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Totally tubular design pays off for Toronto office building

Building a cutting-edge office tower perched atop two century-old buildings in Toronto’s core was an unprecedented engineering feat.

As complex as that was, persuading potential tenants that the concept was even feasible turned out to be just as large a challenge.

Allied Properties Real Estate Investment Trust wanted the redevelopment at the highly visible northwest corner of Richmond Street West and Peter Street to be a landmark. The project mounts a modern 12-storey tower above the restored heritage buildings, with the tower supported by stylish tubular legs.

Because something like this had never been tried, tenants took a wait-and-see approach, says Michael Emory, president and chief executive officer of Allied Properties REIT.

“We found that while you can create wonderful renderings and video imagery, people need to see something physical if it’s new or outside the norm.”

The QRC West project at 134 Peter St. in Toronto features a modern glass tower between two heritage buildings, one of which used to be a bakery. (Tim Fraser for The Globe and Mail)

Construction was delayed almost a year before an anchor tenant, Entertainment One Ltd., signed on. But once the building started coming out of the ground, “It was like a switch went on. All of a sudden, in the minds of tenants, leasing took on a sense of urgency. And it filled up quickly after that,” Mr. Emory says.

The project known as QRC West is a first of its kind for Allied, which has an extensive portfolio of low-rise former industrial properties around downtown Toronto. Demand for office space in the older brick and beam buildings has been growing substantially, led by technology, advertising, media and information tenants, so Allied has been looking for ways to intensify rentable space, Mr. Emory says.

Allied acquired 134 Peter Street, a four-storey former bakery in 1998, and purchased a smaller building next to it on Richmond Street in 2005. Mr. Emory approached Toronto-based Sweeny & Co. Architects Inc. for ideas of ways to intensify the use of the site while preserving the character of the historic corner.

The architects looked at several options including an infill building on an L-shaped pair of parking lots between the properties or adding extra floors to the existing buildings, says Dermot Sweeny, the architecture firm’s founder and a principal.

To keep the tower at QRC West stable, engineers employed a delta frame, tubular columns that connect at their midpoints. (Tim Fraser for The Globe and Mail)

The most complex option was to build a new structure above the heritage buildings that covered the entire lot, but it was the most attractive because of the large increase in leasable space it would provide. The original floor areas in the old buildings were about 8,000 square feet, while the new 12-storey building above them has 25,000 square feet a floor.

The approach was supported by Toronto’s city planners, but “because it was certainly not a standard project, there was a lot of explaining and discussion around how we were going to make a building in the air work,” Mr. Sweeny says.

The initial concept called for the building to rise from a table supported by sets of vertical columns at its corners. But that approach didn’t give the structure enough lateral stability, Mr. Sweeny says. So the firm’s engineers came up with an innovative design called a delta frame, using arrays of four angled tubular columns that connect together at their midpoints to add extra support and stability.

The design required vast amounts of calculations of variables of loads and transfers, which fortunately could be done in a few days on a computer. “Without computers, this might have taken six months of engineers running and cross-checking numbers,” Mr. Sweeny says.

The tube design required vast amounts of calculations of variables of loads and transfers, which fortunately could be done in a few days on a computer. (Tim Fraser for The Globe and Mail)

Another innovation was to shift the location of the core support and elevator shafts for the building. Generally these are in the centre of a building, but here they’re on the north edge of the structure. “Instead of a doughnut, you have a giant U-shape, which means we could create large floors free of columns or obstructions,” explains Sweeney & Co. principal John Gillander. Another space-saving feature is raised floors, under which the mechanicals and cabling run. The floors are built in modules that can be rearranged as office configurations change.

Working downtown, there are logistical problems bringing in materials and equipment, Mr. Gillander says. But the construction proceeded on schedule and the building, which is aiming for LEED Gold certification, officially opened in December.

Just as importantly, it came in at its projected budget of $110-million.

“We could have built a different building less expensively than it cost us to do it the way we did, but there is definitely an economic return in terms of the rent we can charge and the calibre of tenants we’re able to attract to the building,” Mr. Emory says. He estimates the rental premium over modern buildings of similar scale in the core of between 10 and 20 per cent.

The QRC West project gives developer Allied Properties REIT a loftier view than it usually gets from its brick and beam buildings. It plans similar projects. (Wallace Immen of The Globe and Mail)

The completed development added ground-floor retail and 300,000 square feet of office space to the complex. Five floors are occupied by anchor tenant Entertainment One, an international media company. Other major tenants include marketing and consulting company Sapient Corp., digital marketing firm Givex Canada Corp., and London-based alcoholic beverage company Diageo Canada Inc.

Allied already has plans for intensification projects around other heritage properties in its portfolio, including a second phase of the QRC property that will replace low-rise retail buildings at the corner of Queen and Peter streets with a midrise commercial and retail building that will connect to the first phase and use the same elevators.

“In the future we are going to be doing more of these and I am more convinced than ever that there is a great demand for this kind of office environment. It’s really very appealing to an ever broader range of tenants,” Mr. Emory says.

Tenants are lured to the attributes of brick and beam buildings. “If you can, in addition to that, provide the efficiency that comes with a newer structure and a larger floor plate and yet retain some of the attributes of a heritage structure, I think you’ve got something that is even more compelling and is able to accommodate larger requirements.”

Mr. Emory sees the demand for office space with character increasing for tech-savvy tenants.

“The notion of virtual work, I think, was theoretically interesting but practically wrong. Technology has certainly allowed us to function from a distance, but the need that people have to be together in the same space working toward a common goal, I think, is very fundamental.”

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