ERA Architects

WexPOPS: Pop-up Plaza

WexPOPS is a pilot of the plazaPOPS project, an initiative spearheaded by Daniel Rotsztain, aka The Urban Geographer, and Brendan Stewart (OALA, CAHP), professor of landscape architecture at the University of Guelph, and former Associate at ERA Architects.

In an interview supporting his recent book Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure can help fight Inequality, Polarization and the Decline of Civic Life, NYU sociologist Eric Klinenberg points to an idea that many urbanists take for granted but that the general public may not: that “the social life we experience doesn’t exist in a vacuum; there’s a context for it. It can be supported or undermined by the places where we spend time”. In other words, there is a relationship between the design of our physical environment, and the social life that it enables or does not.

Klinenberg urges his readers to think about the types of places that foster connections and relationships between people and that build strong communities not as nice to have’s, but as an essential infrastructure that buttresses the foundations of democracy, inoculating society from many of the challenges that define our current moment. He argues that ‘social infrastructure’ will only become more critical as communities are forced to adapt to the challenges associated with climate change.

Closer to home, the Evergreen Foundation’s Towards a Civic Commons Strategy proposes a similar vision for “a network of public places and facilities that enable communities to learn, celebrate, express collective actions, collaborate and flourish, together”.

Inspired in part by these ideas, for the past year and a bit we’ve been working on an experiment to test the potential of creating a type of civic commons / social infrastructure within the ubiquitous strip mall parking lots that define the main streets of post-war neighbourhoods across the country and that are home to millions of Canadians.

Open from July 5th to August 17th at the iconic Wexford Plaza at Lawrence Avenue East and Warden Avenue in Scarborough (the setting of the recent eponymous indie film), WexPOPS is the result of over a year of community consultation, planning, and design work, and a collaboration that involved 19 Master’s of Landscape Architecture (MLA) students from the University of Guelph, graduate business and planning students from U of T’s Rotman CityLAB fellowship program, a 15 member strong local working group, and partnerships with the Wexford Heights BIA, The City of Toronto’s Public Realm Unit, Scarborough Arts, the TRCA, the Arab Community Centre of Toronto, Mural Routes, the Working Women Community Centre and a number of local businesses who supported the initiative in various ways including the Kirakou family — the owners of the Wexford Restaurant, and the entire plaza — who are generously hosting the project.

Funded by Parks People’s Public Space Incubator Grant, generously supported by Ken and Eti Greenberg and the Balsam Foundation, as well as the City of Toronto’s BIA Kickstarter Fund, the big idea of the project is to test the viability of exchanging parking spots for community gathering space, all on private commercial property. It’s a new take on POPS — privately owned public space — experimenting with the city building potential that commercial business owners can exercise by enhancing community life in the neighbourhoods they serve, while hopefully also seeing an uptick in business.

Similar strip malls are found throughout Toronto’s inner suburbs and in post war neighbourhoods all over Ontario and Canada. In many cases, especially in Toronto, the retail remains vibrant and local, serving as important settings for community life, and features numerous restaurants and shops serving food and offering goods from all over the world. The Wexford Heights BIA, a 2 km strip running between Victoria Park and Birchmount along Lawrence Avenue East, features over 60 restaurants, and has been celebrated by food columnists as a major dining destination.

The project grows out of Daniel’s fascination with the strip malls he frequented in his youth, culminating in his 2018 MLA thesis at U of G which was overseen by Dr. Karen Landman and Brendan Stewart. It builds on Daniel’s work as an artist, examining the setting of Toronto’s public life including All the Libraries Toronto, his documentation of all 100 public library branches in the city, and a recent residency at Yorkdale Mall that asserted the centrality of private shopping centres in Toronto’s social geography. It also builds on Brendan’s citizen engagement Tower Renewal work with ERA, including parking lot to community space conversion projects at the East Scarborough Storefront (2010 – 2015) and Ridgeway Community Courts (2015-2017) in Mississauga.

The final design of WexPOPS features a series of modular planters, benches, tables and umbrellas, all clad in marine plywood and trimmed in cedar. Occupying 10 parking spaces, the installation creates a comfortable and sheltered ‘room’ in the middle of the parking lot, and frames dynamic views of the strip mall behind. The carpentry was done by Guelph based Ben O’Hara Design, and all of the components were designed as modules that could be re-configured into different arrangements to suit different future site conditions, and to flat pack for easy assembly and storage.

