ERA Architects

University College: Revitalization and Accessibility 

Interior of University College Library from second floor balcony.
photo: doublespace photography

The University College is an architectural gem within the already famously picturesque University of Toronto campus. In a way, it’s the centre of the university, and when you look north up King’s College Road, your view terminates in what ERA’s Max Berg calls a “postcard building” from the 1850s. 

It has been home to a library, a museum, a chemistry lab, and various class space. It survived a fire in the 1890s, and major renovations in the 1970s, with wings being added over time, and major interior and functional changes occurring throughout the building’s history. But the time has come, once again, to reimagine the building — especially where accessibility is concerned — while still maintaining its charm and style. 

“It’s basically in the building’s DNA to be inaccessible because of the design sensibilities of the time,” says Berg, a project manager with ERA since 2012. “It has meandering circulation paths and this appreciation for light and darkness and shadow. It’s Richardsonian Romanesque with a heavy medieval influence.” 

Berg says while there was an elevator installed in the ’60s, a person in a wheelchair today would have to take a long, counterintuitive route to access certain parts of the building. So major work needed to be done to the interior, and a new elevator tower was necessary. 

Given the historic importance of the building, in association with Kohn Shnier Architects (KSA), ERA brought a team with vast areas of expertise to the project to ensure that from cultural interpretation and design to technical execution the renovations were complimentary to the existing fabric. University College has a long history of innovation, now also reflected in its revitalization, expanding use to fulfill the needs for modern students and faculty. 

photo: doublespace photography

Here are five questions for Max Berg about ERA’s process, and what they learned along the way. 

In what way does this project achieve both heritage preservation and adapting the building for 21st century challenges? 

BERG: Primarily via the accessibility approach. The original building design featured an intentionally meandering circulation path, including many level changes accessed exclusively by stairs. Our approach was to treat accessible elements like sloped walkways and the new elevator tower as the primary mode of circulation for all users. In this way we were able to preserve the feeling of the original approach to circulation, while ensuring a much wider range of people are able to have this experience. 

One of the things about working with historic buildings is they’re not fixed in place, they’re always alive. In fact, for them to continue to survive and thrive, they need to change. It’s not about locking something into a permanent condition or form, but rather coming to the building with the appropriate amount of respect. Allowing that to inform your thinking, but also allowing the building to live over time. Within conservation practice, there’s preservation: making sure you preserve some important element. And then there’s rehabilitation, which says a building needs modern facilities to survive, and needs to meet accessibility standards to remain relevant — especially in a university building, and this particular building’s had a very long history of progressive ideals. So, it’s not about remaining static, it’s about approaching change with the right attitude and level of respect. 

Explain how architectural preservation and the new requirements for accessibility can co-exist in a building like this? 

BERG: One important part of the strategy was to be contemporary in our design, but in a way that could also honour the important context in which we were building. A key strategy was to pick up on motifs in the wood and stone carved ornaments dating from the 1800s, and find ways to employ these in our new construction. Most prominently, the cladding for the elevator tower was inspired by the scale and feather motifs present throughout the building, including the famous dragon carving that prominently terminates the east stairwell. In more subtle ways, the material differentiation required for accessibility requirements at ramps picked up on chevron patterns also present in the earlier designs. On any contemporary ramp (or stairs), you want a visual, and often textural signifier that the ramp is ending. Often, it’s a sort of yellow rubber. Ours is just a more subtle way of doing this, but it’s still quite clearly visible. You’re not going to miss it. It’s just a little more refined. 

One other thing to notice is elements associated with accessibility, such as push pads, are pulled off the walls and on individualized panels. Often in these situations, people just anchor these things into the wall wherever — could be a beautiful carved wood panel. By pulling them off the wall, it adds what we need now, but locates them off the heritage fabric, and it allows room for more such accessibility elements to be added in the future. 

Can you outline the challenge of inserting an elevator into a building originally built in 1859? 

BERG: The initial plan was to fit the elevator entirely within the building envelope, but this approach necessitated a slower and lower capacity elevator, which would also be buried within a fire escape dating from the 1970s renovation. It would have been very much a secondary mode of circulation, which ran counter to our strategy of centering the accessible circulation. The elevator location we landed on sits just off the central entrance volume, allowed for a full-service elevator, and gave the passengers opportunities to engage with the historic facades and courtyard views from upper levels. The tradeoff was the tower would need to be expressed in the historic quadrangle. Our feeling was this was more opportunity than liability, provided the design was executed to a similar standard of quality as the adjacent fabric. 

What were some of the surprises found in the research? Is it true some of the original layout of the building was re-implemented? 

BERG: One interesting discovery in reviewing historic photos was there had for some part of the building’s history been a brick smokestack associated with a powerhouse, not original to the building, which was roughly in the location of our elevator tower. There was a strange continuity in re-establishing a strong vertical element in this location, where another had previously come and gone. It’s a reminder that buildings are constantly evolving.

During construction, there was an interesting discovery when we opened up the domed ceiling of the Croft Chapter House and found intact a piece of very early ductwork assembly fashioned from tin, which use the circular plan of the space to encourage passive ventilation. The assembly may date to the space’s original function as a chemistry lab, when the domed ceiling functioned as a fume hood. We made the decision to leave this element intact in the ceiling for future generations to rediscover.

The two halls which housed the library and the museum both used to have mezzanine levels, until the fire in the 1890s. Since then, they were these big open halls until 2015, when we started the project. We re-introduced the mezzanine to the library hall, while leaving the other open as it had been since the fire. In this way, both eras of the building’s history are represented.  

photo: doublespace photography

What of ERA’s unique skillset & capabilities made this a good fit for the firm? 

Our knowledge of historic construction was crucial, as was our spirit of collaboration. The context demanded that the contemporary interventions be stitched carefully into the existing fabric. By working as architects in association with our partners at Kohn Shnier, we were able to ensure continuity with the existing building at scales both large and small, and spanning through both the design and construction process.