ERA Architects

ERA’s Graeme Stewart and Ya’el Santopinto named to the RAIC’s College of Fellows

Headshots of Graeme and Ya'el

ERA is thrilled to announce that Graeme Stewart and Ya’el Santopinto have been named to the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (RAIC)’s College of Fellows. This well-deserved honour is in recognition of outstanding achievement in architecture, and distinguished service to the profession and community.

From the RAIC’s citations:

Graeme’s career to date has largely focused on a single issue facing Canadian cities: deterioration of mid-century apartment building communities resulting from decades of neglect, policy interference, and socio-economic marginalization. Graeme is arguably the single reason “Tower Renewal” is a term familiar to Canadian architects.

Graeme’s contributions to Tower Renewal began with groundbreaking research while still a student and continued through professional research, policy development and implementation in partnership with CMHC, the Government of Ontario, various Canadian municipalities, NGOs, Canadian Universities and international partners. He led the creation of Toronto’s first “Tower Renewal Zoning” (Residential Apartment Commercial / RAC), published the Mayor’s Tower Renewal Opportunities book and through ERA and CUG+R continues the advancement of the initiative through advocacy and demonstration projects for both public and private sector clients.

Santopinto is the Director of Research for the Centre for Urban Growth and Renewal, a cross-disciplinary non-profit organization to improve liveability and sustainability across rural, suburban, and urban environments. In this role, she leads the Tower Renewal Partnership, an initiative to catalyze reinvestment and community-building in apartment tower neighbourhoods. Her work includes primary research and best practice development in housing renewal, ranging from energy retrofit standards to tenant rights and green financing.

As ERA’s lead Tower Renewal architect, Santopinto oversees complex, holistic, and resilient energy retrofits to convert postwar apartment towers into high-quality affordable housing, impacting thousands of households. She is Project Architect on the Ken Soble Tower, a Passive House (EnerPHit) retrofit of a 1967 affordable senior’s building in Hamilton. The tower was retrofitted to improve natural ventilation and thermal performance, and redesigned to provide aging in place. When complete, it will be the largest EnerPHit building in North America. Ya’el Santopinto is doing critical work in architectural research and design, as well as housing policy. Her focus could not be more timely and relevant in responding to contemporary social and environmental challenges.

Congratulations to Graeme and Ya’el on this national recognition of their work.

Read more about Graeme and Ya’el’s work at the links below:

The Ken Soble Tower transformation

Pandemic effect: Housing retrofits in Canadian Architect 

The Retrofit Economy: A Policy Roadmap to Renew Aging High-Rise Housing 

Dave LeBlanc for The Globe and Mail: The tower that once topped Toronto shines again

Once the tallest building in the British empire, the Royal Bank building at 8 King Street East is a product of the skyscraper phenomenon that arrived in Toronto at the turn-of-the century. More than 100 years after its construction, the building has been renewed. ERA is wrapping up work on this project, which required the full and extensive conservation of the Edwardian skyscraper’s exterior.

The 8 King Street East project was featured by columnist Dave LeBlanc for The Globe and Mail. For more on this project and ERA’s work, read the full article below!


The top of 8 King Street East pre-construction.

The top of 8 King Street East pre-construction.

The tower that once topped Toronto shines again

Dave LeBlanc
Special to The Globe and Mail, published April 27, 2021

Although it’s one of the smaller photographs accompanying the July, 1915 Construction magazine article, it speaks much louder than those showcasing luxurious banking interiors, sculpted friezes, or Corinthian columns marching along Yonge and King streets. About six men, wearing suits and moustaches – and no doubt clutching cigars or brandy snifters – cluster and converse behind the thin railing on the 20th-storey observation deck of the new Royal Bank building.

While it’s difficult to read expressions, likely all faces sport some combination of pride, accomplishment, or gravitas. After all, this building had just been crowned tallest in the Commonwealth and, as such, became another indicator of the shift from Montreal to Toronto as Canada’s financial centre. And if one of those men was Montreal-born architect George Allen Ross or his Melbourne, Australia-born partner, Robert Henry Macdonald, he was no doubt feeling chuffed as he looked down at the other new buildings he had bested – especially the formerly tallest-in-the-Empire Canadian Pacific Railway building with its copper-clad rooftop cupolas – along the city’s “Edwardian skyscraper row.”

“By 1915,” writes architect David E. Winterton in a 2015 issue of the Journal of the Society for the Study of Architecture in Canada, “the north shore of Lake Ontario had a new metropolitan skyline, an architecturally hybrid vertical expression of Toronto’s New World prosperity … fairly – and fittingly – described as a half-Edwardian and half-Beaux-Arts concoction.”

Heady stuff.

But, around the same time Mr. Winterton was researching his very good article, his colleagues at ERA Architects were taking stock of what a hundred years of pollution, road salt, freeze-thaw cycles, insensitive renovations and other assorted abuses had done to this former crown jewel.

The exterior of 8 King East

Oxblood paint going on temple during the renovation.

Even at the very top things didn’t look good, says ERA project manager Noah McGillivray: “Instead of repairing [the roof] through the century, they just re-clad over it, trapping moisture; it was rotting, the whole roof, so we did have to take the whole thing apart … profile all the details, match them exactly, and then recreate them in copper.”

On an unseasonably cold day in late April, Mr. McGillivray, his ERA associate Daniel Lewis, and building science and restoration specialist Duncan Rowe of RJC Engineers, inspect these new rooftop details – without brandy snifters in hand – and reminisce about the journey, which saw scaffolding up in 2014 for some plinth repair, then, after a change of ownership to KingSett Capital, envelope the entire building in 2019.

“A big part of the story of the project, really, is that this building faded into the background for a long time. … I think its original character was totally lost,” Mr. McGillivray says.

Something else that might have been lost was the acanthus leaf ornamentation from the columns. Chunks of the plaster, mortar and terracotta block had fallen to the street in years past, prompting the city to order the property owner to wrap them in chicken wire. The terracotta block, incredibly, had been fastened to the building’s steel frame by wrapping wire around it and then slapping mortar over top. This ad hoc approach, Mr. McGillivray explains, happened for only a short while during the “overlap” between traditional masonry construction and modern steel buildings. “They were working it out as they went,” he says, “having one foot in the 20th century and the other in the 19th century with Beaux-Arts detailing.”

