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We’ve learned nothing from past mistakes about heritage buildings

A city known for failing to preserve its heritage buildings, Kitchener is currently going along with plans to demolish most of a downtown Queen Street building in favour of yet another ugly, soulless highrise development, of which there are already many rising to mar the skyline.

The result of poor decision making, the destruction of the historic built environment is the fault of poor planning and policy failures at the provincial level, much of it influenced by the political sway of wealthy developers.

The same lack of importance placed on protecting older buildings is at play with efforts to protect old steel bridges in the townships.

Our negligence has a long history, one at odds with what’s seen in other countries, particularly across the pond.

The old city centres and architectural gems are the mainstay of tourism in Europe. Likewise, neighbourhoods with meticulously kept old homes are always in demand by homebuyers. But that didn’t happen by accident, nor was the preservation of such areas a foregone conclusion.

Today we take it almost as self-evident that heritage buildings should be protected, that aesthetic appeal and craftsmanship trump the standard fare now offered up by architects and builders. Our take on the conservation of the built environment didn’t just appear, however, but evolved over years and decades and even centuries.

For those concerned with conservation, there’s a concerted effort to protect and restore heritage buildings, a practice that’s particularly prevalent in Europe. On this side of the pond, there’s been an increase in awareness of heritage matters. Ontario, for instance, has plenty of intact main streets that date back to the mid-19th century. The buildings may not be as old as those found in Europe, but they could someday take on more significance. That is, of course, if we take steps to preserve and maintain them – far too often, we haven’t and we don’t.

In this region alone, there are numerous examples of lovely old building knocked down due to neglect and ignorance. To be sure, some of the buildings that disappeared needed to go. Others weren’t anything special. But all too often progress for progress sake saw old, character-filled structures fall to make way for ugly buildings (think about Kitchener’s old city hall making way for a failed urban shopping mall). Or, perhaps even more insultingly, for a vacant, weed-filled lot.

That history is especially problematic in Kitchener and Waterloo, where the built environment is generally ugly or, at best, neutral. There are a few nice older buildings that have survived overzealous demolition – the Walper Hotel and the CIBC bank across the road in Kitchener, for instance, examples we can agree on – but there’s no real brilliant architecture, no grand mansions or other notable specimens that can be found in other places. Instead, they’re working-class cities that relied on industry. What K-W did have was lots of factories, though many of those were knocked down before we realized what those elsewhere figured out long ago: people like old buildings, and the factories of yore make great conversions into funky offices and lofts.

That kind of reuse of old buildings – factories turned lofts, old rowhouses becoming trendy restaurants – is destined to become, well, a thing of the past given the ugly, poorly built structures that have been the norm for most of the postwar period.

Like so many things today, architecture is disposable. Look around at the newer buildings: 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.

That’s an issue for the aesthetics of the city, but also erases history and often proves harmful to the environment.

Writing for the UW Heritage Resources Centre blog heritage architect Catherine Nasmith makes the case that Ontario has things backwards in allowing older buildings to be demolished rather than protecting them.

“Shouldn’t conserving built resources for cultural or environmental reasons be the rule, not the exception? In a better world we would re-use buildings whole, or at least carefully deconstruct and recycle building materials,” she writes.

“The much larger societal issue is that wasting buildings is extraordinarily bad environmental practice, one that is being recognized in other jurisdictions as part of ever more pressing climate change issues. Demolition creates a staggering amount of waste, accounting in Ontario for 20-30% of municipal landfill. Depending on what source you quote, no matter how energy efficient the new building, it takes about 50 years of energy savings to pay down the debt to the environment created by the creation and transportation of construction materials.”

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, 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 that continually demolishing and replacing them.

In a 2017 case study prepared for the Ontario Heritage Trust, Olivia Ashton of Carleton University notes the environmental issues at play with the conservation of heritage buildings.

“The several misconceptions surrounding old buildings include anything from being considered too drafty to that they require more energy to operate and heat. Perhaps this explains why older buildings are often overlooked when studying green construction because it is believed that new buildings are the way to a sustainable future. However, in retrospect, existing buildings are inherently more energy efficient – thanks to durable materials, operable windows, and natural lighting, to name a few. The adaptive reuse of an existing building, deters demolition, avoiding massive amounts of debris from ending up in landfills, thus decreasing land and air pollution,” she writes.

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