THE REHABILITATION OF 465 SUSSEX DRIVE

By François LeBlanc and Mona Lamontagne, architects, National Capital Commission
(Published in 1997)

INTRODUCTION


465 Sussex Drive, before rehatilitation


The rehabilitation of 465 Sussex Drive was conceived, designed and managed almost entirely by National Capital Commission (NCC) staff. Only a few specialised engineering services were purchased from the private sector. It was a typical government agency project. Now, six months after the official opening, one-third of the employees who worked on this project are no longer employed by the NCC. The Real Estate Section which prepared the marketing studies and convinced senior management of the project's economic validity has been entirely privatised. Minto Properties Inc., a private sector company, now performs these property management and leasing functions for the NCC on a contractual basis.

The project began and ended amidst these changes. It is a good example illustration of how a government agency such as the NCC has adapted its approach to managing heritage properties within difficult economic times. But the changes are not over yet. The NCC will need to adapt even further its property management strategies even further to meet the challenges of the next decade.

BUILDING HISTORY

The Sussex Drive was built by Eusèbe Varin, a merchant, and later owned by Eugène Martineau, a dry-goods merchant who, between 1873 and 1875, served as mayor of the city. The building is not associated with anyone else of historical interest, nor has it been connected with any event of historical importance.

Built circa 1850, it was fully studied by the Federal Heritage Buildings Review Office (FHBRO) and was recognised as a significant heritage structure with 71 points. This basically means that the NCC, the custodian agency, is responsible for ensuring its preservation according to the federal government's preservation standards. If the reviewing committee had given the building 50 points or less, it would not have been recognised as having national heritage value. Over 75 points, it would have been considered as having exceptional national heritage value. All federally owned buildings 40 years and over must be evaluated by FHBRO.

465 Sussex Drive is a three-and-one-half storey cut stone and brick building with a mansard roof. This last feature is a replacement for a hipped roof visible in early 20th century photographs. Though taller than its neighbours, it is largely devoid of stylistic references: it achieves its impact by its scale, the handling of its exterior materials, the regularity of its openings, and its corner location. No information has been discovered linking this structure to any designer or craftsman.

The building has a gross per-floor area of 1,830 square feet for a total gross area of 9,150 square feet. The total leasable area is 5,714 square feet.

At the time the building was being considered for rehabilitation, it housed two retail stores, Ampersand, a high-end toy business, and A Very Special Place, a handicraft store. There were six tenants living in the upper floor apartments which were in poor shape from an architectural point of view and which no longer satisfied building and fire codes and the more modern requirements of living quarters, e.g., elevator, modern kitchens, laundry facilities etc.. Retail was contributing $20,550 annually in rent and the residential rents brought in $30,912. The building was therefore generating $51,462 in annual gross income. It should be noted that the attic was not utilised.

MARKET STUDIES

During 1994, the Realty and Operations (R&O) Division of the NCC did a market survey, which confirmed that there was no market in the area for office space, there being millions of square feet of such space available in the city core at relatively cheap rates. There was a market for small, and one-bedroom, apartments in the downtown area. There was also a potential market of employees of the new American embassy, which is to be built on Sussex Drive directly across the street from this project. The R&O staff concluded that two or three small retail stores on the ground floor could be rented at $25 per sq. ft.; that bachelor apartments on the first floor could bring in $500 to $600 per month and that one or two-bedroom apartments on the third and fourth level could possibly be rented between $1,100 to $1,300 per month. Should the rehabilitation costs be maintained around one million dollars, then the pay back period would be 10 to 11 years, making the project quite a viable economical proposition. The project was approved.

INVESTIGATIONS
Technical services now began measuring and investigating the building. Twenty thousand dollars were spent during this phase, which lasted approximately one month.

Testing air tightness of windows - Air is vacumed, pressure is measured

Foundations and soil tests: The perimeter stone foundations were found to be in good condition, but the basement would have to be partly excavated by several feet to accommodate an elevator and meet the requirements of the National Building Code. This was not going to be cheap because the work would have to be done in bed rock.

Walls: The walls are rubble masonry construction. They were built of cut limestone on the exterior, rubble in the middle and rough cut limestone on the interior face. The mortar was straight lime and sand mix. The walls were two feet thick and were generally in good condition. They were not insulated and there was no vapour barrier in the building. The exterior walls were bearing and, needless to say, did not satisfy the latest seismic codes and lateral stability issues.

