Home Makeover: Lofts To Love

July 25th, 2007
The 1911 Paris Block building on Hastings Street: next up for conversion.

The 1911 Paris Block building on Hastings Street: next up for conversion.

Lofts to Love
Salvaging the last of Vancouver’s heritage structures

By Peter Mitham
July/August 2007

PULL QUOTE: “Our whole goal is always to touch these spaces pretty lightly” Interior designer David Nicoloy of Evoke lnternotionol Designs Inc.

Turning derelict old Vancouver offices and warehouses into loft condominiums entails some of the challenges that face a homeowner renovating an older house: hidden surprises, higher-than-anticipated costs and a steep learning curve. 

This spring, the Salient Group brought one of the latest projects to market, the Paris building at 51 West Hastings. Completed in 1911, the five-storey former shoe factory is typical of the conversions taking place elsewhere in Vancouver’s historic core. When renovations are completed late next year, the building will feature 29 homes of approximately 750 square feet catering to buyers with a zest for urban living. Currently, Salient has started work on the Garage, which will combine an 1899 rope factory and a 1930-era auto centre into live/work spaces. 

But the demands in crafting trendy homes from old commercial space are daunting. 

“These small, infill sites really have to be in the right location,” explained Rick Ilich, president of the Townline Group of Richmond, which moved into the urban core in 2005 with an ambitious plan for six properties with a total of 197 homes in the Crosstown and Yaletown areas. 

“Construction’s slower, the trades aren’t necessarily making the margins they would on a simple, 30-storey building where they can just fl y, so you’ve got to make sure you’re in the location that can get the numbers that you need to make it worthwhile,” he said.

Two of Townline’s conversion projects – 1180 Homer, which completed this year, and 540 Beatty, set for to open next year – have had to balance economic demands as well as neighbours’ tolerance for the demanding work the projects require. A new, interior shell was built at 540 Beatty, for example, as part of seismic upgrading.

While the bonus density that the city awards on account of heritage value is helpful in off setting some of the extraordinary expenses, Ilich said the conversions

are hard to cost because of the complexity of the work and market conditions for materials and labour.

Architect Gair Williamson of Gair Williamson Architects in Vancouver, which has partnered with another Vancouver firm, Ankenman Marchand Architects, to reconfi gure the Paris property, is blunt: “Nothing is what it seems.” “It looks like it’s a pretty easy job to figure out what has to happen next, but invariably, when you break into the walls and check the bearing strength of the soil, or you look at cracks in the façade and such, you start to become aware that there’s a myriad of issues just to make this building safe, if nothing else.”

Two elements are critical to upgradingan old commercial building, Williamsonsaid – meeting modern seismic and building envelope requirements.

“The biggest challenge for us is to walk away from these projects when they’re done, and not have anybody notice the belts and braces,” Williamson said

The seismic upgrade is typically the most expensive element, but there is a more obvious value in the work done on the building envelope.

Buyers may like the cachet of living in a century-old building but they want modern comforts, not heritage drafts.

 

The Bowman: Interior designer David Nicolay of Evoke International Designs Inc. pursued a minimalist aesthetic with intense detailing to bring out the heritage character.

The Bowman: Interior designer David Nicolay of Evoke International Designs Inc. pursued a minimalist aesthetic with intense detailing to bring out the heritage character.

When Williamson’s firm tackled the Bowman block on Beatty Street for Salient, the envelope was hardly the hermetic seal of a modern Yaletown condo.

“You can’t have the wind whistling through, and you won’t want the rain coming through – it’s not worth the trade-off of living in a historical building. You won’t get the warranties, ” he said.

Other challenges lie in coordinating the various consultants and making sure everyone shares the same goals. The finished product has to have the right look,

not just a solid frame.

Interior designer David Nicolay of Evoke International Designs Inc. shares that attitude.

“Our whole goal is always to touch these spaces pretty lightly,” said Nicolay, who also handled Salient’s Terminus project on Water Street.

Nicolay pursues a minimalist aesthetic with intense detailing that aims to bring out the character of a space.

Units in the Paris block, for example, will have a linear kitchen against one wall and a bathroom at the back. Otherwise, they are one large, open space where the old commercial interiors – high ceilings, steel beams brick walls and pivot windows – speak for themselves.