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Old buildings important in age of disposable architecture

Woolwich is looking at applying for heritage designations for the old township hall in Conestogo and the recently vacated administration building in Elmira. No one, however, will be clamouring for similar treatment when the current township building is deemed obsolete.

Aside from their age, both the former township halls have some aesthetic appeal. That’s certainly not the case with the facility on Church Street. While it looks better than it did when it was known as the Glencree building, that’s not really saying much.

As well, there’s every reason to believe the structure won’t survive long enough to take on the patina of a bygone era. The scrap heap is a likelier fate.

Like so many things today, architecture is disposable. Look around at the buildings constructed today: do you really think they’ll be here in a century? As is the case with electronics, clothing and cars, for instance, the buildings are typically made on the cheap, intended to be discarded as they quickly wear out or suffer the fickleness of fashion and trendiness.

Along with being neither pleasing enough to keep nor built with craftsmanship worth retaining, today’s new buildings are often designed in such a way that they couldn’t easily be maintained and rebuilt in order to extend their lives.

Think of today’s utilitarian structures – big box stores, manufacturing plants and office buildings – as the equivalent of a toaster. If you’re of a certain age, you probably still have a toaster you received as a wedding gift. If you’re younger, that toaster may still be in operation at your parents’ home, or perhaps in a box down in the basement. If you dig out, chances are it still works, or could easily be made to do so.

That’s certainly not the case with a new toaster: made of lightweight materials (read flimsy) and put together with aluminum welds and other cheap shortcuts, the toaster is likely to stop working in relatively short order. You will not be able to repair it, and sending it out for repair, if anyone would take the job, would cost many times more than simply buying a new one.

Some people will argue we’re better off going cheap today, and then replacing the soon-obsolete or broken-down item with something “better” – as new is often deemed to be.

That philosophy, applied to buildings, would deprive of us of the only structures with lasting aesthetic appeal. It would also prevent the repurposing so much in vogue today: the conversion of old factories into lofts or hip office space. Today’s factories, located in out-of-the-way industrial parks and consisting of a steel skeleton clad in metal sheeting, are not candidates for such continuity, the lifeblood of an evolving community.

Simply put, the building materials used today don’t lend themselves to longevity, and certainly not to repurposing buildings after their original use, says John Arndt, president of the north Waterloo branch of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario.

Older buildings, made of simple, workable materials – steel, wood, bricks and glass – can be made to last, and are much friendlier to the environment. That provides for cleaner living thanks to the absence of the materials found in today’s sick buildings. And the structures are more durable, making them a better choice for the environment than continually demolishing and replacing them.

“It’s those old buildings that are the real green buildings,” he says.

As the vice-president of the Waterloo Historical Society, Arndt also worries about the historical record given so much disposable architecture: many of these new buildings won’t be around in 30 or 40 years, let alone sticking around long enough to take on historical significance.

With that in mind, the loss of every old building reduces the available stock of those that could be repurposed while providing something worth looking at. The replacement buildings are typically bound to be both short-lived and an eyesore, the bane of much of today’s architecture.

Older buildings, and particularly the housing stock, pass through many phases, serving a variety of residents. Older offices, apartment blocks and houses that may have been built for a higher-scale clientele slowly lose some of their appeal, making way for mid-level buyers or renters before becoming cheap space. At that stage, they may be torn down, as was often the case, or given a new life. In many cities, the residential areas that had become slums have been gentrified, converted into upscale dwellings. Collections of old factories are now high-end lofts or artisan communities.

Such areas are often the most desirable locales in urban areas, and the lifeblood of most European cities, for instance.

In Waterloo Region, where we have very few old buildings worth hanging on to – the result, in part, of poor decisions in the past – the type of preservationist measures now being considered in Woolwich are essential.

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