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42 Hubbard Blvd., a Toronto Community Housing building being retrofitted by Van Elslander Carter Architects. East facade. (Photos by Dave LeBlanc for The Globe and Mail)
42 Hubbard Blvd., a Toronto Community Housing building being retrofitted by Van Elslander Carter Architects. East facade. (Photos by Dave LeBlanc for The Globe and Mail)

A bricks and mortar argument for conservation Add to ...

At cocktail parties, when people find out I write about architecture, it’d be handy to have a sign to hang around my neck: “I don’t love the new ROM. I do love the new AGO.” When they find out I write mostly about heritage architecture, I’d switch it to: “I’d rather have a heritage façade grafted onto the side of the new [insert building name here]than to have to say goodbye.”

There are longer answers, of course, but there’s only so much you can fit on a sign. I thought the ROM was glorious as a steel skeleton and before I saw the awkwardness of the gallery spaces. As for heritage preservation, my long answer, up until recently, has been a longwinded theory with few concrete examples.

Consider 42 Hubbard Blvd. my new long answer.

This handsome, red brick, 27-unit, two-and-a-half storey building in the Beaches has been with us since 1928, but it’s what’s been happening recently that makes it an example of how to do heritage in Toronto. Purchased by Toronto Community Housing’s predecessor, Cityhome, in the mid-1970s, it chugged along as part of the affordable housing portfolio for more than three decades until serious mould was found during kitchen and bathroom updates in 2008, which, says Lizette Zuniga, TCH’s director of development, was “no big surprise.

“You have the lake right here, the water table up here, a crawlspace … guess what?”

So, what to do? A quick fix to get through the next decade? A major down-to-the-studs renovation? A façade job with a new glass box behind?

“Architecture is very important to us,” Ms. Zuniga continues. “We debated for a long time, actually, because it was a massive retrofit we needed to do, and we thought the building, as is, is really a perfect example of what the Beach[es]used to be.”

It certainly is: On its wide west and narrow east sides, it has a cottagey look with covered porches that blend seamlessly with single family homes along Hammersmith Avenue and Scarboro Beach Boulevard, and on its long south face it has kooky, non-symmetrical window placement; it has an interesting chunky, tapering floor plan (the building looks like the letter ‘F’ laying on its side when viewed from above) and, best of all, some of best views of Lake Ontario anywhere.

So, with that in mind, TCH called upon the talents of Van Elslander Carter Architects to preserve those things, but also bring the interiors up to 21st-century snuff. The agreed-upon solution was to save the entire shell of the building rather than just the façade – kooky floor plan and window placement included – and shore it up on-site, dig a new and much deeper basement (which includes sump pumps) and build a completely new interior from scratch. Interestingly, with the extremely tight site – neighbouring homes are just inches away – an enormous hole had to be punched into the south wall to allow for the dig and interior abatement (it’s easy to spot new grout tracing the outline of the former hole).

“It’s my fate to do lots of renovations and be involved in intricate, difficult situations,” says Terence Van Elslander with a smile.

Because the interiors and roof are new, Mr. Van Elslander and his team were able to add frills that weren’t there before. A closet-sized, one-storey foyer dominated by a staircase was replaced with a two-storey lobby with an elevator; a glass wall on the second level “allows natural light into the corridors which, for me, is a huge achievement, since you don’t get light in corridors too often,” says the architect. Units closest to the elevator are barrier-free for residents with disabilities. Since there was no proper laundry room or any other gathering space, these have been added to the green roof; while this is done often in modern-day residential projects, it’s not found on 1920s buildings, unless, Mr. Van Elslander points out, you look to Mies van der Rohe’s 1927 Weissenhof apartments in Stuttgart.

Doing double-duty on the roof is a long row of photovoltaic panels, which both offset energy use and provide a shaded walkway for residents. Keeping with the sustainable theme, new fiberglass windows have small electronic tabs that sense when they’ve been left open so the unit can stop pumping hot or cold air out the window (in winter, it won’t let the unit freeze). “So it’s not exactly a smart building but it’s no longer a dumb building,” says Mr. Van Elslander. Rather than going to landfill, original floor joists have been salvaged and will be used to fabricate wood screens around the rooftop mechanicals and other areas.

“I have to say that Terry was great in terms of figuring out all of this,” offers Ms. Zuniga.

“This is what architects think is fun,” he answers with a wry smile.

Unfortunately, save for the new solar panels up top, not much will look different to Beach strollers and dog-walkers once the construction sign comes down and folks have moved back in sometime after Christmas. That’s the idea, of course, but it’s too bad a different sign can’t go up saying something like this: “I’m here because someone cared enough to spend a little extra time and money.

“In the long run, I’ll pay it all back.”

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