New terracotta ready for installation during the Royal Bank building renovation.

New terracotta ready for installation during the Royal Bank building renovation.

Of course, as much of the original terracotta and acanthus ornamentation that could be saved was, and then remounted, in situ, with new high-strength brackets. But in cases where deterioration was too great, ERA and RJC found a local shop to make a mould – complete with the vertical tooling marks found on the originals – for the 337 reproductions that were needed. For some of this work, the two firms consulted with Chicago-based engineer Amy Lamb Woods, an expert in terracotta, brick, stone, terrazzo and stucco.

Another massive undertaking was replacement of the windows. Badly tarnished, sealed shut with screws, painted over on the inside and, most importantly, completely inefficient, once the city’s heritage folk were convinced with a mock-up, more than 300 new units were fabricated by Roof Tile Management, with brass beauties for the south and west façades, and steel for the non-decorative façades.

“The three of us went to the shop to see how they did it, how they rolled all the brass,” says Mr. Lewis, his English accent getting stronger as his excitement rises.

“It’s traditional methods, little hammers, it was like Santa’s workshop,” Mr. McGillivray says with a laugh.

New copper penthouse roof.

New copper penthouse roof.

On the 16th, 17th, and 18th storeys, what were “piles of rusty metal” around each window-set have now been restored to “mini temples” with pediments and pilasters painted a period-appropriate oxblood red. Soft lead flashing now protects sills and lugs like a “suit of armour.”

“It’s amazing how much work they put into these parts of the building that are kind of difficult for the naked eye to see,” Mr. McGillivray says. “They just suspended all of these sculptures – ”

Mr. Lewis interrupts: “The cornice is crazy, too, the projection and the decorative elements.”

And speaking of the cornice (which thankfully hadn’t been removed in what Mr. Winterton describes in his JSSAC article as “Toronto’s ‘cornice annihilation’ period of the 1970s”), it needed complete restoration as well, including the replacement of dentils that had been hacked away for cables; those with eagle eyes can spot the shiny new ones.

Uncleaned portion vs. cleaned portion is seen during the renovation.

Uncleaned portion vs. cleaned portion is seen during the renovation.

Once the last bits of scaffolding around the Corinthian columns come down – which will be relatively soon and with acanthus leaves restored and chicken wire gone – one won’t need avian vision to appreciate the work that’s gone into 8 King East. The building literally glows.

“With the shiny windows and the creamy terracotta, it does look like opening day in 1915,” Mr. McGillivray says.

“It looks crackin’ from the street,” Mr. Lewis says.

When workers return after COVID-19 is done, Mr. Rowe says, they’ll surely do a double take: “What is this building, I’ve never seen it before!”

Championing resiliency this Earth Day

As we celebrate Earth Day, ERA is reflecting on the shift needed to meet Canada’s 2050 net-zero emissions targets. Our built environment plays an important role in creating a more sustainable future and ERA is committed to being a leader that champions climate solutions through our work. Here’s how:

Distillery District

Adaptive reuse of changing infrastructures:

High-impact adaptive reuse of existing structure can help to bolster many communities’ move from resource-based to creative economies. ERA’s work with historic infrastructure to find new uses for their spaces has spurred place-based economies. At the Distillery District, we transformed a brownfield site into an arts and culture hub, driven by below-market rents for artists’ studios. Our work at Cambium Farms in Caledon has adapted a barn to find multi-seasonal cultural uses supported by the site’s historic farmstead properties, contributing to a rural creative economy in the region.

A drone photograph of the Ken Soble Tower with Hamilton harbour in the background

Net-zero-ready construction:

Developing net-zero-ready approaches to building retrofits can build resilience, improve housing quality, and renew our existing built form to meet the challenges of the 21st century. Our Ken Soble EnerPHit Tower Renewal modernizes a 1967 apartment tower to provide 94% carbon emission reductions, while taking a light-touch approach to embodied carbon by using low-emissions stonewool insulation. Our Gemini House converts a historic home to ultra-low carbon, while maintaining its historic façade. It does this by creating an interior highly insulated envelope, demonstrating that building conservation and high performance can be intrinsically linked.

Photo of cottage

Off-grid living:

Renewable technologies have revolutionized the potential for light-impact homes, both through the adaptation of historic buildings as well as through new construction. Our work on off-grid cottages has provided a model for high-performance living, helping to preserve Ontario’s pristine wilderness.

Evergreen Brick Works

Photography by James Morley/A-Frame

Mitigating impacts of climate change:

Innovative solutions can mitigate the impacts of the effects of climate change as they become all too frequent. Situated at the heart of a Toronto floodplain, Evergreen Brick Works is at constant risk of flooding. ERA worked with the project team to integrate stormwater and flood mitigation systems into the adaptive reuse of the site, including in the historic kiln building, which is now protected year-round form the harmful impacts of wind and floodwaters thanks to its enclosure and raised flooring.

Gordonridge Community Multi-Sport Court wins national landscape architecture award

ERA is thrilled to announce the Gordonridge Community Multi-Sport Court has won a Canadian Society of Landscape Architects (CSLA) National Award of Excellence in the Residential Landscapes category.

This unique community-led project is located at the heart of the Gordonridge Toronto Community Housing campus in Scarborough. The new court brings residents of all ages and abilities together in a dynamic landscape intervention which includes a running track, basketball courts, skatepark, parkour, pickleball, volleyball and table tennis, as well as a central garden. Through integration of the court with the adjacent topiary, community gardens and orchards, it has become a nexus of neighbourhood activity.

ERA collaborated with the Gordonridge community for over a year, with the outcome being a design that reflects its values, interests and identity. As co-designers, residents were integrally involved in the process from the early ideation stages through construction. The impact of the court on residents has been transformative, giving the Gordonridge community a dynamic place to play, gather, garden and exercise at the heart of their neighbourhood. Read more about the community design process.

View of the Gordonridge court

Congratulations to the Gordonridge community, Toronto Community Housing, MLSE Foundation and Canadian Tire Jumpstart Charities on this recognition!

For more on this award and other awardees, visit CSLA.

Revitalizing waterfront sites: Exploring the potential of Ontario Place

Ontario Place

Ontario Place in the 1980s (City of Toronto Archives)

Our iconic sites have a shared value, with a conceived opinion in the public realm. As residents, we understand and view these buildings with a collective lens made up of our past experiences formed individually and as a city.

