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A three-storey exoskeleton holds up a façade along Toronto's Bloor Street in the Mirvish Village development.

Brileigh Hardcastle/The Globe and Mail

There isn’t much left of the former Ka Chi Korean Restaurant near the intersection of Bloor Street West and Bathurst Street in downtown Toronto. The roof of the building, once part of a streetscape, has been removed. Two walls have been torn down and the interior has been completely gutted.

The remaining two walls wouldn’t be standing either if they weren’t propped up and held in place by gigantic steel beams.

The three-storey building, which has housed other restaurants and shops over the decades, is considered of historic value. It couldn’t be completely torn down when the surrounding 4.5 acres of land were razed to make way for one of Toronto’s biggest commercial and residential developments, Mirvish Village.

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More than 20 other heritage buildings on the site have also been saved and they’ll be incorporated into Westbank Corp.’s sprawling development that is expected to wrap by 2022. With most of the construction work so far happening at ground level or below, the two red-brick restaurant walls and their towering yellow exoskeleton stand out all the more.

It’s a sight that is becoming increasingly common across development-crazy Toronto. Heritage buildings, or at least their facades, are being saved under local preservation laws and grafted on to modern towers that are shooting up into the city’s skyline.

Combining the two is a complicated feat of engineering and construction. But it wouldn’t be possible, to begin with, without the humble contribution of the multitonne steel frames and superstructures that temporarily support the old while the new is created.

More than 20 heritage buildings on the Mirvish Village property have been saved and will be incorporated into the project.

Brileigh Hardcastle/The Globe and Mail

In Toronto, especially, but also somewhat in Vancouver, developers are running out of parking lots and other vacant land to build on in the core, so they’re turning to sites with existing buildings, some of which must be preserved and worked around.

Among the first steps is enveloping the saved buildings or their facades with a sturdy structure so they don’t topple or collapse into the construction pit.

“It’s happening more and more,” says Greg McCulloch, head of a family company that started as a building mover but has branched out into providing these structural supports. “ … Toronto is at the forefront of it. There’s more of it going on here than anywhere else that I know of.”

His Whitby, Ont.-based company has become one of the pioneers in this niche field, improvising structure designs and erection techniques, in consultation with engineers, to suit a project’s demands. Its success is evident in the number of the company’s yellow structures that can be seen at Toronto construction sites – including the ones around the Ka Chi and another at Mirvish Village.

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Steel beams are fastened together like a giant Tinkertoy set to form structures to hold up heritage facades, reaching several storeys high and a city block wide. The beams are moved to the sites on trucks overnight when traffic is sparse and can take up to six weeks to assemble.

A steel exoskeleton surrounds the façade of the former Weston Bakery in Toronto’s Leslieville neighbourhood.

Brileigh Hardcastle/The Globe and Mail

Hanging advertising banners from the frames is prohibited, but “as long as everything is McCulloch yellow, everyone knows who it is,” Mr. McCulloch says with a laugh.

His company got its first taste of this work about a decade ago in Toronto’s Yorkville neighbourhood, when it was hired to secure the facade of the original Mount Sinai Hospital, pull it out to the street while a condo was built behind it, and then slide the facade back in place as part of the finished condo’s veneer. That led to other similar work nearby and projects elsewhere in Toronto.

“I wouldn’t have believed we’d have this much work,” Mr. McCulloch says, noting his company has about a half-dozen retention projects on the go at any given time and another handful on the drawing board. “If you had told me 20 years ago that we’d have seven jobs in the Yonge and Bloor area alone [over the years], I would have laughed and said you were crazy.”

His company isn’t the only game in town. Limen Group Ltd., a contractor with a heritage preservation division, has constructed a five-storey frame to hold up an entire streetscape of storefronts along King Street East.

On King Street East in Toronto, Limen Group’s retention structure stretches along five storefronts and up to five storeys high.

Brileigh Hardcastle/The Globe and Mail

The five storefronts will be the face of an 18-floor glass tower that’s under construction behind the facade. The project by Carttera will have shops and about 400,000 square feet of office space, all of which has been leased by Google Inc.

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Toronto-based Limen will also clean up the storefronts’ masonry and do other preservation work, similar to the face lifts it has given to some of the country’s most august buildings, including the Fairmont Royal York hotel in Toronto and Parliament Hill’s West Block in Ottawa.

The project at 65 King St. E., though, is unique for Limen because it required the retention structure. The red frame held up the storefronts as the interiors behind were demolished and a new foundation was poured beneath. It will stay up until the tower behind it is complete and attached to the facade.

For any developer, it would be easier (and likely cheaper) to knock old buildings down and start fresh. But Limen’s Igor Danilov, for one, is glad Toronto has firm preservation laws to save some of the city’s history. The steel structures make this possible in projects such as 65 King East.

“Someday you will walk by and all you’ll see is the houses [storefronts at street level]. You will feel like you are still in an old city, a heritage city,” says Mr. Danilov, chief estimator for Limen’s heritage restoration division.

Vancouver, being a newer city, has fewer heritage elements to hang on to, but there are still a handful of examples where old and new unite.

Vince Alvernaz, vice-president of Pacific Blasting and Demolition Ltd., said his company has been part of six or seven facade preservation projects over the past 10 years. For one, near downtown Vancouver’s historic Gastown neighbourhood, Pacific erected a frame to hold up a heritage facade that later became the frontage of a 30-storey office tower.

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The exoskeleton held the wall suspended in air, so that the developer could excavate beneath it and gain a couple of extra metres for an underground car park. But as successful as the tricky project was, it likely won’t lead to a surge in related work, as opportunities don’t abound, Mr. Alvernaz says.

“Vancouver isn’t that old of a city,” he says. “Our heritage facade retention isn’t as large as, say, back east where cities have been around a lot longer. I see it being part of our business, but is it going to expand and grow? No. I think we’ll do always do one a year or one every couple of years but that’s about it.”

In the United States, the examples seem to be even more rare, says Tammie DeVooght Blaney, executive director of the Wisconsin-based International Association of Structural Movers. She could think of just one instance where these structures were used to hold up walls – it was in Milwaukee, and just a minor project – and she suspects most of the association’s 300-member companies don’t know much about the practice.

Members were supposed to get a chance to hear more about it at the association’s annual convention in Calgary in March, where Mr. McCulloch was to give a presentation. But the convention was cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Next year’s convention will be held in Orlando.

“It definitely could be a growth area for us,” Ms. DeVooght Blaney says, “if communities are interested in it.”

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