Six design concepts for the project were developed through a series of community workshops by student teams in a graduate community design studio at the U of G this past winter, and the ideas most favoured by the working group and a wider online engagement were incorporated into the final design. For example, one student team developed the colour scheme for the project, which includes vibrant red, orange and yellow and was inspired by the spice markets of the Middle East. Another student team proposed a space of lush and immersive greenery, an idea that resonated in the community and which dominates the final design.

In all, WexPOPS features over 500 plants, which are planted in colour coded pots: red denoting native perennial wildflowers and grasses, orange for annuals, and yellow for edibles. The pots were created from salvaged recycling pails from the University, and were painted and drilled for drainage. The annuals and edibles were grown in campus greenhouses and donated to the project, and all of the native plants, grown by Native Plants in Claremont, will be donated to the TRCA to be planted in a local stretch of the Meadoway this fall.

12 local youth from an after school program run out of the Arab Community Centre of Toronto, located across the street, have been hired as site supervisors, stewarding the site through daily watering, managing waste and setting up and taking down umbrellas.

At night, LED lighting within the benches creates a welcoming atmosphere, and the illuminated strip mall signage creates a dynamic backdrop. During several evenings this summer, including an upcoming event on August 17th, the WexPOPS stage (with a mural designed by Echo Railton and painted by community volunteers) offers music and dance performances by local artists, co-curated by Scarborough Arts as well as urban ecology workshops lead by the TRCA.

WexPOPS is designed to be a hub of social activity for the local community, but also to attract visitors from beyond — a desire articulated by our working group who wanted to “put Wexford on the map”. The space features a neighbourhood business directory which encourages people to patronize the local restaurants and businesses (and eat takeout in the space), and a ‘dot map’ which prompts visitors to place a sticker on a map showing where they live, the idea being that this data will help the team evaluate the impact and reach of the project. The signs were donated in kind by CAS Signs Co, a printer located in Wexford Plaza a few stores down from WexPOPS. The ‘Wexford Wish Tree’, inspired by the shape of the sumac and CNC milled by local AC Waterjet, poses a different question every two weeks and invites visitors to write their answer on a horticultural tag and tie it to the tree for others to read.

WexPOPS may be popping down after August 18, but the proof of concept has already inspired many to reconsider the potential of privately-owned strip mall parking lots as community gathering places, including, perhaps most importantly, the Kirakou family — the property owners and our project hosts. To more concretely determine the impact of the project, the plazaPOPS team is conducting a public life study, modelled on methodologies pioneered by Gehl Architects, and is also studying the impact on parking and local business activity. The Rotman students, guided by Prof. Rafael Gomez, prepared a background study that informed the research design.

Project findings will be published later this year in an exit report, but already, many working in the urban design, community arts, and economic development sectors have noted the potential for applying the plazaPOPS concept beyond Wexford Heights, understanding the value of creating space to support the social life of communities in strip malls across Toronto, Ontario, and Canada.

You can find more information about the project and it’s design and planning process at www.plazaPOPS.ca and follow the project on twitter and Instagram @plaza_pops. You can reach the team at plazapops@gmail.com

This guest article appears courtesy of Brendan Stewart. Photos: Kat Rizza.

 

Affordable, High Efficiency Tower Living

ERA Principal Graeme Stewart addresses a crowd in front of Ken Soble Tower alongside MP Adam Vaughan during the May 21, 2019 National Housing Strategy announcement.

ERA Principal Graeme Stewart addresses the crowd in attendance for the National Housing Strategy announcement at Ken Soble Tower on May 21, 2019, alongside MP Adam Vaughan and Hamilton Mayor, Fred Eisenberger.

ERA is thrilled to be leading the rehabilitation of the Ken Soble Tower which will bring affordable housing options to the city of Hamilton as the first retrofit Passive House tower in Canada. The project recently received $10 million in federal funding which will help transform the tower and set the standard for industry-wide, ultra-low energy retrofits needed to maintain thousands of apartments across Canada.

Built in 1967, the Ken Soble Tower is one of the oldest high-rise multi-residential towers in CityHousing Hamilton’s portfolio. However, the 18-storey post-war tower, which overlooks the Hamilton harbour, has been in decline for several years. In line with our Tower Renewal framework, we are rehabilitating 146 tower units to create accessible and affordable long-term housing for seniors.