Windows: The retail floor windows were of the fixed type. They could easily be repaired. The upper floor windows were wood framed, double casement types, which open to the interior, and have a similar exterior operable frame which also opens to the interior. No weather-stripping was observed on the windows. They were in varying conditions: some could easily be repaired, but many would require extensive restoration. It was decided to undertake a restoration test on one of the windows. It was stripped, the damaged wood was removed and new wood inserted. Weather stripping was installed; the hardware was stripped and oiled. We spent $2,000 on this study. It enabled us to test the restored window for air leakage and estimate accurately how much it would cost to restore all the windows. The tests demonstrated that the repaired window air-tightness rates exceeded the A440 requirements for an A2 rated window. This meant that the restored windows would not be draughty, nor the cause of important loss of energy. Finally, the cost of restoring the existing windows was almost equivalent to the cost of installing new windows.

On the negative side, the existing windows were not very practical. They opened on the inside, which meant that the screen had to be installed on the outside and that blinds could not be used in the apartments. Furthermore, because they were very high windows, a window latch extension tool was necessary to open and close them properly. The addition of weather stripping also added to the difficulty of operating the restored windows. For these reasons, management decided to go for new windows instead of restoring the existing ones. Particular attention was given to developing exterior and interior architectural moulding details which would harmonise the new windows with the remaining architectural details and the building's historical appearance.

Doors: The original exterior doors and frames could be restored.

Mouldings and Cornice: All existing mouldings and metal cornices could be restored.

Structure: The existing wooden floor system and cast iron frame could remain. They would need to be reinforced but it was not necessary to gut the building in order to accommodate the new systems and partitions. A key point was lateral stability of the building. Rigidity of the building envelope frame was necessary to meet the new seismic requirements in the building code. The existing foundation footings had to be enlarged to accommodate the new live- and dead-load calculations.

Roof and Dormers: The existing Mansard roof had been badly damaged in a past fire. Most of the structural members had been exposed to the fire; however, after examination, it was determined that with minimal reinforcement, the existing roof structure could be kept and restored. The flat roof portion of the building was at the end of its useful life and would have to be replaced. The metal portion still had five to eight years left in it but it was decided not to take any chances and to replace it with new metal installed in exactly the same manner. The dormers could be repaired.

Contaminants: There was no lead in the paint nor in the water. There was asbestos in the boiler room, but none in the plaster. No other contaminants were found.

Mechanical and Electrical Systems: These systems were at the end of their useful life and would need to be replaced entirely.

PLANS AND SPECIFICATIONS

The plans and specifications were prepared by NCC staff according to the Realty and Operations Division requirements. There would be two retail spaces on the ground floor, two bachelor apartments on the first floor along with a two-bedroom apartment. There would be four one-bedroom and study apartments on the third and fourth floors. The building would be fully accessible, air conditioned, and continue to have a hot water heating system. There would be gas fireplaces and all apartments would be equipped with refrigerator, range and dishwasher. Laundry facilities and lockers would be provided in the basement. The apartment floors would be finished with hardwood.

Apartment interior before rehabilitation ------- Apartment interior after rehabilitation

Apartment interior after rehabilitation

The designer's major challenge was to meet the client's requirements while respecting the National Building Code and budget. Numerous architectural elements were closely tracked for cost. Replacement options were often requested by the client from the design team and later on from the contractor to stay within budget. The space available was so tight that, in many instances, there were only millimetres left to accommodate the building elements. The design was done under Parts 3 and 11 of the Building Code. A conscious decision was made to install a sprinkler system for the entire building even though the Building Code required only that the ground floor be protected by sprinklers. All drawings were done on AutoCAD version 12 which facilitated the coordination between all professionals and ensured great precision and ease of modifications.

PARKING

Car parking would be available in a commercial parking lot immediately adjacent to the building and owned by the NCC, but an extra $100 would be charged to tenants who wished to use the lot.

RENTS

Market studies established that the retail space could be rented at $25.00 per square foot, the bachelor apartments could bring $550 per month, and the other apartments could be rented between $1,100 to $1,300 per month. Heat and water would be included in the rent while hydro would be extra.

CONSTRUCTION

The lowest bid for the rehabilitation work went to Mueller-Hein from Ottawa for the amount of $1,155,386. Most of the rehabilitation work went smoothly except for the mechanical systems, which created all sorts of difficulties. Numerous changes were required because space was so tight, and many details had not been worked out at the conceptual level. The modifications to the mechanical systems generated chain reactions that were difficult to bring under control as one change led to another and so on. The rehabilitation work lasted seven months, from January 1996 to July 1996. During this period, NCC construction supervision staff spent a great deal of time on site ensuring, with the contractor, that the best possible solutions were applied to everyday problems. A good, close working relationship between the contractor and the NCC staff enabled the NCC to save money and keep the project within budget.

IF WE COULD DO IT ALL OVER AGAIN

If we could begin this project all over again, we would surely do certain things the same way, but there are others that we would do differently.

Investigations: Though we spent a considerable amount of time and money on initial investigations, we would probably spend even more if we could start again. It cannot be stressed enough that accurate, very accurate, recording drawings and an appreciation of existing conditions will always save a great deal of design time and help avoid many problems at construction time.

