The past’s sustaining structures—November/December print edition

How historic buildings can drive corporate sustainability goals

These days, high-density buildings often replace older, historic structures to accommodate more leased space in many of Canada’s downtown cores. This has definite sustainability advantages; for example, density helps reduce sprawl and increase green space. But historic buildings have pluses too. Take the Toronto Carpet Factory Building in the city’s west-end Liberty Village neighbourhood. These days, the historic structure boasts a high occupancy rate within its 310,000sqft, eight-building, four-acre area.

One occupant is Muscatine, Iowa-based commercial office furniture manufacturer Allsteel, a company that has made a commitment to green supported by its decision to locate the Allsteel Resource Centre in the Toronto Carpet Factory Building. In fact, says Keri Luly, Allsteel’s manager of sustainability programs, the facility was one of the first in the country to be awarded the Canadian version of the LEED for Commercial Interiors (LEED-CI) certification. The Canada Green Building Council awarded the facility a gold rating in 2009.

“It was a real challenge to get to LEED gold especially in a building that old,” Luly says.

Building history
The structure was built between 1899 and the 1920s as part of the Toronto Carpet Factory complex, employing 1,000 workers and taking up a full city block. The structure Allsteel now occupies was once a steam-producing boiler house. Although the factory closed in 1976, the complex of buildings has seen a renaissance and is now a property of historical and architectural value under the Ontario Heritage Act. Allsteel began working on the space in 2007 and moved in the following year, Luly says.

Leadership in Energy and Environment Design (LEED) is a third-party certification program and benchmark for the design, construction and operation of green buildings that awards points in six areas: sustainable sites; water efficiency; energy and atmosphere; materials and resources; indoor environmental quality and innovations and design process. The number of points decides if a building gets a silver, gold or platinum rating.

Allsteel faced several challenges, including trying to preserve several of the building’s historic structural features like the tall, operable windows, Luly says. But replacing the windows would make the structure more LEED-friendly and allow energy to be used more wisely. Ultimately, the windows were kept intact—rather than replaced—but sealed as best as possible.

The natural lighting afforded by the 25-foot high windows—along with 50-foot ceilings—is also one of the centre’s success stories. The double-high spaces and clearstory windows feed natural light into the showroom below. A suspended glass boardroom lets natural light into the mezzanine for a natural environment to view the company’s furniture lines. Allsteel combined natural lighting with high-efficiency lighting fixtures equipped with lighting sensors.

The centre boasts other sustainable features, including low-flow water fixtures, low-VOC materials and paints and accessible pubic transit. It has Green Power, Energy Star rated appliances and a car-share parking spot in front. The team selected locally manufactured products, which benefited the local economy while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But that required scrutiny of each purchase, which took more time and could conflict with other LEED points.

Other challenges arose. LEED’s indoor environmental quality requirements include ensuring floor treatments don’t “offgas” as well as having paint and furniture that offers low-VOC (volatile organic chemical) emissions—that means special paint, carpet adhesives and special wood stain.

On the centre’s second floor, the team tried to preserve as much of the original character of the wooden floor as possible. But eventually, Luly says, carpeting was laid on top (the original wood is still visible around the room’s edges) to ensure a safe walking surface. The team to sourced a water-based stain to for LEED compliance, says Stoddart.

The results are truly impressive. The building boasts a floating glass conference room, 50-foot ceilings, 25-foot windows, exposed brick and architectural steel. The area where a smokestack once sat is now a small nook, and Allsteel has an attractive and sustainable new home.