Navigating Complexity: The Art of Institutional Redesign

The intersection of heritage and progress, institutional design requires a careful balancing act between preserving the past and embracing the future. By repurposing existing structures to serve new functionalities, architects can breathe new life into culturally significant sites, fostering a blend of tradition and innovation.

April 11, 2024

In the realm of institutional renovations, there exists a delicate balance between preserving the integrity of existing structures and accommodating new functionalities. For the architects at Martin Simmons Sweers (MSS), the excellence standard is to ensure every renovation project outcome is equal to or better than what was originally proposed for the project.

These projects are about more than aesthetic enhancements. They offer a promising avenue for revitalizing institutional spaces while preserving their architectural heritage. By repurposing existing structures to serve new functionalities, architects can breathe new life into culturally significant sites, fostering a blend of tradition and innovation.

Managing Spatial Constraints

Alignment between the old and the new entails navigating the complexities of renovating older institutional buildings, such as hospitals, courthouses, schools, or government buildings. These buildings often pose challenges due to their smaller floor-to-ceiling heights. Introducing new functionalities that require additional space can lead to spatial constraints and compatibility issues, especially when it comes to installing new HVAC systems and implementing other energy efficiency standards.

The renovation of the Region of Waterloo County Courthouse is one example. The building originally featured space with a 32-foot high ceiling which was sacrificed to create more floor area by inserting an additional floor. Dividing the height to create two separate floors posed significant challenges in maintaining adequate space for mechanical systems and adhering to standard ceiling heights. While the situation was not ideal, with an extra vigilant attention and creative problem solving to eliminate potential conflicts a desired outcome of the floor feeling like it was always there was achieved.

City of Kitchener Public Service Counter Renovation

Defining Expectations

It is important to clearly define design and usability expectations at the start of a project. Without this understanding, projects can veer off track, resulting in disjointed renovations where the old and new are painfully obvious when the opposite is desired. It is our job as architects to ensure from the outset that what a client envisions is possible within the constraints of the existing structure or design elements.

The service desk project at the City of Kitchener is one example of where the expectations of blending the old and the new were made explicit to MSS. Success was achieved when the line between the old and the new was impossible to distinguish. That level of boundary definition was essential for project cohesion and success.

In other projects, like the Old Post Office in Waterloo, we purposefully juxtaposed the designated historic post office building with a modern addition, as the existing building was too small for most uses and did not meet modern building and accessibility requirements, but could not be altered significantly due to its heritage status.

Old Post Office in Waterloo

Designing for the Public

When it comes to design considerations in institutional renovations, they tend to differ from those in private projects primarily due to the heightened scrutiny and accountability inherent in public endeavours. In institutional projects, the focus often extends beyond aesthetics or immediate functionality. Instead, there's an emphasis on maximizing utility and ensuring enduring value for the community or organization served by the building.

Designing for use entails envisioning how the building will be utilized over time and striving to optimize its efficiency, adaptability, and accessibility. The goal is to enhance its lifespan and utility, ensuring that it remains a vital resource for its users well into the future. This approach guides decisions on material selection, construction methods, and maintenance protocols to safeguard the investment and deliver lasting benefits to the community.

Navigating Regulatory Challenges

Regulatory challenges are not specific to institutional renovations, but there are still zoning laws and adherence to building codes to be considered. Older buildings were constructed to different building codes. Over time, building codes have evolved to better reflect the needs of society. For instance, when dealing with buildings predating 1980, discrepancies in standards, such as guardrail heights, often arise.

Preserving the historical character of the building while ensuring compliance with modern regulations presents a delicate balance. It's essential to maintain the integrity of original features like guardrails, seeking solutions that preserve their authenticity. However, when alterations are necessary, meticulous planning is required to integrate new elements while preserving the building's historical charm. This involves careful examination of where and how to implement changes, ensuring a blend between old and new.

Considering Environmental Initiatives

Institutional renovations must also consider sustainability goals set out by the 2030 carbon initiatives. Collaborating with provinces and territories, the federal government is in the process of developing a new building code aimed at achieving "net-zero energy ready" status for all new constructions by 2030. This model code will establish updated standards for heating equipment and other essential technologies. Additionally, it will provide guidance for enhancing energy efficiency in existing buildings undergoing renovations. These initiatives are part of the broader push towards Net Zero Energy Ready (NZE) buildings, aligning with efforts to promote sustainability and reduce environmental impact in construction practices.

Canada’s building and construction sector accounts for an estimated 30% of total emissions* when considering embodied carbon (the GHG emissions attributed to materials along their full life cycle) as well as operational carbon (emissions produced during the lifetime of the built environment). With new buildings demanding extensive resources and energy, the environmental toll is significant.

However, adaptive reuse and the revitalization of existing structures offer a compelling alternative. By repurposing a building, we minimize carbon emissions in the manufacturing and transportation of new materials, lower the operational carbon by upgrading HVAC and other mechanicals, and essentially extend the life cycle of the building’s embodied carbon, allowing for its amortization over a longer period.

Whether serving private or public needs, adaptive reuse projects offer distinctive spaces for living, working, and recreation that we can all be proud of.

Region of Waterloo County Courthouse 1

Embracing Sustainable Design Practices

The transformation of the Region of Waterloo County Courthouse into a LEED Silver-certified building underscores the importance of energy efficiency and environmental sustainability in modern architectural endeavours.

Initiatives like Well, Passive Haus, Green Globes, and LEED Certification are driving environmentally conscious design practices. LEED, an acronym for ‘Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design’, serves as a rating system for assessing environmental performance and measuring the sustainability of buildings. This framework promotes the development of healthy, efficient, carbon-conscious, and cost-effective high-performance buildings.

Widely acknowledged as the industry benchmark for sustainable construction in Canada, LEED offers different certification levels, with Silver certification indicating that a project has exceeded the fundamental LEED prerequisites by achieving more than 50% of the available points.

Achieving a Balance of Past and Future

The intersection of heritage and progress, institutional design requires a careful balancing act between preserving the past and embracing the future. By navigating regulatory challenges, leveraging sustainable design practices, and complementing or improving the original design through new additions or renovations, architects can create institutional spaces that are not only functional but also enduring testaments to architectural excellence.

1. The Waterloo County Courthouse was originally designed by Snider, Huget & Associates.

Interested in learning more? Contact us to discuss institutional renovations with one of our partners.