While some buildings easily come to mind, take Toronto’s Old City Hall or the ROM as examples, others have the potential to become iconic with a more careful understanding and with added celebration and support of these sites. Ontario Place has the ability to become a deeply loved space in our city and our province, but it’s lacking a shared identity, an issue exacerbated by continued disinvestment.

ERA Principal Michael McClelland spoke to this idea in a session with the Future of Ontario Place Colloquium. Held on February 17, the event titled “The Future of Ontario Place: Revitalizing Iconic Modern Waterfront Sites” placed Ontario Place within the context of both the Sydney Opera House and Montreal’s Expo ’67.

Ontario Place - the Forum and exterior views.. - 1980-1987

Ontario Place, the Forum and exterior views, 1980-1987 (City of Toronto Archives)

Michael has been a long proponent of the cultural value of Ontario Place as a shining example of modernist architecture and as an important contribution to Toronto’s public realm. In 1994, Michael was part of the group that founded Docomomo Canada-Ontario, an organization that looked to recognize the modern architectural movement in the province. Ontario Place was among the 14 sites listed to Docomomo’s International Register.

Ontario Place faced countless pressures and changes in its history, from the closure of the beloved forum for what would become the Budweiser Stage, to its eventual closure in 2012.

Now, close to ten years later, Ontario Place is at yet another crossroads. In 2019, the World Monuments Fund named Ontario Place on its World Monuments Watch list, flagging it as a heritage site at risk of being lost. In response to threats to the site, the Future of Ontario Place Project was born, a collaborative effort between the World Monuments Fund, the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design at the University of Toronto, and Architectural Conservancy Ontario. The project aims to increase public awareness and engagement about the site and its heritage values to imagine the future of Ontario Place as an asset for all.

It has been so long since the site was operable that there is a new host of Torontonians whose experience of the city doesn’t include Ontario Place at all. While Ontario Place may have secured a stronger shared understanding of place if it remained open and in use, its identity has become fractured over time.

But what if we focused not on its use or its identity and instead on other established attributes of the site?

When it was built in 1971 in response to Montreal’s Expo 67, architect Eberhard Zeidler wanted Ontario Place to reclaim the shoreline for people. “The meeting of water and land brought to a poetic awareness,” he wrote.

Toronto has a longstanding and shared relationship with its waterfront, from the beloved Scarborough Bluffs to Sunnyside, with Sugar Beach, Harbourfront Centre and the Simcoe WaveDeck downtown. Ontario Place has the ability to connect expressions of the waterfront experience in Toronto.

Harbourfront Centre's the Power Plant gallery with the skyline behind

Harbourfront Centre (Scott Webb via Unsplash)

This was the vision explored in the Waterfront Heritage and Cultural Infrastructure Plan that ERA helped develop in 2003. The plan established a vision focused on culture and heritage as essential components to the future investment in Toronto’s waterfront. Ontario Place was the connecter of this vision, which imagined a revitalized waterfront that included a web of experiences to reflect the diversity of the city’s cultural life.

Ontario Place’s revitalization can be successful if we begin to focus on its attributes that contribute to the shared vision of the site — as a place where water and edge meet. While we’re ways along from fully understanding the shared value of the site, we must celebrate and re-establish Ontario Place as a thriving public space in order to better understand its significance to the public understanding.

Aerial views of Fort York, Exhibition Place and Ontario Place (City of Toronto Archives)

Aerial views of Fort York, Exhibition Place and Ontario Place (City of Toronto Archives)

This takes time. We must give the site time breathe and exist, focusing on the values of water, edge and the connections that happen on the site. In due time this will help Ontario Place find its place along Toronto’s waterfront and in our collective consciousness.

Learn more about the Future of Ontario Place.

Watch the livestream of the Revitalizing Waterfront Sites session.

Celebrating community-led design with Gordonridge

Gordonridge Done image of the court and tower

Working closely with communities to create place-based, local designs is integral to ERA’s approach. In September, we celebrated the completion of Gordonridge’s new multi-sport court. This project was a collaborative effort through-and-through, with our partners at MLSE Foundation and Canadian Tire Jumpstart Charities, our client at Toronto Community Housing, and its users, the community at Gordonridge.

Gordonridge is ERA’s third project in partnership with MLSE and Jumpstart, developing place-based recreational spaces with community stakeholders, providing youth and adults a safe space to play and access a variety of sports and community events within their neighbourhoods.

Bird's eye drone view of the gordonridge basketball court

The court is positioned at the heart of the tight-knit Gordonridge campus, a post-war apartment complex which is home to more than 800 households. Post-war neighbourhoods can sometimes offer disconnected car-centric, sprawling design. By contrast, Gordonridge’s “town square” is its collection of community-led initiatives: over the years, Gordonridge residents have built an apiary, community garden, market garden, and fruit orchard. The multi-sport court is  designed to be the hub that connects these spokes, tracing accessible routes through the property. Pathways, along with shaded seating and gathering areas, encourage shared multi-generational use of the space — older residents on the way to the apiary, the youth on the basketball courts.

As the Prime Consultant and Landscape Architect, ERA developed and led a series of collaborative community design-workshops, developed a design that responded to what we heard, and provided ongoing communication with the key stakeholders throughout construction to ensure that the outcomes were in line with the neighbourhood’s vision.

Gordonridge's court with basketball nets, seating and storage.

Over the course of a year, ERA listened, tested ideas, shared meals, and played basketball at Gordonridge. We learned the community was selling honey from the apiary, and that residents were learning to cultivate its fruit orchard – but that access to those initiatives was challenging, so we drew paths along those desire lines. We learned from the youth that the senior residents would like a place to walk, and so we incorporated a walking circuit into the court. We found space for the local gardeners to create a small plot in the court. By the time the court opened late last year, the community were both co-designers and co-owners of the new space.

It’s a process that for us is a remarkable and exciting endeavour. We’re thrilled the neighbourhood feels the same!

Gordonridge Representative: Nichola shares her perspective on the process. from MLSE Foundation on Vimeo.

We are patiently awaiting the spring when we hope the court will be in full use. The pandemic has not only delayed the use of the court but has underscored the importance of access to safe outdoor gathering spaces for exercise and fresh air.

A wide view of Gordonridge's court with basketball hoops and walking track.

