Essential Guide To Renovating A Heritage Building

Old Buildings New Faces - How To Guide For Designers and Contractors

The large glass skyscrapers we see dominating the skylines of today’s cities weren’t always a staple. In the past people utilized stone and brick to create buildings with character. Heritage buildings are part of every city. If you’re like me and your project experience has included renovation of a heritage building you’ll understand that there are some key challenges related to them.

So what exactly is a heritage building, how does one go about renovating a heritage building and what are some of the complexities related to it? To start let’s define what exactly a heritage building is?

A heritage building is any structure of sufficient age that it retains some historical value within the city. A heritage building doesn’t need to be 100 years old, but it should have some form of historical value. These types of buildings are designated as “heritage” and protected under city by-laws.

While the above doesn’t necesssarily give the heritage building a formal defiition it does help to understand what that means.

How Is A Heritage Building Defined ?

There is no sound way to define whether a building is heritage or not. When most people think about heritage buildings they immediately think “old”. That may not however always be the case. Buildings as recent as the 70s, 80s and 90s can have historical value and can be considered heritage.

To start let’s define who classifies heritage structures. In larger cities the infrastructure may support a “Heritage” division which seeks out and protects properties which retain some historical value. Smaller cities may require residents and the city council to implement law protecting various properties.

In the first case, often times, the heritage society or council will perform an assessment on a property. That assessment can include the things like:

  • How Old Is The Building?
  • Is it architecturally significant?
  • Are there any historical events that occurred at the property?
  • Does the building represent a specific era?
  • Did someone with historical significance own the property?
  • Does the building feature an innovative engineering component for its time?

Once they’ve assessed the building the heritage society typically prepares a report which goes before council and the building is typically adopted as a “heritage protected building”.

Types of Heritage Buildings

There are different types of heritage buildings and many of these buildings can be renovated. According to the Federal Conservation Association the percentage of buildings that are houses is over 50%.

chart: heritage buildings by type
Percent of Heritage Buildings by Building Type

Based on the above, if you are a contractor that is looking at work to renovate buildings you may want to focus on specific types. For example, renovating a church, is significantly different that renovating a house or office space.

What Does Being Heritage Mean?

Defining a building as heritage comes with a lot of complications and impacts. To better assess what becoming a heritage building means let’s break it down by what it means to different people. Starting with the building owner.

Owning a Heritage Building

Owning a heritage building means that you are responsible for a piece of history. That responsibility comes with alot of catches. Including the fact that you are responsible for proper maintenance and upkeep of the building. Ensuring that the heritage components remain in good condition.

Fortunately for you, having a building retained as a heritage structure also means that you receive some tax breaks and can apply for grants to help with this. Many societies and charities offer grants and loans to help protect the cities history.

Lastly, many heritage buildings can be old. As the building owner it is your responsibility to ensure that the structure is safe. UNESCO (the global association overseeing heritage structures identifies management as one of the leading factors to a buildings decline.

UNESCO causes for a heritage building decline
Causes for a Heritage Building Decline Over Time

We’d recommend you hire an engineering firm to do annual building assessment reports to help identify any building envelope and structural concerns.

Impacts to the Designer or Engineer

If you’re an architect or engineer and you’ve been contracted to renovate or expand an existing heritage structure you will be impacted. Once a building is protected, certain parts or all of it will have restrictions on what you can do to it and modify.

A starting point for any designer is to read the heritage conservation report that was prepared for the building. This will outline to you what exactly needs to be retained and protected during any design work.

Once you as a designer have established what can and cannot be touched it is your job to understand the how. As the designer you need to know that not all old building components can be touched. As an example, a building may contain asbestos which needs to be properly identified and treated. Ensure you hire the correct subconsultants that specialize in these materials.

How Is the Builder Affected?

The builder is perhaps the most affected of all of the various parties because failing to properly understand the various restrictions related to a heritage property can mean major fines.

When you take on a project as a builder that has a restoration component to it, it is important that you read all of the drawings, specifications, contracts and heritage preservation assessments. Understanding who is responsible for what could mean making or losing money but more on that later.

We’re going to dig into a lot more details related to renovating these types of structures later in this article, but to reiterate education is the most important part of a contractors job when taking on these types of projects.

