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'Magnolia House,' a Rosedale renovation by architect Bill Dewson.

Arnaud Marthouret/Revelateur Studio

As Toronto struggles to preserve its residential built heritage, architects are finding new ways to work within stringent renovation guidelines to bring new life to old homes.

The rapid pace of single-family home demolitions in Vancouver has urban planners there worried.

Kerry Gold wrote in The Globe and Mail recently that single-family homes in Vancouver were being demolished at a rate that has alarmed architecture and city-planning experts, as homeowners look to capitalize on increased land value. Misha Das, a UBC architecture student, projected that around 32,000 detached homes in Vancouver will be demolished by 2050 – a “mind boggling” number, he said, that represents nearly half of the city’s detached housing stock.

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In Toronto, the number of demolition permits issued by the City of Toronto has remained relatively steady, at between 1,200 and 1,500, in each of the past five years.

A 2018 Altus Group report found that while B.C. continues to be the growth leader among Canadian provinces in money spent on home renovations, the province is one of only two, along with Alberta, that spends more money on new dwellings than on renovations.

In Toronto, prominent heritage architect William Dewson says the demolition of heritage homes is nowhere near as prevalent as in Vancouver, in part because of the strict set of rules developers face when looking to renovate or demolish homes in the city’s many heritage districts.

Mr. Dewson frequently works on houses in the city’s high-end Rosedale neighbourhood where, in 2004, the local ratepayers association gave a heritage grade to every house. Houses were designated Grade A, B, C or ungraded. Grade A houses are considered virtually untouchable, while ungraded homes can be demolished.

Mr. Dewson often renovates Grade B homes in Rosedale, whose looks must be preserved when viewing them from the street. Some of those homes are more than 100 years old and in desperate need of upgrading, he said - very few modern Rosedale homeowners, for instance, have use for servants’ quarters.

Although it can sometimes lead to strange problems - an ugly porch addition built before 2004 on a Grade B building is now deemed untouchable - the grading system is “fantastic from an urban planning perspective, from an architectural perspective,” he said, “because it is maintaining the integrity of the neighbourhood, but not stifling the creativity of the architect or the desires of the owner."

The graded heritage system might be more difficult to implement in a place such as Vancouver, Mr. Dewson said, which is less divided by neighbourhoods than Toronto, where ravines often define borders of distinct areas with their own culture, character and history.

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“The cities are distinctly unique from each other,” he said.

Rosedale isn’t the only Toronto region with protected housing. The city’s 15 Heritage Conservation Districts, such as Cabbagetown and Blythwood, have their own set of guidelines. Renovation or demolition applications in those areas need to follow the rules laid out by Toronto’s Heritage Preservation Services.

But some say those districts don’t go far enough.

Toronto protects its heritage buildings “better than some, not as good as others,” said Catherine Nasmith, a local architect specializing in heritage homes.

It might compare favourably with Vancouver, but pales in comparison to a place such as New York.

New York has both tougher laws that have been on the books for longer, as well as more heritage districts, she said -- there are 40-50 in Manhattan alone. That New York feeling you get when you walk around SoHo is carefully planned and controlled, Ms. Nasmith said.

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“As a tourist, you don’t realize just how stringent things are,” she said.

Toronto is “doubly handicapped,” she said. Heritage laws are complex and it takes a long time to put building protection into place, while development applications move at the speed of light.

“I think Toronto is really struggling with the development pressure,” she said.

A major concern in Vancouver is the environmental cost of demolishing so many homes -- even tearing down an energy-inefficient home and replacing it with a greener one releases a large amount of greenhouse gas emissions.

Keeping the “envelope,” as Mr. Dewson calls it, rather than demolishing the house allows developers to add insulation and environmentally friendly energy solutions to older homes that were built without them, with minimal environmental impact - and minimal aesthetic compromise.

"Keeping these existing structures [is] the foundation of creating a sustainable house,” he said. “We're now taking all the energy that was put into this house 100 years ago and carrying it forward another 100 years."

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As a result of the city’s stringent protection of heritage homes, Mr. Dewson said the houses that are demolished in Toronto have usually “outlived their shelf life” - mostly postwar buildings that were built in haste to house the city’s burgeoning population.

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The rear of 'Magnolia House' opens to the century-old tree that gives the home its name.

Arnaud Marthouret/Revelateur Studio

Morris Shawn, who currently lives in “Magnolia House,” a Dewson-renovated Rosedale home, said he initially bought it because he liked the history, layout and lot. He said he interviewed three architects before settling on Mr. Dewson to do the renovations owing to his “ability to, sort of, retain some traditional elements while bringing some modernism as well."

“One of our firm’s architectural tenets is that longevity equals sustainability, so when the owners of the Magnolia House made it clear that the integrity of Hamilton Townsend’s architecture must be maintained, I agreed to meet,” Mr. Dewson said.

As a lover of architectural detail, he said he was intrigued when the homeowners showed him Mr. Townsend’s original hand-typed specifications. But when he saw the 19th-century Rosedale architect’s watercolour paintings of the house, he was “smitten.”

One of the biggest challenges with Magnolia House, he said, was restoring the architectural aesthetic of the past while making the building technically sustainable for the future.

And there were some additional site-specific challenges in his long list of project requirements, Mr. Dewson says.

“And oh, by the way, open the rear façade out to the magnificent century-old magnolia tree - but don’t harm it in the process!”

“With a little luck, and much diligence by all involved, we were able to pull it off.”

Mr. Shawn said he can understand that homeowners in places such as Vancouver have the right to tear down their homes and build them the way they want. But he worries that too much demolition can have a “negative impact on the character of the neighbourhood.” It is the “history and beauty” of older homes that give certain Toronto neighbourhoods their character, he said.

“If you have the ability to preserve the best of what’s old and bring some of the the best of what’s new,” he said, “that’s a winning combination."