Mechanical and Electrical: We would spend much more time closely reviewing the mechanical and electrical drawings, systems, availability of the proposed equipment and material in the Ottawa region. We would probably have saved a lot of money and simplified our life greatly if we had required more detailed drawings from the mechanical and electrical engineers, and insisted on an explanation for every detail appearing on the drawings. One of the major problems we had to face was the fact that the hot water system pipes ran so close to the exterior walls in some instances that there was a serious danger that they would freeze. This had not been detected at the design stage and had to be corrected during construction. The entire system had to be adapted to incorporate glycol in order to ensure that it would not freeze-up during the winter. This was a costly modification.

Heritage Preservation: We would make more effort to raise senior management's level of awareness to the heritage values of the property early on in the process. When large teams are brought together in government agencies to undertake a project, several persons may be sensitive to heritage preservation, but the majority are generally not. It is a good idea to make an early presentation to management on the heritage character defining elements of a property, and why it is important to preserve them for future generations.

Contractors: We would pre-qualify the mechanical and electrical sub-contractors. In a public system where the lowest bid is the law, one may end up with a contractor who is not very knowledgeable about heritage conservation philosophy and techniques. Fortunately, this was not the case for this project, but we realised a bit late that this could have easily happened. If it is possible to involve the contractor early on in the design process, then this is recommended. Many technical problems can be avoided at conceptual level. This is always more economical than having to solve them on site.

Estimates: Construction cost estimates prepared by a group of professionals within a government agency that undertakes a large number of projects of varying size and nature tend to be much more precise than those prepared by private sector firms. I give a great deal of credibility to these estimates because they have proven many times to be quite accurate. The problem is that senior management does not necessarily give them the same level of credibility.

Collaboration with City Officials: Early and regular collaboration and meetings with The City Plan Examiner and Fire Commissioner is important and ensures that last minute, on- site modifications brought forth by unforeseen situations will be looked at in a creative and positive way. In this project, this aspect went very well.

CHANGING TIMES

Government agencies with a full staff of professionals to undertake projects in-house is going to be a thing of the past for awhile as more downsizing takes place. More and more, government agencies will spend time and effort doing project development and management as opposed to research and design. They will turn to the private sector for services.

We have no problem, in principle, with this approach, especially in the framework of downsizing government agencies. But in practice, there are still many obstacles to overcome, the first one being that there is very little "real" heritage conservation expertise in the private sector.

The field of heritage conservation is a speciality. It is a body of skills and knowledge that is learned in post-graduate studies, requires many years of research and studies, and needs to be constantly updated. This is recognised as such in many developed countries of the world, not the least being most of the European countries.

The number of architectural, engineering, landscape and management firms that have approached the NCC stating that they were "specialised" or even "experts" in the field of heritage conservation is surprising. When asked: "In which academic institution have you acquired your expertise?" The answer usually is: "I have developed my skills by doing projects, many of which have won awards of various kinds." And then, when asked: "Of which specialised professional heritage conservation organisations are you or your firm a member of where you keep abreast of the latest developments?" Most often, the answer is: "none".

How these people, who have not learned heritage conservation skills as part of their basic professional training, have not bothered acquiring them in post-graduate studies and are not following the development of this speciality through professional organisations can call themselves experts and be accepted by community leaders as such, is something that we consider a problem that needs to be addressed in the near future by people responsible for managing our heritage properties.

There are many young professionals who are now specialising in heritage conservation. Part of our new strategies should be to employ them or make sure that they are part of the hired teams.

SENIOR MANAGEMENT INSIST ON COMMERCIAL MARKET RETURNS FOR HERITAGE PROPERTIES

Again, we have no problem in principle with this approach. If heritage rehabilitation projects can be developed and managed within commercially viability criteria, then they are much easier to sell to senior management. But these days, anything which is above "basic" necessities, above "code", needs to be argued with senior management. Architects who want to produce nicer buildings have to argue for increased budgets with their clients in order to use better or long-lasting materials or develop unique architectural details requiring custom work.

We are strong believers that it is possible, most of the time, to demonstrate to management that restoring a heritage structure will cost the least and return the most; that it is better to rehabilitate than it is to demolish and rebuild; that this is true from an economical, social, environmental and architectural point of view. Ten years of Main Street Canada experience has well demonstrated this fact to François LeBlanc, and thousands of other Canadians.

One of the problems with this approach is that we are not certain that the preservation community is convinced of this fact or that it understands which arguments need to be brought forward and which ones have absolutely no effect on developers or property managers. Also, very few professionals or contractors know how to rehabilitate buildings in an efficient and economical way. Much still needs to be done, but we see a bright future for heritage preservation and the people who decide to dedicate a portion of their professional lives to this mission!

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