Globe & Mail: Bowman Block: An over-the-top restoration

May 18th, 2007
The Bowman Block's new penthouses overlook Beatty Street.

The Bowman Block's new penthouses overlook Beatty Street.

Architect Gair Williamson has harmoniously blended old and new in a revitalization of Beatty Street’s Bowman Block 

Trevor Boddy
Globe & Mail Real Estate, Architecture spotlight
Friday, May 18, 2007

For the past half century at very least, Vancouver has been a cauldron of innovation for new housing ideas. In the 1960s we developed the West End’s trademark small floor plate, medium-rise apartment tower. Nudged upwards as the small floor plate high-rise condominium tower, this housing form is of increasing interest world-wide from Dubai to San Diego.

More recently, Vancouver has been developing housing hybrids – buildings that combine two quite different uses, or else two quite different physical formats of multiple homes. Divergent uses brought together by an unbeatable confluence of ultrahigh land prices and mandates from our all-powerful urban planners have prompted an unexpected laminate of functions: big box stores topped by the buttons and bows of rooftop condos. Vancouver is home to the world’s first Costco store capped by condominium towers, on Pacific Boulevard. 

Our city’s true main street, Broadway, is the location of a rising number of these large retailers sprouting layers of residences up top. First up was the SportChek store at Ontario Street and West Broadway, where several storeys of suites rise right above the roller blades and designer jogging togs. 

Condos over food stores is the new theme a couple of blocks west on Cambie, where one side of the street will soon see condos over the flagship Save-On Foods. The other side of the street will be home to condos on top of a competing grocery outlet – or American organic food giant Whole Foods. This company recently bought the Capers chain, who (at least temporarily), have a condo-topped store a few blocks up the Canada Line construction corridor. Soon we will all be calling it the “boulevard of munching dreams.”

Vancouver’s Salient Development has emerged as a specialist in another, more architecturally intriguing hybrid: bold contemporary condos discretely placed on top of restored historic buildings. Salient has a string of such developments currently under construction just off Gassy Jack Square. These will renew some of the city’s oldest commercial buildings, while constructing new ranks of threeto six-storey condos behind them along the lane, which minimizes the newbie’s visual impact on their architectural elders.

New residents are now moving into Salient’s latest project, the Bowman Block, part of the stretch of early 20th Century warehouses lining one side of Beatty Street below Georgia. Here, architect Gait Williamson has cleverly cut back the window-side floor plates of the timberbeamed and wooden millfloored Bowman building to open up two-storey lofts, with bedrooms set back to increase the sense of space, while revealing original elements of the 1906 structure. Architect Williamson wisely resisted the “tidy-town” mentality that would have patched over notches along interior faces of the Bowman’s brick walls, leaving the former beam seats visible as a marker of the building’s past. This is not only better historic building conservation practice, but also cheaper than the plastic surgery we often see when aging buildings are given new lives.

Similarly, designer and developer resisted invisibly bricking-over the line where the portions of subtracted floor plate were removed in order to open up the 2-storey loft units, with one line of restored sash windows at bedroom level set above another line of sash windows at living-kitchen-dining level. In some of these loft condos, the place of the former floor is marked with a very-contemporary steel I-beam, which also helps with seismic stiffening of the masonry shell building. Salient Development’s Robert Fung says that these markings of building history have been an advantage in his marketing. This is because the Bowman’s lofts entered a Vancouver real estate market with precious few pre-Second World War buildings. 

The most compelling instance of the hybrid mentality at work in the Bowman Block is the two storeys of all-new additions placed on its roof, now home to the building’s four most spectacular condos. Set back from the street, these fine additions to Vancouver’s downtown roof-scape are almost invisible from surrounding streets.

Former director of central area planning Larry Beasley is to be credited for standing behind the three planning policy relaxations that made this possible. First, he allowed Salient to add the floor area they had cleared out in the two storey lofts below to be re-created on the roof in the form of new construction. Second, Mr. Beasley supported Gair Williamson’s contemporary architectural palette of zinc plate and glass, over the wishes of some of his staff, who wanted to clad the addition in something “brickier” and more “contextual.” Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Mr. Beasley supported the extension of the boundaries of an area receiving heritage building renewal incentives to include this strip of Beatty Street. 

Mr. Williamson says the rooftop condos were designed to conform with the proportions of the “golden section” first devised by the ancient Greeks, but that their contemporary architectural language “evokes the historic industrial character of the area.” Congratulations to developer, architect and city planners for together shaping one of this city’s most quietly effective condo projects.