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Bisnow Panel: Opportunities, Challenges Abound In Converting Older Buildings

Toronto Office

There’s loads of value in adaptive reuse and heritage; plenty of unknowns, too. Some of TO's top minds on the matter weighed in at our Workplace of the Future and Adaptive Reuse Revolution event yesterday at The Ritz-Carlton.


Here’s the panel: The Fueling Station managing director Rod Bell (his collaborative workspace development firm has launched 25 Liberty); Hullmark Developments VP CRE Aly Damji, whose company developed award-winning 60 Atlantic; Quadrangle Architects principal Richard Witt, who moderated; The Commercial Group president Clayton Smith, who redeveloped the Flatiron Building; and Adgar Investments and Developments CEO Chris Tambakis, a force behind 2 Fraser Ave. Adaptive reuse offers obvious competitive advantages, the panel agreed: buildings that have history, character and uniqueness. But challenges abound.


How to manage risk of the unknown when converting older buildings (asbestos, lead paint or structural issues, for example), asked Richard. “Plan for the worst and hope it gets better,” Rod said. It’s no different than reno’ing an old house, added Chris. “You can’t know everything” until you tear the whole thing apart. “It’s all about contingencies—and having great consultants.” Amid a growing abundance of adaptive reuse projects, timelines have been elongated due to delays at city hall dealing with all those applications. “We’ve had to add that into our underwriting,” Aly said.

HOK Director of Workplace Kay Sargent at a Bisnow event.

Above is Kay Sargent, senior principal with HOK, a global design, architecture, engineering and planning firm. She warmed up the crowd pre-panel, handing out cards listing 52 things everyone needs to know about the future of the workplace and factors that'll drive it. This includes organizational DNA (“know who you are and what you want and your workplace (design) will become self-evident”) and a human-centric approach to staff engagement. Noted Kay: 80% of most companies' money goes to people, but 70% of employees are disengaged. "So how do we get those people involved?”


Collaborative zones help. They’re all the rage for adaptive reuse tenants, panelists said, though some are opting to maintain private offices. “We’ve come back a bit from pure open-plan workspaces,” said Aly, second from the left above admiring Rod's jazz hand. Still, fostering community in the workplace remains the order of the day. A Hullmark tenant at 952 Queen St W is building an employee-only coffee shop in its 30k SF office retrofit. At Toronto Carpet Factory, a bridge over Mowat Avenue has been retrofitted into a meeting area or “crash space.” But what happens when the economy turns, Chris asked. “Will (cost-saving firms) cut the coffee shop and say go to Starbucks across the street?”


Adaptive reuse has evolved over the past decade, Clayton said, with redeveloped vintage structures now boasting mechanical systems and data backbones that keep pace with new-builds. “So you’ve got the charm of older buildings but also a level of sophistication.” Expect more adaptive reuse in coming years, said Chris, as owners of former Class-A buildings aim to keep their assets relevant, in some cases stripping them back to concrete and rebuilding in full. Or these B and C-class structures get torn down, he said, “which we’ll likely see more of in the downtown core as we run out of development sites.”

Check out what was said at our second event panel, on Workplace of the Future.