The Gordonridge Commmunity Multi-Sport Court demonstrates the power of investment in communities, allowing residents of all ages to gather, exercise, play and continue to build local support networks so vital to our thriving cities and neighbourhoods.

MLSE Foundation has pulled together more great content, including the video above, over on their website.

ERA voted Best Design Firm by NOW Magazine readers

NOW Readers' Choice Winner Best Design Firm

ERA has been named as Toronto’s Best Design Firm as part of NOW Magazine’s Readers’ Choice Awards. We’d like to take the time to thank everyone who voted for us as part of this year’s awards. 

As a firm specializing in heritage conservation, it is a privilege to get to work on some of the most beloved buildings in Toronto. We aim to expand our impact to build community through adaptive reuse, placemaking and design. We look forward to many more years of working with you, Toronto. 

Congratulations to the Best of Toronto!

Conservation of Paradise Theatre wins national and provincial awards

Paradise Theatre

Thanks to its careful conservation, and inclusive and accessible programming, Paradise is once again a space for the community to gather and celebrate. We’re thrilled to see this building reinstated as an important focal point for the local neighbourhood and are pleased to say the conservation community feels the same!

Paradise Theatre has recently won a Peter Stokes Award for Restoration from Architectural Conservancy Ontario. The award was followed by the Canadian Association of Heritage Professionals’ (CAHP) announcement the project had won an Award of Excellence in the Conservation – Architecture category. We’re honoured to be recognized by our colleagues provincially and nationally for this amazing project.

We’d like to take this opportunity to congratulate the entire project team on these achievements:

ERA Staff: Graeme Stewart, Jessie Grebenc, Julie Tyndorf, Shannon Clayton
Site owner: Moray Tawse 
Prime architect: Ware Malcomb
Interior design: Solid Design Creative
Masonry: Clifford Restoration
Stainless Steel: Brascon Stainless Steel Fabricators Inc.
Signage: Pride Signs

Read more about the Paradise Theatre project.

Historic farmsteads drive a new rural cultural economy

Ontario’s smaller municipalities are facing a transformation. Many are making the transition from resource-based to diverse, creative economies, fuelled by population growth and an increase in local tourism in Ontario. As these municipalities look to prepare for growth, many farmstead owners are left with swaths of land ripe for adaptive reuse to add to the local economy and fill a community need.

ERA has had the opportunity to work closely with a number of these farmsteads and their owners in recent years. These property owners are looking for innovative adaptive reuse opportunities to help catalyze their local cultural economy by leveraging their heritage asset.

Cambium Farms barn and silo

ERA engages with these projects using the framework of the Historic Ontario Farmstead. The Historic Ontario Farmstead typology helps us understand the distinct built and landscape features that characterize a farmstead – what are the visual cues that make a property legible as a farmstead? Do these features contribute to a broader agricultural landscape context? With a baseline understanding of these typological features, we ensure that their conservation or interpretation is top of mind throughout our project work.

Ontario Farmstead Typology

ERA Associate Shelley Ludman (OAA OAQ) recently presented at the 2020 APT/National Trust conference on this theme. She spoke about three case studies, where ERA worked with local partners to re-imagine the uses of farmstead sites, relying on the Ontario farmstead typology. Two of these case studies are highlighted here.

Goodlot Farmstead Brewery

Originally established as a hops farm in 2011, the owners expanded their offering in 2017, announcing that they would be opening a brewery on site. This decision was instigated by a local tourism boom, Caledon’s population growth, and a desire to encourage people to get outside and engage with agricultural sites in their vicinity. ERA worked with the owners to renovate one of the barns on their property, converting the vacant building into a brewing facility. Given the barn’s proximity to the road, most of the alterations were limited to the building’s interior, ensuring that it remained legible as a barn from the public realm.

Goodlot adaptive reuse stages

Cambium Farms

In 2017, ERA was approached by Cambium Farms [link] to upgrade an 1873 barn facility, as the owners wanted to push their site’s potential beyond a seasonal single use. In order to serve a larger market, and draw a variety of users, they needed to upgrade a few key aspects of the site.

ERA considered how we could achieve the programmatic upgrades required while conserving and capitalizing on the cultural heritage value of the existing farmstead configuration. Two contemporary additions were built to accommodate washrooms, a prep kitchen and a formal entry for the lower level and designed with reference to the forms and materiality of farmstead outbuildings. We also worked with the owners to upgrade the bank barn’s lower level, previously used as storage, to create usable space during winter months. The renovated lower level now operates year-round, and the open floor plan facilitates programs such as yoga classes, pop-up dinners with local chefs, intimate concerts, and winter weddings.

These two case studies demonstrate how sensitive adaptive reuse projects can create opportunities for farmstead owners to contribute to an emerging rural cultural economy, while capitalizing on their sites’ historic value and character.

Written by Shelley Ludman + Emma Abramowicz

ERA and Heritage Conservation in Hong Kong

Heritage Conservation in Hong Kong title with building image in the background

Conservation is a worldwide industry, one rooted in collaboration and shared learning. It’s vital we continue to share our expertise with one another, learning new innovations, techniques and approaches.  

ERA is thrilled to continue to be involved in these important conversations. The newly released Heritage Conservation in Hong Kong: A Technical Guidebook was developed in conjunction with training workshops that took place over a year-long period by Hong Kong Institute of Architectural Conservationists (HKICON), which were developed and lead in part by ERA principal Andrew Pruss.

Hong Kong Conservation adaptive reuse examples

The end result of these workshops is the resulting guidebook that looks to further the conservation industry in Hong Kong, serving as a module for site owners, architects, contractors and students. It looks to support Hong Kong’s heritage community through increased collaboration, and knowledge about heritage sites and conservation best practices. Subjects in the guidebook range from the history of heritage conservation, accessibility for heritage places to repair and maintenance of building materials.

Congratulations to Andrew, as well as the ERA staff who developed, wrote and edited this guidebook: Diana Roldan, Noah McGillivray, Adam Krop, Ray Lister, Aly Bousfield, Jordan Molnar and graphic designer Carl Shura.

The guidebook is available for all to download. Visit the HKICON website for more. 

Pandemic effect: ERA Architects for Canadian Architect magazine

A rendering of the exterior and entrance of Ken Soble Tower.