ERA’s involvement with the Ken Soble Tower Transformation began two years ago when a feasibility study was conducted for CityHousing Hamilton. The results of this study prompted CityHousing Hamilton to retrofit the building instead of rebuilding which would allow for significant improvements at a much lower cost than a new build. Slated for completion in 2020, the revitalization of the Ken Soble Tower will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 94% while providing residents with accessible, barrier-free living, high-quality housing, and community amenities.

Not only is the Ken Soble Tower Transformation the first retrofit of its kind in North America, it is also one of the largest EnerPHit certified projects in the world. As one of the most ambitious social housing transformations in Canada, the Ken Soble Tower will pave the way for the nation’s aging housing supply – shifting the conversation from aging affordable housing as a liability to affordable housing as a district landmark.

Read Alex Bozikovic’s take on the project in the Globe and Mail:
https://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/art-and-architecture/article-a-hamilton-ont-public-housing-tower-gets-a-new-life-as-a-green/#comments

Read more about this project and about Passive House standards:
https://canada.constructconnect.com/dcn/news/projects/2019/03/hamiltons-ken-soble-tower-rebirth-passive-house-first

https://www.chch.com/city-seeks-new-retrofit-for-ken-soble-tower-on-hamilton-harbour/

Accessibility & Heritage Conservation

How do we integrate universal accessibility with heritage conservation principles? ERA explored this topic in a two-day workshop at the Willowbank School in Niagara. ERA Associates Daniel Lewis and Douglas de Gannes worked with the second-year students to develop feasibility reports for two sites: The Laura Secord School and the Battle Ground Hotel Museum.

The workshop gave students a comprehensive overview of the legislation, process, approaches, and examples of barriers to accessibility. Barriers are more than just physical, and often they are rooted in societal attitudes and practices, which can sometimes be addressed through thoughtful design considerations. The students learned about two design solutions: barrier free design (with no physical obstacles) and universal design (accessibility for all people regardless of age, disability or other factors).

The Canada Life Building, 330 University Ave, Toronto.

The Canada Life Building, 330 University Ave, Toronto.

To give the students a better sense of what this design approach could look like, we reviewed ERA projects like the Canada Life Building (330 University Avenue, Toronto). Often, accessible entrances are placed in areas of the building other than the principal entrance, a practice that is now widely regarded as a human rights issue. Adding an accessible ramp to the front of the building, without negatively impacting the existing site’s architecture, demonstrates a commitment to accessibility and heritage conservation. The design has minimal impact and is reversible, a core element of heritage conservation, and the ramp design complements the character-defining elements of the building.

7 St Thomas, Toronto (the Sultan Street houses).

Another great example ERA shared with the students is the Sultan Street houses in Toronto. In this case, the stairs of the front entrance were removed entirely, and the doorways lowered to the ground level. This approach also offers an opportunity for interpretive design. For example, a small sliver of the stairs remains, which creates an ongoing dialogue on improving accessibility.

After reviewing these ERA projects, the students got the chance to apply their knowledge. They conducted their own accessibility audits and conservation assessments on the two historic sites and will use this information to produce a feasibility report as their final project.

This hands-on learning experience for the Willowbank students is part of a larger conversation about the importance and necessity of accessibility when it comes to heritage conservation strategies, and using design as an opportunity to promote equal access for all.

An Award-Winning Heritage Week

This past week, amidst annual #HeritageWeek events, ERA was proud to receive honours from both the City of Ottawa and the Lieutenant Governor’s Ontario Heritage Trust for four significant projects completed in 2018.

 

On Tuesday, February 19, the Ottawa Heritage Awards were presented for “outstanding contributions to the restoration and conservation of Ottawa’s heritage properties.” ERA’s Victoria Angel and Jan Kubanek received recognition for our roles on the National Arts Centre’s addition with Diamond-Schmitt Architects, and the extensive conservation and rehabilitation of the new Senate of Canada Building (formerly the Government Conference Centre) with DSA-KWC.

National Arts Centre,
Ottawa Heritage Award of Excellence 2018

In 2014, the NAC Rejuvenation project was announced in anticipation of Canada’s 150th celebration in 2017. The transformation included improved spaces for performance, new wings for audience and presentation events, and a new entrance on Elgin Street with a glazed addition wrapping around the north side of the complex.