In our next section we’re going to visit the types of heritage renovations and how to approach them.

Types of Heritage Building Renovations

When approaching a new project that involves a historical element it’s important to (as I noted above) review the heritage assessment report. That will dictate what can remain and what can go in a renovation. Understanding this is absolutely fundamental to the program.

Heritage buildings are typically renovated in one of three ways:

  • Basic – Restoration Of Historical Elements (face lift)
  • Intermediate – Selective removal of non heritage elements and restoration of heritage elements
  • Advanced – retention of only heritage elements, removal of everything else

We are going to walk through each one of the above below:

basic restoration of a building facade restoration

BASIC – Restoration Of Historical Elements

This approach can be taken if you have selective building elements you want to restore. For example, if there is old millwork in a hallway that is aging you might choose to restore that. Repainting of heritage elements to restore the original colour.

These are typically smaller and more localized repairs intended to bring out the character in the building.

Some project examples include:

Image result for selective historical demolition

INTERMEDIATE – Selective Removal of Non Heritage Elements

The next step up essentially involves removing all non-heritage elements or part of them from the building.

As an example of this, you may only have facades or sculptures that are of historical value, you may be able to demolish all of the interior finishes and systems, upgrade them and retain the heritage elements untouched or restored. The structure remains.

The construction projects tend to be much larger in size. Some examples include:

facadism - retention of facade demolition of all structure

ADVANCED – Retention of Only Heritage Elements

This is the most invasive and involved method yet there is a large movement towards this especially in urban centres.

Advanced methods of heritage restoration involve removal of all building components that aren’t protected.

As an example, the facade might be retained and all other building components removed. New structure and backup elements are all installed to support.

Regardless of which method your team chooses to move forward with there are a number of steps you need to take in your project and these are the items we’re going to walk through next.

Approaching A Renovation

Once you’ve decided on your approach to renovating the building (based on the above), it’s time to start working on the project. I’m going to walk through each of the stages of a project (from conceptual design through permitting and into construction).

Conceptual Design Phase

It’s important to remember at this phase to review the heritage conservation plan I noted above. Depending upon which elements of your building are protected it will drastically alter the design approach.

At this phase in the project , if you aren’t a heritage specialist, you will want to consider engaging one. A heritage professional or consultant will help the project team in dealing with the critical components of the project. When reviewing firms you want to ensure that they all have experience dealing with heritage structures similar to yours. Furthermore, you want to ensure the heritage consultant is local and has connections with the governing body within your city. Having a heritage consultant that can manage the city, their requirements and expectations will help to streamline your project.

When designing ensure you take the following into consideration:

  • What are the heritage elements and what are the levels of protection assigned to them.
  • Ensure that the protected elements aren’t covered up or reduced in value. They should be a centre piece and focus of the development.
  • If there are elements that were there previously (ie old photos showed metal trimwork in the lobby) consider reinstating them and bringing the building back to a closer representation of what it was originally.
  • Always keep a running budget on the project. It’s very easy to get carried away on heritage projects. Make sure to leave room in the budget for unknowns at they will inevitably creep up.

Investigation of Heritage Buildings

During the conceptual design phase you will also want to be doing a number of investigations to confirm design assumptions. These investigations should be widespread and thorough enough to help reduce risk. As an example some investigations you can do include:

  • Investigation of exterior masonry condition with drones and physical checks off of a swing stage.
  • Thermal reviews of the interior and exterior to determine where and if leaks are occurring.
  • Coring of concrete to test the strength of the existing structure, scanning and xraying to determine reinforcement bar
  • Hazardous materials assessment and survey to determine what if any material contains asbestos and lead.
  • Selective demolition to determine conditions in concealed areas (ie roof structure)
  • Roof cuts to determine condition of the existing roofing.
  • Bore holes to check soil and ground conditions in the area

These are just a list of a few of the many investigations you can perform. When performing them ensure you are thorough and check in multiple spots. Remember that old buildings were built as consistently as new projects are. Because of this assemblies and structure can change quickly.

Permitting Phase

Many builders nowadays will know that projects are typically delayed at the permitting phase. In busy cities where development is growing, city planners often can’t keep up with the influx of projects.

To solve this problem there are a few key items you and your project team can do up front to avoid delays in dealing with the city and getting your building permit.