As part of Canadian Architect’s Pandemic Effect series, ERA Architects’ Ya’el Santopinto and Graeme Stewart wrote about how the current pandemic is shining a light on the importance of prioritizing the retrofitting of existing mid-century towers. 

“Canada’s affordable apartment towers are the backbone of its purpose-built rental housing system, representing more than half of all high-rise units in the nation. Legacies of the post-war apartment housing boom of the 1960s and 70s, many of these buildings are now a half-century old and in need of critical repair. Months of sheltering in place due to COVID-19 have underscored the inequities of the housing system, and the acute challenges in upgrading this stock are more visible than ever.”

Read more from Ya’el and Graeme, and other articles on how the pandemic is influencing the world of architecture from Canadian Architect.

 

Remnants of Mid-Century Toronto

 

Spacing’s new book celebrates Toronto’s mid-century architecture, from landmark buildings like City Hall to unique elements of the time, such as the zig-zag roofs that can be spotted atop many of the city’s churches. 

Edited by Spacing’s creative director Matthew Blackett and with photography by Vik Pahwa, much of the writing in the book has been provided by ERA staff. 

Congratulations to Spacing on this beautiful publication. We’re thrilled to have our staff involved in such an evocative project celebrating an often forgotten form of Toronto architecture.

Read more about the book on Spacing’s website or purchase it from the Spacing Store. 

 

Passive House: A new way of working with existing buildings

Cities are at the forefront of climate change. In the fight for a low-carbon future, a new wave of building standards is changing how we think about energy-efficiency and environmentally friendly design. One of the top standards is Passive House.

According to Passive House Canada, Passive House is regarded as the “most rigorous voluntary energy-based standard in the design and construction industry today.” Passive House focuses on limiting the energy needed to heat or cool buildings through high levels of insulation around the building envelope, overall airtightness and whole-house mechanical ventilation. A Passive House’s energy use is significantly lower than its conventional counterpart. 

ERA aims to improve the quality and comfort for residents of GTHA’s postwar towers by transforming the buildings and their surrounding areas into more sustainable, resilient and healthy places. This alignment is one of the reasons we were drawn to the Passive House standard and its applicability to our tower renewal portfolio.

Passive House is an ultra-low carbon standard which is focused on human comfort and air quality. It’s a natural fit for tower renewal, which aims to improve housing quality and health outcomes in aging affordable housing

Exterior of the Ken Soble Tower in Hamilton

Built in 1967, the Ken Soble Tower is the oldest high-rise multi-residential building in CityHousing Hamilton’s portfolio and has been in decline for several years. After considering several options, CityHousing opted to retrofit the building, making significant improvements at a fraction of the cost of a new build.

With its completion, the project will provide residents with improved comfort and control of their indoor environments, and with the ability to withstand extreme climate events into the future. At its peak, the total energy needed to heat or cool each unit will be the equivalent of the energy needed to run three incandescent light bulbs. 

Though a Passive House requires a significant reduction in energy use, the principle is driven by human comfort. The airtightness and increase in insulation mean no drafts, no cold spots and no overheating, equaling an overall more comfortable home for residents.  

The project kickstarts a broader Passive House development program for CityHousing Hamilton’s portfolio at large, making it one of the first organizations in eastern Canada to adopt the Passive House target. 

Applying standards such as EnerPHit – the Passive House certification for retrofits –  to existing buildings can be paired with architectural conservation to maintain their historic integrity, merging a low-carbon future with the cultural significance of the past.

For example, Gemini House is a prototype low-energy retrofit project on the University of Toronto campus. The project is using Passive House approaches to low-energy rehabilitation with the added complexity of being executed within an 1880s Second Empire-style masonry home.

The project achieves a high-performance envelope and low intensity mechanical systems based on Passive House principles. The retrofit will thermally isolate the building into two zones: “core” and “periphery.” The core space comprises rooms expected to be in daily use (kitchen, living room, bedroom, and bathroom), and is therefore heated on a daily basis in cooler months. The periphery spaces (formal dining room, guest bedroom, basement) are kept at a minimal level of heat, but can be warmed on demand. By building this box within a box, energy use was reduced by over 90 per cent.

With a focus on the interior to achieve ultra-low energy transformation goals, the exterior of this listed heritage property was conserved and rehabilitated, with historic windows used to create a ‘second skin’ in front of the new triple glazed windows within.

At a time when climate change mitigation, healthy living environments and improved social resilience are increasingly urgent, ERA is committed to bringing these outcomes to existing building fabric across its conservation, adaptive re-use and tower renewal portfolios.

ERA talks retrofitting towers (virtually)

Over the past few weeks, Graeme Stewart and Ya’el Santopinto have had the opportunity to participate in webinars to share more about ERA’s tower renewal projects. A large focus of these talks have been about our learnings surrounding the retrofitting of the Ken Soble Tower in Hamilton, which is slated to be one of the largest EnerPHit-certified projects in North America.

We wanted to share these talks with you. For more take a look at the links below.

Passive House Accelerator: Happy Hour

Heroic Concrete: Retrofitting Brutalism A screenshot taken ahead of a webinar, showing the panelists

Celebrating ERA’s 30th anniversary

A flag with ERA 30 on it

On May 1st, ERA is marking 30 years of heritage conservation, community building, and catalyzing change both in urban and rural settings. While we may not be able to celebrate together physically this year,  we thought we’d take a virtual walk down memory lane to mark some of the themes behind our projects that have made ERA who we are today.

Urban transformation through adaptive re-use

One of the first widescale projects we took on as ERA was the Distillery District. As the Architect-of-Record for the overall Distillery District project and Heritage Architect for a series of the tenant spaces, we’ve seen how adaptive reuse of historic buildings can spark urban transformation.

The potential for this type of renewal extends beyond Toronto. The Booth Street Masterplan in Ottawa looks to apply the lessons learned through the Distillery District project, scaling these approaches for the local context to celebrate Ottawa’s heritage and provide new opportunities for growth.

Exterior of Cambium Farms

Nathan Cyprys

Supporting transitioning and rural economies

Many smaller communities across Ontario and the country are struggling with the transition away from resource-based economies. While our Small initiative helps support these towns through engagement and community building, other architecture projects like Cambium Farms and Goodlot Brewery in Caledon and the Drake Devonshire in Wellington have helped cultivate new local economies fuelled by small businesses.