ERA served as Heritage Conservation Advisor for Diamond Schmitt Architects on the project, developing a Heritage Conservation Approach report, which outlined the architectural, historical, and cultural significance of the building and identified heritage conservation goals and strategies to conserve its significance.The core of this approach revolved around preserving the distinct and dramatic features of the exterior and interior.

The rejuvenated NAC establishes new transparency with the city, enhancing its connection to the surrounding symbolic landscape of Confederation Square. The NAC project has both enhanced and sustained the heritage significance of the building, providing an excellent example of thoughtful and innovative heritage conservation planning.

National Arts Centre, 2018.

National Arts Centre, 2018.

Senate of Canada Building (GCC),
Ottawa Heritage Award of Excellence 2018

The project scope included the full rehabilitation of the exterior and interior of the former Ottawa Union Station. ERA Architects worked as the heritage architects with DSA-KWC Architects in Joint Venture, as well as John G. Cooke & Associates Ltd as structural engineers. As part of this multidisciplinary team, ERA was involved in all project phases from Schematic Design through Site Review and Construction Administration.

The rehabilitation project aimed to reveal the original character and historical elements of the building that had been concealed during modifications when Union Station became the Government Conference Centre in the 1960s. The theatrical character of the interior procession, the axial progression of spaces, the dramatic use of natural light, and the rich palette of materials were re-established and, in some cases, uncovered, while meeting the project’s functional and technical requirements for the Senate of Canada. Previous insertions in the significant interior spaces, such as the General Waiting Room and Concourse spaces, that obscured the heritage character of the building were removed.  Interior elements, such as imitation travertine, marble and woodwork, were all repaired and refinished.

A major technical conservation challenge was the rehabilitation of the two suspended plaster ceilings.  Composed of precast coffered plaster panels suspended from the steel structure above, the ceilings were in poor condition at project start-up. As no appropriate North-American plaster conservation precedent existed, experimentation with conservation products and techniques from the United Kingdom was undertaken to determine suitability.  After multiple mock-ups and tests, a conservation strategy was developed and implemented, with no visual impacts from below, serving as a new precedent for plaster conservation in Canada.

Senate of Canada Building (GCC), 2019.

Senate of Canada Building (GCC), 2019.

Senate of Canada Building (GCC), 2019.

On Friday, February 22, ERA’s Michael McClelland, Andrew Pruss, and Doug de Gannes were invited to Queen’s Park for the Lieutenant Governor’s Ontario Heritage Awards and received the Award of Excellence in Conservation for One Spadina Crescent, the new home for the Daniels Faculty of Architecture Landscape and Design, and for the University of Windsor’s School of Creative Arts in the former Windsor Armouries.

One Spadina Crescent, Daniels Faculty of Architecture Landscape & Design,
Lt Governor’s Ontario Heritage Award of Excellence in Conservation 2018

One Spadina Crescent is one of Toronto’s most prominent architectural sites. The historical building, site rehabilitation, and new addition re-establishes One Spadina as a gateway to the University campus and reintroduces it to the public perception. Beginning in 2006, ERA Architects worked with the University of Toronto to advise on heritage issues related to the site’s redevelopment. Since 2011, we’ve worked closely with the project’s prime architects, NADAAA.

The recent renewal of the south-facing 19th-century Gothic revival building and contemporary addition – home to the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design – is a showcase for the city and an international focal point for education and research on architecture, art and the future of cities. The rehabilitation and new addition at One Spadina Crescent provides a significant expansion to the heritage building for use by the faculty and its students as design studios, fabrication shops, a multi-functional principal hall, library programs, social spaces and offices. The addition was conceived to fill in the “U”-shaped space vacated by demolition of previous additions to the original 1874 Knox College on its north side, thereby preserving the original heritage structure and integrating existing and new program space for optimal use of the finite site.

One Spadina Crescent (DFALD), 2018

One Spadina Crescent (DFALD), 2018

Windsor Armouries, University of Windsor School of Creative Arts,
Lt Governor’s Ontario Heritage Award of Excellence in Conservation 2018

The University of Windsor transformed the 1901 Windsor Armouries, once home to the Essex Fusliers, into a state-of-the-art learning centre for the creative arts. The transformation was made possible by the collaboration and co-operation of both the Government of Ontario and the City of  Windsor.

