everyone in this neighbourhood has a lot of love for this building, including me. My grandmother went there in wartime, I grew up watching movies here. We knew that repurposing it properly would be a much more unique and special development than building new would ever be.”

Over the better part of a year, a parade of proposals came by Mr. Nahas’s desk: a performance venue, restaurants, a soundstage and offices. None were feasible in the space. Ultimately, Mr. Nahas was approached by an entrepreneur who proposed a novel solution: a climbing gym, taking advantage of the soaring ceiling heights and the popularity of the ascendant sport.

“A lot of those old structures, the answer you thought would work, won’t,” says Mr. Nahas. “You need to stay open to new ideas.”

Part of that openness involves balancing historical elements with the flexibility needed for new uses. “Not all heritage is cathedrals,” says Michael McClelland, a founding partner at ERA Architects, which specializes in heritage conservation and adaptive reuse projects. “There are economic constraints, and sometimes absolute fidelity to the original architecture isn’t possible.”

Strategic Groups is redeveloping The Barron Building in Calgary.

Mr. Mamdani’s company in Calgary experienced that difficulty when turning The Barron Building, a historic office building in downtown Calgary, into apartments. City hall, and many local heritage advocates, hoped for full preservation of a ground-level Art Deco lobby and an outdoor canopy overhanging the sidewalk. In 2013, the city requested provincial protection for those elements; Mr. Mamdani’s company argued they made the project untenable. Eventually the city rescinded its objections, allowing Strategic Group to demolish the interior.

“We need to appreciate that things have evolved over the past 70 years,” says Mr. Mamdani. “I think we’ve kept a very good balance between economic viability, and recognizing the historical elements of the building.”

The City of Calgary initially pushed for the retention of The Barron Building's original Art Deco lobby.

Not everyone agreed, but the building, at least, will live to see another day.

In Montreal, one of Ms. Voland’s more recent projects is Le Salon 1861, an adaptive reuse of a 19th-century Catholic church. GI Quo Vadis acquired the building in 2012, and have since turned it to not-one-but-four uses, each with its own architectural or structural challenges: office space, a community space, a restaurant and an event hall.

As with her earlier projects, she encountered plenty of well-meaning but misguided advice from renovators and contractors on how to integrate modern conveniences. “One contractor suggested running air-conditioning ducts all through the arched ceiling,” she recalls.

“People often assume we should gut everything, rip out old windows and old building systems and change the heating systems and basically treat it as a new construction.”

But as she explains, those kinds of decisions have unintended consequences when dealing with old buildings. For example, she says, replacing steam heating with more efficient electrical heating can damage wooden supports that rely on moisture.

Ultimately, Ms. Voland’s projects don’t achieve highest and best economic use of the property. Neither does the Oxford Cinema in Halifax or The Barron Building in Calgary. But Ms. Voland points to the community goodwill that comes from breathing new life into familiar buildings.

“If you build what’s missing in the neighbourhood, or improve something people care about, you don’t need a marketing budget,” she says. “No one is coming to protest the development, you know people will be in your corner, and you know that you’re building something the community wants. To me it doesn’t make sense not to do it this way.”

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