Senate of Canada

A national approach to heritage

In recent years, ERA has looked beyond Toronto, and even beyond Ontario, to bring a national approach to our work. Our offices in Ottawa and Montreal, where we have a partnership with Kubanek Architecte, have been growing, and we’ve taken on new and exciting work in Alberta. These projects range from largescale architecture work at the University of Alberta, to more community-based placemaking and adaptive re-use projects in Banff.

ERA hosted an opening session on affordability and resilience in our tower blocks at the office.

Resource sharing and collaboration

At its centre, heritage conservation is a collaborative process. We learn best practices, new techniques and innovative ideas from our heritage colleagues across the globe. This collaboration extends beyond the heritage field and into how we approach all our projects. We work closely in collaboration with our teams to better understand the challenges and needs of our projects in order to reach our full potential.

LGA-AP

 Resiliency in the 21st century

Building more resilient communities requires a collaborative effort, from low energy retrofit of existing buildings, to off-the-grid new homes. Evergreen Brick Works in the heart of the Don Valley floodplain is a shining example of the success of this work. The challenges of updating the buildings on site for 21st century use while incorporating innovative flood management and response solutions could only be accomplished by working across industries.

Our Tower Renewal work has resulted in the retrofit of thousands of units of housing as healthy, resilient and low energy homes. This includes the Ken Soble Tower, North America’s first Passive House tower retrofit, now under construction.

Resiliency doesn’t just mean preparing for a changing climate, but also building infrastructure that allows for support networks to flourish. Upgrading the existing spaces for accessibility in all our projects is core to our practice. Many of our Tower Renewal projects include building accessible community spaces like sport courts and mixed-use rooms to encourage connection between residents, many of whom are elderly and at an increased risk of social isolation.

While these themes may encapsulate some of our work from the past 30 years, they also provide a look into what the next 30 years may have in store. We look forward to building upon these approaches and continuing to celebrate our cultural heritage and values with you — our collaborators, clients and community.

To our clients and colleagues during the COVID-19 pandemic

COVID-19 and ERA Architects: Our Work Plan

Dear Clients and Colleagues,

Arising from the continued spread of COVID-19, the World Health Organization’s ‘global pandemic’ declaration, the State of Emergency called for the Province of Ontario and health emergency declaration by the Province of Québec, ERA Architects Inc has been working to adapt our work practices in order to help ‘flatten the curve’ of the potential spread of the virus. These practices will ensure the quality of our work remains high and we are able to continue serving the needs of you, our clients and colleagues.

To achieve this, ERA will be moving primarily into a virtual office mode, with meetings conducted by conference call or video software. As always, our team of architects, planners and specialists are on call and fully mobilized. Required in person meetings, such as architectural site visits, will be conducted following best practices in health, and in partnership with clients and constructors to ensure the health and safety of all parties.

Be assured that ERA’s commitment to you is to keep the caliber of work high; to understand and respond to changes beyond our control as quickly as possible; and work with our clients and colleagues to address these issues on a project-by-project basis. Our shared deadlines and goals are important to us, and we are making the changes needed to both adhere to the advice of Health Canada, the Ontario Health Agency and Toronto Public Health, and keep our workflow moving.

If you have any questions or comments, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

Best regards,

ERA Architects Inc.

Affordability and resiliency: Renewing Toronto’s towers

Photo courtesy Jesse Colin Jackson

Over time, Canada’s aging mid-century towers have become the backbone of the country’s affordable rental supply, home to hundreds of thousands of low and middle-income households across the country.  

There are 2,000 postwar apartment towers located throughout Ontario’s Greater Golden Horseshoe Region alone, representing nearly half of the region’s affordable rental stock. In 2006, more than 40 per cent of tower households in the city are considered low-income, up from 25 per cent in 1981. As the housing crisis continues to mount, it’s only imaginable that this number continues to rise. Maintaining these largely privately-owned buildings to ensure their continued affordability is a vital and necessary part of improving Toronto’s housing ecosystem.

A tower

ERA’s Tower Renewal projects focus on rehabilitating these aging and neglected towers, creating comfortable, affordable and healthy homes for residents. These tower renewal projects also include energy-efficient and low-carbon retrofits that help maintain affordability while limiting the impact on the environment.

Through the Tower Renewal Partnership, ERA collaborated with the City of Toronto and ULI Toronto to host a week of events focused on exploring how we can better retrofit our apartment towers in order to create a more resilient city. 

A group of people in a meeting

ERA hosted an opening session on affordability and resilience in our tower blocks at the office.

The week culminated with an Advisory Panel on Friday, February 28, where experts focused on solutions, providing a series of recommendations to the City to encourage broad investment in the improvement of private apartment towers while maintaining rents at affordable levels.

The recommendations emphasized the importance of acting swiftly when it comes to retrofitting these towers. They include: incentivizing higher levels of affordability and accessibility, accelerating tower renewal with a retrofit program and more. Watch the presentation below, and for the full list of recommendations, visit the Tower Renewal Partnership website.

These conversations could not have been held at a more critical time. This week, residents began to return home to their building at 650 Parliament Street following an August 2018 electrical fire.

Graeme Stewart on CBC Radio.

The displacement of the building’s more than 1,500 residents paints a clear picture of the potential future of some of our towers if they are not upgraded to ensure they remain safe and affordable for Torontonians. ERA principal Graeme Stewart was interviewed on CBC Radio’s The World at Six about Tower Renewal and 650 Parliament. 

A group touring a tower neighbourhood in Toronto

Learn more about the Tower Renewal Partnership, and the Advisory Panel event, and explore more ERA tower renewal projects.

Celebrating Laskay through Memory’s Gate

Residents and Small artists gather at the opening of Laskay's Gate

Public art has the ability to represent and celebrate the identity of a place. As an architecture firm specializing in built heritage and cultural values, we are increasingly interested in how art and other placemaking interventions can not only represent unique histories but do so in a way that transforms underused spaces into thriving places for community.

We’re seeing this idea come to fruition through Small, which works with communities to express cultural heritage in a tangible way.

In November, local residents, the Township of King and Small celebrated the opening of Memory’s Gate, a new public art installation in Laskay, a rural village located northwest of Toronto. 

Together with the Township of King’s Parks, Recreation and Culture department and the public art committee, Small created an architectural installation that recognizes the heritage of the village – both intangible and tangible.

