The landlord wanted to move in, but the property was filled with squatters.
So the landlord brought in a falcon.
The pigeons quickly fled the place. But that was only the first step before Nova Scotia Power Inc. could move into its new home on the Halifax waterfront. The former coal-fired generating station, which opened in 1944 but which has been out of commission for three decades, was still a concrete-and-steel eyesore unsuitable for a corporate headquarters.
The building’s walls, in places nearly a metre thick, were cleaved to make way for windows; skylights were installed, too, letting light pour in. The industrial guts had been pried out long ago, so contractors inserted floorplates, being careful not to cut off the sun. Using pipes jutting into the harbour, they used neighbouring sea water to heat and cool the 129,000-square-foot structure. Then 620 people moved in.
The bones of the original generating station are the same, but it’s got a new heart. Today, it’s Nova Scotia Power’s award-winning corporate headquarters and the first LEED platinum-certified building in Atlantic Canada. The $53.4-million project, built by Toronto’s WZMH Architects in conjunction with Halifax’s Fowler, Bauld & Mitchell Ltd., opened its doors in late 2011.
The headquarters has improved the sense of community within Nova Scotia Power and along the waterfront, and has received applause from both urban-building experts and waterfront stakeholders for its successful adaptive reuse of an old industrial structure to bring new life to Halifax’s downtown.
The choice to move into the old generating station was easy, says Paul Currie, the building’s senior project manager. After 40 years leasing space in a Halifax office tower, the utility was mulling over numerous ideas for a new space, but each option came with a cost. And there was certainly pressure to find the most economical option: The company is, after all, financially accountable to its ratepayers.
The utility could have built anew on property it already owned, or signed another long-term lease as someone else’s tenant. Instead, it saw the opportunity in the generating station, a structure it couldn’t sell or knock down because power still actively flowed through it.
“We realized we already own the land, and it’s on a pristine location – so why not see if we can do something with that?” Mr. Currie says.
The numbers were in favour of adapting the existing structure for office space – the $53.4-million price tag, the utility says, would cost ratepayers less than a new building or another long-term lease. (Parent company Emera moved into a separate segment of the building that has also been refurbished, which was paid for from a separate budget. Neither the utility nor Emera could provide an exact cost for that segment.)
The capital expenditure for the project was approved by the utility’s regulator in 2008, and construction began the next year. Because the headquarters was built within the building’s existing structure, Nova Scotia Power avoided getting tangled up in any municipal zoning debates – including Halifax’s rigid rules forbidding buildings from obstructing the “viewplanes” from the city’s historic Citadel Hill to the harbour.
Instead, the harbour is more accessible than ever. A glass atrium now cuts through what was once a fenced-off concrete obelisk, allowing the public a full view of – and access to – the water from Lower Water Street.
By heating and cooling the building with water piped in from the harbour, the utility has also reduced the associated energy costs by about half of what they would be for a building of its size.
The building team gutted much of what was left of the original structure and installed as many as eight floorplates, eventually cladding it with a new exterior wall and windows. Original steel columns still line the public atrium and galleria space. “We wanted to retain the memory of the original use of the building, but also give a unique feel to the public space,” says Carl Blanchaer, WZMH Architects’s design principal for the project.
(The successful project is not without tension: WZMH filed a civil claim against the utility last year for about $1-million in fees that the architects say they are owed; the two parties have since agreed to arbitrate the dispute, according to the architects’ counsel.)
Transmission lines still run through a portion of the building, feeding downtown Halifax with power, and another segment – a former soundstage that boasted projects including the CBC miniseries Shattered City: The Halifax Explosion – will soon be developed into the new home for the city’s Discovery Centre science museum.
The project has received accolades in Canada and abroad, including the Canadian Urban Institute’s 2013 Brownie Award for excellence in building-scale redevelopment of an industrial site. “They’ve repurposed [the building] in a creative way,” says Peter Halsall, the institute’s president, who praises the project’s adaptive reuse, its re-established waterfront connection and lighting strategy. “By design, they’ve created sunlight in a lot of places that wouldn’t have any.”
Thomas Mueller, chief executive of the Canada Green Building Council – which oversees Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, certifications in the country – calls the project “quite impressive.” The Nova Scotia Power building is the first to achieve LEED’s platinum certification, the highest level of green building achievement.
“When you have a structure [already] in place, to turn it into a platinum building is no small feat,” Mr. Mueller says.
The building also bolsters the sense of community both within and outside of its walls. The open-concept design and strategically located meeting areas and staircases take away the rigid silo structures of traditional office spaces. Natural light reaches most workstations. All offices are the same size – up to and including the president’s.
Nova Scotia Power’s new neighbours are cheering, too. Colin MacLean, chief executive of Nova Scotia’s Waterfront Development Corp., calls the headquarters “a wonderful new symbol of downtown development” and says it’s attracting more potential suitors to the area to develop other projects. “It’s bringing back life on the waterfront.”
The refurbishments should sustain the building for at least another 50 years of life, the utility hopes. As a coal-fired generating station turned award-winning green office building, it will certainly be a better life than it had before.
“For a building that everybody walked by and turned their nose up at,” Mr. Currie says, “we were able to do something we’re quite happy with.”