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Q&A: Cadillac Fairview’s Tom Knoepfel on recycling the former Sears building, one panel at a time

Cadillac Fairview VP Tom Knoepfel poses for a photo at the site of the old Sears building in downtown Vancouver, BC on October 10, 2013. Cadillac Fairview plans to replace the site with a flagship Nordstroms store. Jimmy Jeong for The Globe and Mail.

Jimmy Jeong/The Globe and Mail

From the street, the construction effort looks like peeling the shell off an egg and putting on a new one.

The widely criticized former Sears building in downtown Vancouver across the street from the Vancouver Art Gallery has been stripped to a skeleton as workers replace the massive white panels that some observers said made it resemble a giant urinal.

It is part of a revamp of the 600,000 square foot complex, opened in 1973. When the work is done in 2015, U.S. retailer Nordstrom will take the first three floors of the seven-storey building. The rest will be offices and an extension of the underground Pacific Centre mall.

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Tom Knoepfel, senior vice-president and portfolio manager for Cadillac Fairview, which owns the building and is having it renovated by the Ledcor Group, says his company initially thought about demolishing the building and that the old concrete composite tiles from the exterior are being put to an unusual new use.

Was knocking down the building and starting from scratch considered?

We gave that some thought, but re-purposing of the building was really driven by our desire to accommodate Nordstrom. The specific location is in the heart of the downtown core. It's connected to both of our rapid-transit systems and it has ample parking. To duplicate that kind of location in downtown Vancouver is nearly impossible.

Why did they want the building renovated?

The building, in its current form, in terms of the size of the floorplate and obviously the location worked for them. The various components of the building, however, are 40 years old and have reached the end of their useful life and needed to be replaced. In addition, they wanted the exterior of the building to more appropriately reflect their brand with new materials.

How far along did you get in looking at demolishing the building?

Because the primary objective with this building was to accommodate Nordstrom and they had indicated that the floorplan in its current state worked for them well, we didn't move far beyond our initial analysis.

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How many panels have you taken off?

Honestly I don't know.

What has happened to the old panels?

The panels have been taken out to the Langley Airport to create roughly 6,000 square metres of new roadway. In their place, there will be roughly 1,700 new panels of glass.

Is other material from the building being recycled?

Over 91 per cent of the material from the building is being re-purposed or recycled. [It is] over 6.8-million kilograms. Some of the metal is being converted and recycled. Concrete goes through a crusher and is ground down to gravel and sand. Gypsum is extracted and reused as new stock. Wood is going into a chipper and being reused as biofuel.

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How much is this costing?

We're a privately held company and we don't divulge construction costs or contracts of this size.

Are you on budget?

Yes. We are on budget.

This has been a maligned building. Do you think the frequent urinal comparison was fair?

Different people had their views on the building as it stood.

It's exciting to be part of the architectural renaissance of the building and be able to change the architectural landscape on such a large and significant building.

We retained James Cheng – a world-renowned architect local to Vancouver – who really understands the architectural landscape of Vancouver. We believe he has designed a building that will be truly complimentary to our city.

Given past criticisms, was getting it right, so to speak, a concern for the team?

We certainly felt the pressure and responsibility to get it right, and have received the support and endorsement of the City of Vancouver in terms of design put forward.

What is the most complicated aspect of pulling this off?

The design phase of re-purposing a single-purpose building into three different and distinct uses. Determining where to locate the elevator bank to get to the offices which run through Nordstroms and run through the retail all the way to the parkade was extremely challenging. Another complication is we're working in the middle of the city but also adjacent to the TD Tower, which is fully occupied and on top of a two-level parkade, which has remained open through the entire reconstruction process.

This interview has been edited and condensed

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