Memory’s Gate is a weathered steel archway etched with lines from the poem that served as its inspiration – “Musings at Memory’s Gate” by King City’s Reverend Martin Jenkinson. The poem, written in 1953 and included in the Laskay Women’s Institute 60th Anniversary Portfolio in 1968, speaks to community connectivity across generations.

The Memory's Gate structure in Laskay.

The Gate connects tangible and intangible heritage of the village with the ever-changing landscape of the Humber River Valley. The artists hope to inspire contemplation and reflection for those who take rest upon the bench, which is fastened to a boulder that once sat outside the historic Laskay hall.

We’re thrilled the piece is already sparking conversation and remembrance for the Laskay community. At the unveiling, community members gathered to hear about the piece and to share their own memories of the village from decades past.

ERA and Small would like to thank those who helped shape the project along the way, as well as the Township of King for the wonderful placemaking opportunity. A special thank you to the Laskay Women’s Institute, who granted the reproduction rights of the poem on the gate and bench, and to FILOTIMO for providing excellent collaborative approach to Memory Gate’s fabrication and installation.

Finally, congratulations to the artists who brought this work to life: Stuart Chan, Jasmine Frolick, Max Yuristy, Carl Shura and Heather Campbell.

Learn more about Small, a initiative developed by ERA that works with rural and remote communities across Canada to express their unique cultural values, whether that be through artistic installations like Memory’s Gate, or with the revitalization of local main streets and creation of visionary masterplans. 

Ontario Place and the value of cultural heritage sites

Opened in 1971, Ontario Place was created to be a hub for Torontonians to experience the waterfront and take part in entertainment activities, from the open-air amphitheatre and the Cinesphere, the world’s first permanent IMAX theatre, to the Children’s Village play area and exhibit space.

Ontario Place was the embodiment of the province’s economic and cultural prosperity of the time — a response to Montreal’s Expo67 four years earlier, and an example of the Modernist design principles of the day.

In the following decades, Ontario Place saw a decline in visitors and investment. In 2011, the province closed large portions of the site, and the disbanding of its governing board followed in 2018. The province has now made it known they’re seeking a long-term lease for the space, moving Ontario Place away from public governance to private ownership and development.  

World Monuments Fund is now calling for it to be saved, and importance as a site with heritage and cultural value to be recognized. 

Every two years, the Fund releases a list of cultural heritage sites around the world deemed as at-risk of being lost. This year after a successful campaign by a Ontario group, Ontario Place has joined 24 other sites on their 2020 World Monuments Watch list.

A view of Ontario Place over the water.

Heritage isn’t just exclusive to the oldest buildings in a city or a country, it can also pertain to places with an important cultural value to the experiences and histories of its community.

Many times, this kind of social importance is combined with a more traditional heritage value, and a site has design, historic and cultural significance. Ontario Place is one of these spaces.

In 2014, Ontario Place was added to the List of Provincial Heritage Properties. At the time, the province approved its statement of cultural value that detailed its significance.

“The site in its entirety — integrating innovative approaches to planning, landscape, architecture, engineering and educational programming — represents a bold visionary statement of its time realized at a scale and quality that earned international recognition and admiration,” reads part of the statement. “As an entertainment, educational and recreational centre serving the entire province, Ontario Place has attracted millions of visitors since its opening in 1971 and has remained a familiar and iconic landmark for many Ontarians and visitors.”

Ontario Place

How can Ontario Place continue to a valuable public space? The World Monuments Fund recognizes this in their write up on the site, outlining the vision of what Ontario Place can once again become.

“Through free and public access to the waterfront, Ontario Place can continue to foster interaction and exchange across population groups and fulfil the potential envisioned by its creators,” the site reads.

As an architecture firm rooted in work that connects heritage to urban design, city building and larger conversations of cultural values, we truly believe Ontario Place has the ability to once again, through investment, public engagement and design centred on community, become a thriving public space for Toronto – its residents and its visitors.

Read more on WMF’s statement on Ontario Place

Building for the community, with the community

Ridgeway workshop

As an architecture firm with values rooted in how we collectively shape and build better cities and their spaces, it’s important to us to engage deeply with the community on our projects.

While much of our work starts with assessments of existing buildings, observing their condition and advising site owners on how best to proceed with their conservation, many other projects begin with robust and integrated community engagement.

As city builders, we and our partners have the opportunity to transform underused spaces into places that better serve the community. Making the most impact requires filling a need, one that is identified by the community itself.  By taking cues from human-centred design principles, we can put the user, whether it be a resident of a tower retrofit or a visitor to a museum, at the centre of our planning and project development.

While human-centred design includes making sure the needs and behaviours of people are understood in order to make the most impact, it also ensures the community is part of the project’s development from the outset.

Opening day at the Ridgeway Community Courts in Mississauga

The transformation of an under-utilized parking lot and sidewalk boulevard into a vibrant multi-sport court and community space in Mississauga was first sparked by the user itself – a local group of youth wanting a space to play.

ERA was thrilled to come on board to help bring this project to reality, leading a collaborative design process with the community to create the Ridgeway Community Courts with support from the MLSE Foundation. This included leading a series of workshops with local youth to develop the identity and vision for the court, guiding the design development process along the way.

Having residents at the centre of this project has impacted more than just the physical space. With operations led by youth, the court has also brought about leadership and skill-building development for the community.

Two youth leaders at Ridgeway Community Courts.

Residents are also at the centre of our work in Ottawa with Stantec and client Canada Lands Company and the development of the Booth Street District Master Plan.

The Booth Street Complex includes seven buildings and 17 individual structures built between 1911 and 1952. Originally the site of the Canadian government’s mining research, the buildings include office spaces, research sites and laboratories. Its redevelopment will transform this area into a space that better serves the neighbourhood and Ottawa as a whole.

Arial view of Booth Street

Community engagement on the project was key and included the creation of a public advisory committee.  Before the start of the first committee meeting, ERA led a walking tour of the redevelopment site, providing participants an opportunity to review and discuss the site’s history, design features and heritage elements.

The feedback we received during successive meetings helped identify what was of value to the community. Among other things, residents identified the smokestack – a structure representing the area’s industrial past – as a visual landmark within the neighbourhood and an important attribute to the complex.

Stantec’s Molly Smith and ERA’s Victoria Angel lead a walking tour of the Booth Street area for Jane’s Walk.

