Published on October 17, 2023
Innovation at its finest: repurposing existing structures preserves history while promoting sustainability.
As older structures fall into disuse or abandonment, architects, designers and urban planners are scrapping the start-from-scratch approach and instead exploring new approaches to reimagine these structures’ place in today’s communities.
With a focus on history and sustainability, adaptive reuse has emerged as a popular choice for shaping the cities of tomorrow.
In addition to preserving the character and history of existing structures, adaptive reuse minimizes the environmental impact of tearing down buildings and building new ones from scratch. It even saves time and money in the process.
Cities across the country have continuously raised the bar on creating innovative buildings and public spaces without razing old infrastructure. Here are some of our favourite adaptive reuse projects in Canada.
Old airport becomes a low-carbon community — Blatchford, Alberta
Edmonton’s City Centre Airport’s old site is becoming one of the world’s largest sustainable communities. Canada’s first licensed airstrip in 1927 is now being developed into Blatchford, a 536-acres carbon-neutral community in the heart of Edmonton.
The project continues to build on a vision statement approved by Edmonton City Council in 2010, stating, “Blatchford will be home to up to 30,000 Edmontonians living, working and learning in a sustainable community that uses 100% renewable energy, is carbon neutral, significantly reduces its ecological footprint, and empowers residents to pursue a range of sustainable lifestyle choices.”
The deconstruction of the site was innovative — the 12 airport buildings were disassembled and building materials removed and repurposed to stand elsewhere. Meanwhile, the buildings that couldn’t be reused as complete units were recycled in their component parts. Asphalt, concrete and gravel were processed and sold back to the construction industry, and the fixtures that were aviation-related were purchased by an airport undergoing expansion.
Upon completion, it is estimated that 92% of all the City Centre Airport’s building materials will be diverted from landfills.
Cotton mill transformed into a creative industries complex — Hamilton, Ontario
This former cotton mill built in 1900 is a prime example of adaptive reuse, breathing new life into a historic industrial site.
The Imperial Cotton Company was the second largest cotton mill in the city and attracted customers from around the world. Nearly a century later, the adaptive reuse project transformed the aged factory into a thriving creative arts and office facility, with space for creative professionals, film and TV productions and other special events.
By maintaining the industrial character of the building, the Cotton Factory provides a dynamic environment for artists and entrepreneurs to work, collaborate, and innovate.
Church transformed to library — Sainte Foy, Quebec
A mid-century modern church in Quebec is brought to life in the 21st century. In the town of Sainte-Foy, Quebec, u00c9glise St. Denys du Plateau was readapted in 2013 into the Monique Corriveau Library, a modern public library and community centre. Originally built in Sainte-Foy in 1964, the church was, even then, architecturally innovative. Its glass walls between the descending beams created an open relationship between the congregation inside the church and the community outside, contrasting with many churches’ traditional sanctity created by stone walls or stained glass.
This inclusive design is what prompted the idea for this adapted infrastructure to serve not just as a public library, but also as a community centre and cafe. The building was modernized and is now equipped with the latest technology, but its structure was left intact — its vast beams and glass walls preserved — allowing it to continue being an inviting space that brings the community together.
Roundhouse turned community centre — Vancouver, British Colombia
Once the home for great steam locomotives before being abandoned, the Roundhouse’s fate was uncertain until determined Vancouver residents rallied to its cause and helped revive the space as a thriving community centre.
For years, the Roundhouse stood as a transportation hub for Vancouver, integral to the city’s growth. However, with the rise of diesel-powered engines, Roundhouse’s relevance waned. Left neglected, this once-vibrant industrial site remained abandoned for years and was even slated for demolition.
Thanks to the vision and perseverance of many community members nearly 30 years ago, the Roundhouse is Vancouver’s oldest heritage building that is still standing on its original site. It has continued to play a central role for the community, with a shift from housing locomotives to becoming a space for cultural development and a resource for recreational activities for youth, adults and seniors alike.
Former coal plant turned solar facility — Nanticoke, Ontario
Situated on the shores of Lake Erie in Nanticoke, Ontario, the Nanticoke Generating Station, once a colossal coal-fired facility, supplied 15% of Ontario’s electricity needs. In 2013, after more than four decades in operation, and being Canada’s top polluter for many of those, the plant made a pivotal shift away from coal.
Five years after burning its last piece of coal, the plant was reimagined and redeveloped by the Ontario Power Generation, the Six Nations of the Grand River Development Corporation and the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation, who turned the Station into a 44-megawatt clean energy facility that hosts 192,431 solar panels across 260 acres of land.
The 2017 opening of the Nanticoke Solar Project demonstrates not only the power of adaptive reuse but also the incredible opportunity of retiring coal plants and replacing them with clean, renewable power plants.
Montreal Tower — Montreal, Quebec
The iconic Olympic Tower, one of Montreal’s most distinctive landmarks, has finally undergone a renaissance. Originally constructed for the 1976 Montreal Summer Olympic Games, the tower has spent much of its post-Olympic years in a state of underutilization, with significant periods of vacancy, particularly following the departure of the Montreal Expos in 2004.
Now called the Montreal Tower, this architectural gem has been reimagined as a modern office space home to more than 1,000 Desjardins Group employees. This long-awaited adaptation was extensive and enhanced the architectural features and historic elements of the structure. Notably, removing the envelope of prefabricated concrete panels around the tower and replacing it with a glass curtain wall, which brought light and a new sense of life to the tower’s spectacular structure.
Evergreen Brick Works — Toronto, Ontario
At Evergreen, we know the power of saving the old to create the new. In 2010, we transformed a former brick factory in the Don Valley into Evergreen Brick Works, reimagining its 16 historic buildings and an adjacent 16-hectare public park into a year-round destination where the world comes to experience sustainability in action.