  • Start the Conversation Early – bring in the historical society early on in the project to review your designs and concepts. By including them in the design early on there’s less risk of a major change coming out of the building permit application.
  • Start the Application Process As Soon As Possible – leaving lots of time in your schedule for a building permit review is important. There are more opinions on the reviewers side when dealing with a heritage building building permit application so account for that.
  • Hire A Professional – as I noted above, make sure to hire an outside consultant who is familiar with the people within the city doing the reviews.

Once you have your permit in place it’s time to start building.

Construction Phase

The construction phase of the renovation can be just as challenging as the design phase. The contractor should have been brought in early, and should be familiar with the project in advance of starting construction.

When planning the work it’s important to review elements that need to be retained or protected. Heritage elements often have strict requirements relating to temperature, humidity, dust and potential damage so they will need to either be removed or protected up front.

Once you know the items you can begin planning the remaining work around them. During this time you should be mindful of how it could impact heritage elements:

  • Will work above cause damage to concrete and hit the heritage element?
  • Do I have new services that need to run above a heritage ceiling?
  • Do I need to install new supports for a heritage element

It’s challenging to do work within an existing building, it’s even harder to do so in a building with elements requiring protection.

Sequencing and Temporary Services

As you progress through the construction phase it may be necessary to sequence your work to ensure that certain elements are managed. One of the challenges with renovating an existing building is the space you have.

Some areas that you need to consider are as follows:

Elevators – does the building have elevators, if so will they be used for construction? What are the capacities and sizes and will that limit material. If elevators will be utilized consider protecting them.

Existing Services – will all of the existing services be removed from the building? If they will how will you support construction during the project? Will temporary electrical need to be brought in?

Bathrooms – if the bathrooms are being removed how will you manage the bathroom requirements for a construction project. Often times portapotties will not fit up the elevators so temporary risers may have to be run.

Access Requirements – if your work is on the sides of the building how will you access it. Consider checking out our article on vertical access in construction for some useful guidance.

Temporary Protection – if large parts of your project involve removal or interference with the building envelope (roof, windows, walls etc) than you’ll need to be mindful of the interior space of the building. Heritage components can be susceptible to damage if left exposed.

Construction of an existing heritage building can be complicated but by preparing a proper construction plan at the start of the project it will help to eliminate many of the risks related to the build out and put you in a better position to deal with issues that arise.

Inspections and Documentation for Heritage Buildings

During the construction phase of a heritage project there are a number of documentation requirements that may be outlined by the city. Along with the regular monthly report from the architect a seperate report may be required to be prepared by the heritage consultant. This report outlines progress on site with a focus on the elements that matter the most to the preservation society.

Along with the heritage consultants report other independent reports may be required to properly document the work – as an example a report may be required for any hazardous material removal required on the project.

Lastly – it’s important to get an understanding of what the city needs to sign off on during the project. With heritage elements the city may ask to review them prior to production. In this instance it will be important for you as a contractor to arrange for mockups to be completed and reviewed before commencing work.

Preserving Our Past For Our Future

While renovations of a heritage building may be a challenge, and during the project you may start to ask yourself why. It’s important to remember that preserving buildings for future generations is important.

The stories that buildings can tell are powerful and the causes behind them can be instrumental in understanding our past. Ensuring these are preserved and maintained is an important function of our job as designers and builders.

8 thoughts on “Essential Guide To Renovating A Heritage Building”

  1. I agree that it would be important to make sure that you get an inspection of the building. Hopefully, that inspection could help you to determine the structural integrity of the building. If I decide to invest in a heritage building, I should make sure that I monitor its structural health.

  2. This is really appreciated that you have presented this data over here, I love all the information shared. It will be very helpful to understand about renovating a heritage building. Great post to share, thanks for publishing this here!!If possible visit this website to gain more idea or tips on the same.

  3. Really happy that I get to find your blog on the renovating a heritage building. These are must read for all. This article is a good one to look at. You will get best review over here and would suggest others too. Great blog indeed, will visit again future to read more!!

  4. I have a heritage building that i’m currently renovating. If anyone is interested in a great project in Dunedin, feel free to give me a call. Tom 022 694 1214.


Leave a Comment