Stantec’s Molly Smith and ERA’s Victoria Angel lead a walking tour of the Booth Street area for Jane’s Walk. Photo courtesy Stantec.

These projects put a spotlight on how putting people at the centre of the development process leads to a greater end result. Creating for the community, with the community sparks a collective impact to make our cities thrive.

Read more about the Booth Street redevelopment project.

Read more about Ridgeway Community Courts.

Announcing Founding Principal Edwin Rowse’s retirement from ERA Architects Inc.

Edwin's headshot.

One of ERA’s two founding principals, Edwin Rowse, is retiring as of October 1.

Edwin and Michael McClelland founded ERA in 1990 with a shared pragmatic, but principled, approach to heritage architecture, planning and conservation. Their ability to provide consistent advice from conception to full implementation of a project became a notable strength of the company and of its growing group of principals. Edwin’s remarkable capacity to combine finely detailed architectural, historical and technical considerations — whether for conservation or adaptive reuse projects — became a driving inspiration behind many of ERA’s projects, from the Distillery District in Toronto to national historic sites such as Parkwood Estate and Ruthven Park, to Trinity St. Paul’s Church for Tafelmusik, and to Ottawa’s Booth Street redevelopment and the recently completed Government Conference Centre.

Under Edwin’s and Michael’s leadership, ERA has grown from a local Toronto enterprise to one of the country’s largest heritage architecture firms. ERA is now a firm with a national reach that includes satellite offices in Montreal and Ottawa.

“ERA will remain forever a seminal experience in my life,” said Edwin at his retirement party earlier this month. “This is a new dawn for me. Retiring is not walking away. I will always work for ERA’s wellbeing and success.”

As Edwin transitions to a Principal Emeritus role with the firm, ERA’s executive team looks forward to continuing to build the firm’s partnership, strongly rooted in connecting heritage conservation to wider considerations of urban design and city building.Edwin will become a consultant to ERA on a part-time basis, after which he will continue to consult on various projects as a sole practitioner.

Uncovering the potential of Toronto’s laneways

A diagram of a coach house typology

Elements of a coach house: A) Simple / utilitarian, B) 1.5 storeys, C) Laneway, D) Inspired by, but in contrast with the components of the main house, E) Defensive, given the exposed setting to lane

Toronto’s laneways are having a moment. For decades, these alleyways were an underused, often neglected, space in a city in need of room to expand and grow. With Toronto City Council approving the adoption of laneway suites across the Toronto and East York district in July after a year-long pilot program, more attention is rightfully being given to these overlooked spaces.

While this is an important step in the right direction to add gentle density and increase the diversity of housing stock in Toronto’s established neighbourhoods, we’re equally excited for the opportunity to conserve and adapt these important pieces of historical infrastructure for reuse.

A historic laneway coach house

Coach Houses, like this one at 10 Madison, were the primary built form along Toronto’s historic laneways.

Toronto’s history is embedded in its laneways – even in many of their names. Some pay homage to local businesses, such as Ice Cream Lane in Danforth Village, named after Maple Leaf Dairy located nearby. Others bear names as an acknowledgement of the original Indigenous peoples of the land, such as Iroquois Lane and Meegwetch Lane. Peperonata Lane in Little Italy even has a more modern, community namesake, inspired by a local resident’s pepper fest, a tradition celebrated with neighbours each year.

The built forms along laneways can also tell us about the history of these spaces and their uses.

Coach houses were the primary built form of laneways. They usually had a large service opening, like a garage door, on the laneway side. Historically, coach houses were utilitarian ancillary structures, subordinate but related to a grander principal residence. Simple and defensive, they had modest elevations, and the side facing the back alley had only small additional openings, to shield their inhabitants. Their ground floors housed carriages and stables; the grooms slept above, in quarters discreetly tucked into mansard or gable roofs.

A map of Toronto's laneways overlapped by the Heritage Conservation Districts.

This map shows Toronto’s laneways in black, overlapped by the city’s Heritage Conservation District’s in yellow. These spaces are where historic laneway structures are most prevalent.

Approximately 10 per cent – or nearly 30 km – of Toronto’s laneways are entirely within or along the boundaries of areas designated under the Ontario Heritage Act as Heritage Conservation Districts. These are the places where historic coach houses are most prevalent.

An example of a laneway home in Toronto.

This Beaconsfield laneway suite by Creative Union Network is an adaptive reuse project of a former carriage house in historic Toronto. It’s a prime example of the kinds of opportunities available to reimagine and restore heritage elements in HCDs. Photo: Andrew Snow Photography.

Distilling the essential built form of coach houses may be a good starting point for designing laneway housing in Toronto’s historic neighbourhoods. “Laneway Suites” says City of Toronto planner Graig Uens, “allow for gradual change and a range of housing while acknowledging the typical low-rise and, in some cases, heritage character of the City’s existing residential neighbourhoods.” Laneway suites are intended to fit within an established context; it stands to reason that an appreciation of their historic predecessors should inform their design.

It can also reach past design and into use and function.

Toronto’s laneways historically were mixed-used.  In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they housed services, from stables and dairies, to blacksmiths, and were avenues for coal delivery. With that in mind, what role should a 21st century mixed-use laneway play in our city?

A laneway house recently readapted from a carriage house.

Toronto’s new bylaws on laneway suites even require two available parking spaces for bikes, as shown in this photo of Creative Union Network‘s laneway project. Photo: Andrew Snow Photography.

Communities and organizations are looking to revitalize laneways for uses beyond housing. The Laneway Project is helping community groups revitalize their alleys through greening and art projects. The non-profit is also leading a study to test the feasibility of a laneway market in Toronto, and their partnership with the Canadian Urban Institute on the Laneways as Bikeways project is reframing laneways as a potential solution to gaps in the city’s cycling network.

With that in mind, mixed-use structures in laneways have endless possibilities, from bike shops to service cyclists on their commutes, to cafés and restaurants for community gathering. While housing opened up the conversation about activating the city’s laneways, the potential of these spaces to build more mixed-use, complete and walkable neighbourhoods hasn’t yet been fully realized.

Though many historic laneway structures have been lost to time, those that remain can give us valuable information about the creative early history of how we’ve occupied laneways. They may even unlock creative solutions for the future.

An edited version of this article appeared in the Spring-Summer 2019 issue of Spacing Magazine.

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.