When we think of old buildings, images of dilapidated, abandoned structures come to mind. Often, for the sake of progress, old buildings are demolished, and a part of the city’s history turns to dust. However, in the city of Waterloo, Ontario, some old buildings are given a new lease of life through the practice of adaptive reuse.

Demographic and economic shifts can change the physical landscapes of our cities and render former majestic structures into vacant shells. As manufacturing operations moved to locations with cheaper labour markets, they left behind empty brick buildings. To adapt to the times, these buildings have been renovated and retrofitted into offices and stores for commercial purposes. Community and artistic organizations have also found homes in old factory buildings.

One of the most popular adaptive reuse of old buildings is to convert them into residential units. Converted factories, commonly known as lofts, are a popular choice amongst students and professionals in the city.

Bridgeport Lofts

The 110-year-old structure was a former shoe factory in the early twentieth century. It later turned into the headquarters for Canadian Neutronics in the sixties. The firm produced lab tables that were sold to school boards around the world. After selling his firm to another company which relocated its manufacturing operations, the owner of the firm, Heinz Peper, decided to try a new venture. He rented out the space to many small firms in Waterloo and called the place an “idea factory.” Cabinet makers, box makers and other trades occupied the building. Now, it is an incubator of ideas of a different sort. These days, it is home to many students from the University of Waterloo and Wilfred Laurier University that are located nearby. The exposed brick walls and metal stairs add a touch of eclecticism and character that is unusual in student housing.

The Seagram lofts on a snowy day, Waterloo, Canada

Seagram Lofts

As part of Waterloo’s uptown revitalization, the developers of this project worked closely with the city’s staff and urban planners to create a prestigious residential property that enhances the downtown core. More than a 150 years old, the lofts used to be warehouses for storing whisky barrels for the Seagram Distillery. Extensive work was done on the site, and the warehouses were gutted to create a more modern interior. To exude a sense of heritage, wood from the whisky barrels were milled and used for doors, stairs, window casings, and baseboards. This mixed use development has attracted the city’s professionals to not only live there, but also individuals with private businesses to set up shop, as it has been designated as a live-work development.

Windows on preserved brick exterior of loft, Waterloo, Canada

Brownfield Redevelopment

Loft conversions can be a pricey affair. The costs of environmental assessments, soil remediation and other activities related to developing on brownfields can scare away developers, who often opt to develop on land outside the city. However, suburbs might have long term social, economic and environmental cost for the city and its residents. Urban planners from cities and municipalities ought to recognize brownfield redevelopments as part of the solution to encourage more development within the city’s urban boundaries. It is important to preserve historical buildings to provide a sense of place to the city. The unique architecture will add character and make the city look more attractive. It could also provide more housing options in the downtown core.

Is it a good idea for cities to give incentives to developers for brownfield redevelopment? Or does it make more financial sense to just demolish the buildings and build new ones?

Credits: Images by Becky Loi. Data linked to sources.