Over a four-year construction period, the rehabilitation of the Windsor Armouries was carefully undertaken to pay homage to the building’s historical military past. In 2015, ERA began working with CS&P Architects to restore the existing masonry building and insert within the existing fabric a brand-new purpose-built facility. The original brickwork was successfully restored, allowing for exposed brick on the interior and the exterior windows were also carefully restored to resemble the original arched windows. The original floor, which once supported tanks, was removed for the new construction of a three-storey interior structure, fully contained within the Armouries, which now houses 6,224 square metres of new space for students, including classrooms, performance spaces and a theatre.

This repurposed building now serves an active student community and as a dynamic space for creative arts: students, faculty, and staff moved into the restored Armouries and an adjacent building in January 2018. Its restoration is playing a key role in the revitalization and diversification of Windsor’s downtown, has given a new focus to Windsor’s military history, and has provided significant additional learning space for the creative arts. The project serves as an excellent example of adaptive reuse and rehabilitation of existing heritage buildings, connecting the city to its cultural past while instigating urban renewal.

Windsor Armouries, University of Windsor School of Creative Arts, 2018.

Windsor Armouries, University of Windsor School of Creative Arts, 2018.

Windsor Armouries, University of Windsor School of Creative Arts, 2018.

New Approaches to Old Housing

For the past decade, Tower Renewal has been defined by research, policy design and action. Through multi-sectoral partnerships, best-practice and primary research, our work has evolved into program design, capacity building, and on-the-ground project implementation with a wide range of stakeholders.

This ongoing program of ‘research to action’ was featured in Architectural Design Magazine special issue: Calling All Architects: New Approaches to Old Housing. The issue showcases international leaders who are pushing the boundaries of traditional architectural practice in rethinking housing and shares the experiences of architects who have been expanding their practices to provide innovative housing solutions by revitalizing old buildings—instead of the typical process of demolition and building anew.

“Can architects be more than passive participants in a broken [housing] system?”
AD Magazine

This issue builds from the practices showcased at the “Tower, Block and Slab” Symposium hosted by the New York Architecture League in 2016, featuring among others Karakusevc Carson Architects, Frederick Druot Architect, and Architects for Social Housing who have become ongoing collaborators in Tower Renewal.

The issue showcases how architects and organizations across the world are shaping and developing a new medium of practice in tackling issues of housing. Through the Tower Renewal Partnership, CUG+R, and ERA, architects Graeme Stewart and Ya’el Santopinto engage in work ranging from advocacy and policy development to technical development to create the context to make Tower Renewal a reality—something Stewart calls a “one-two punch”. “We have a research arm though a non-profit [CUG+R] as well as a practice arm [ERA] where we build things,” Stewart explains. It is this structure that has helped advance and implement building retrofits and site-wide renewal. “It’s those kinds of activities that are really outside the framework of a traditional practice, but are actually exploring the nuts and bolts of land-use planning, building codes, zoning, taxation and other barriers that have made Tower Renewal effective,” adds Santopinto.

Featured as one of the books designers should read in 2019, we are thrilled to have been included in Architectural Design Magazine’s “Housing as Intervention” Issue 4, Volume 88.

Guest post by Andrew Cohrs for the Tower Renewal Partnership.

Tower Renewal Solutions on CBC Radio

As aging apartment buildings begin to contribute to the housing crisis, (exposed this week in the infrastructure failure at 260 Wellesley, Toronto) the clear response is system-scale reinvestment — and it’s underway right now across Canada.

Of particular note, the Ken Soble Tower Project is one of the most significant and precedent-setting tower retrofit projects in North America, and it’s happening in Hamilton, Ontario:

Listen to ERA’s Graeme Stewart talk about Tower Renewal solutions on CBC’s Metro Morning, January 24, 2019 (the conversation begins around the 4-minute mark).

Click to listen to the audio of CBC Metro Morning, January 24, 2019 episode: in conversation with Graeme Stewart.


A Tower Renewal Primer:
Postwar apartment towers are the backbone of Canada’s purpose-built rental stock, and provide affordable housing to millions of Canadians. Now is the time to explore innovative strategies for transitioning these aging apartment tower neighbourhoods to meet the demands of our 21st century cities.
Tower Renewal is a strategy for action.


For more information on Tower Renewal, visit TowerRenewal.com
For more information on the current Ken Soble Tower Project in Hamilton, visit the link here.