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The Architourist

The Tannery Building in Kitchener, Ont.

In Waterloo and Kitchener, Ont., Raw Design is giving historical buildings new life as tech hubs

Not Moscow on the Hudson, but rather Toronto on Silver Lake? Or the Grand River, perhaps?

A few blocks from Silver Lake and the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ont., a former police station at 14 Erb St. W. has been expertly transformed into an "innovation centre" by Toronto talents Raw Design. Completed in May of this year, the 1880 building began life as the Ontario Mutual Life Assurance Co. (the first mutual life-insurance company in Canada). While its south and west façades had retained most of their pedimented and dentil-moulded charm, everything else was a hodgepodge of additions – starting as early as 1887 and continuing into the 1990s – that threw countless spanners into the renovation works, however. For instance, Waterloo Regional Police Service, which moved into the building in 1991, added a gym and showers to the second floor, and jail cells and interrogation rooms to the basement.

Raw Design transformed the former police station at 14 Erb St. W. in Waterloo into an ‘innovation centre.’

Four kilometres south and seven years ago, at Charles Street West and Victoria Street South in Kitchener, Ont., high-tech tenants moved into the former Lang Tanning Co., a massive complex of 15 interconnected buildings built between 1896 and 1956 that was once the largest leather-tanning operation in the British Empire. Again, thanks to Raw Design.

"The Tannery is actually the reason we retained Raw," says Tony Campbell, director of facilities for Mike Lazaridis, a co-founder of BlackBerry and board chair for the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, who also owns 14 Erb St. W. "Our goal was to produce a similar space to the Tannery."

Raw Design was also behind the reinvention of the former Lang Tanning Co., which once held the largest leather-tanning operation in the British Empire.

Three kilometres to the north of 14 Erb, Raw is watching as finishing touches are applied to a former – and yawningly massive – BlackBerry assembly building on Phillip Street. While there are no tenants calling this building home yet, a new LRT stop nearby will change all that when daily commuters descend upon the area.

Give it a few more years and a few more projects – such as the 24-storey mixed-used building that's still on the drawing board – and it'll be known as Kitchener-Rawterloo.

Raw’s design reflects its respect for heritage.

Luckily, the design language Raw speaks works well in Canada's Silicon Valley. It's a vocabulary, Raw's Johanna Stille says, "of selective demolition and trying to maintain architectural features and layering of architectural elements along with exposed mechanical, electrical and structure." In other words, a retention and respect for heritage that doesn't cripple new startups, combined with the cool-factor of high-ceilinged, sun-filled loft spaces that welcome a cross-pollination of ideas between separate companies.

A massive safe is the only indication that this Erb Street site originated as an insurance building in the late 1800s.

This is written all over the Erb Street building: Climb the stairs, pass the tall columns and open the door to an oak-trimmed and coffered-ceilinged room that could be used as a set for Murdoch Mysteries. Past that, tenant Communitech, which calls the building their Data Hub, has opened things up into a shared workspace with bright blue paint, exposed ductwork and sandblasted brick walls; here, the only indication this was an old insurance building is the massive safe. And Raw, smartly, has placed kitchen and washroom facilities right inside that old safe: "They did a lot of really unique space planning to fit things into a not-so-friendly building," Mr. Campbell says.

At the very back of the building – which hails from the 1960s or 70s and is vaguely brutalist in character – a carpeted work area sports everything from concrete columns and iron roof-drains, to sliding barn doors that were once buried behind drywall.

Concrete columns give a somewhat brutalist look to the back of the Erb Street building.

The second floor follows much of the same pattern. In the heritage portion at the front, a big room that's occupied by Skywatch (a Communitech tenant that works with NASA), mismatched radiators were retained because, in addition to still being functional, they lend vintage charm. Further along, where the police had gym facilities, it's a mirror image of the wide-open, main floor below. Already, various startups are setting up desks and rolling up their sleeves to invent the future.

Architecturally, the Tannery Building, which Communitech also inhabits, posed similar challenges for Raw. Here, rather than additions to one building, Roland Rom Colthoff and his team were faced with multiple buildings built over six decades: some wood frame, some brick, others solid concrete; many had mismatched floor levels or bridges connecting them; outdated boilers had been placed in semi-outdoor courtyards; and all buildings suffered from a "rabbit warren" of rooms and corridors.

The Tannery Building’s mismatched additions and construction materials posed a design challenge for Raw.

"We tore down a whole bunch of pieces inside the buildings, basically to bring back the structure and circulation," Mr. Colthoff says. "So the interstitial spaces between the actual structures became the circulation."

The team also added a "front door" to the sprawling complex. After a relatively modern, shed-like building running parallel to Charles Street had been demolished, a five-storey, curtain-walled foyer was inserted into the space between two heritage buildings. Inside this cathedral-like foyer, a long, wide staircase with treads made from salvaged wood greets visitors, as do benches created with the same wood. These, Mr. Colthoff says as he laughs, were built by a "handyman" who "came with the building."

And while Google recently vacated a large portion of the Tannery, Communitech has had no problem subletting to microscopic startups and well-established behemoths, such as the LCBO, General Motors and Canadian Tire (which use their spaces to try new out new ideas), alike. There are even on-site lawyers and accountants to assist the newbies so they don't make costly mistakes when dealing with investors.

Bright colours stand out against brick and exposed ductwork at the Tannery Building.

And, just like at the Erb Street space, colours are bright, brick and ductwork is exposed, wiring floats overhead in trays so it can drop down to any work area, different architectural eras meet and shake hands, and (endorsed) graffiti and artwork are plentiful.

"It was meant to be eclectic," Mr. Colthoff says. "It's just a matter of taking away what's excess [and] preserving what's truly important."