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Canada House: Overcoming five heritage building redevelopment challenges

Revitalising a listed building was a golden opportunity to join London’s past and present

By Aaron Taylor, London, UK

Historic buildings in England which meet a standard for historic interest are listed on the National Heritage List. There are approximately 2,000 listed Grade I “exceptional” and Grade II “special” buildings in London alone. But London is a modern, dynamic city and naturally, many of these historic properties must be updated to function in the 21st century.

Redeveloping a heritage building on a high profile site on Trafalgar Square might sound challenging enough. But Canada House, the listed building which is home for Canada’s High Commission in the United Kingdom, was extraordinarily demanding in its further dimensions. In need of updating, this highly visible space was due for a major renovation. This project required Canada House to absorb functions from Macdonald House in Grosvenor Square which had been sold, connect to the adjacent Cockspur Street building and be reborn as a showcase for Canadian design, materials, and artwork—all while maintaining the character of the circa-1824-27 Greek Revival architecture.

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh officially reopened Canada House in February 2015 to great fanfare. With the project’s recent selection as a finalist for the 2016 World Architecture Festival in Berlin and as a 2017 Civic Trust Awards, Pro Tem & AABC Regional Finalist for Greater London, now seemed like a great time to swing open the doors and revisit issues in revitalizing significant listed buildings, the unique challenges and our solutions at Canada House.

Related item: Canada House honoured by Interior Design Magazine

From my point of view, there were five key challenges and solutions in the Canada House project:

1.    Delivering contemporary spaces within a protected Heritage Building
Dating from 1829, Canada House (two buildings with a common façade) was designed by Sir Robert Smirke the architect of the British Museum. The renovation required us to balance careful restoration and modernisation. 

SOLUTION: We took the opportunity to emphasise the building’s beautiful historical features while creating open spaces and maximising access to natural light. When we made changes like removing walls to make the workspaces more open and light-filled, we took care to preserve the historic charm of original moldings, skylights and windows.

RESULT: Emphasising the building’s original architectural details gave us a worthy backdrop to bring in contemporary elements that bring the space to life and tell the story of Canada. Ultimately, we created an art-gallery-like space showcasing the best in Canadian art and design and allowing the beauty of Canadian materials, bespoke Canadian furniture and rugs to shine through.

2.    Occupied + Operational!
Space, especially in Central London, is at a premium. As designers, we don’t always have the luxury of an empty building. Remodelling the building at 2-4 Cockspur Street while several floors remained occupied was not easy. We had to ensure the safety of all building users while remodeling the majority of the floorplates, the atrium and the main entrance area. 

SOLUTION: Dedicated safe access routes were developed with the tenants and contractors, which allowed work to progress to schedule, and provision of utilities including all important data connections also had to be maintained throughout the construction phases.

RESULT: A dramatic cascading staircase was inserted in the existing atrium of 2-4 Cockspur Street, now named the Queen Elizabeth Atrium. The atrium welcomes natural light and celebrates Canada as a leader in wood exports with Canadian hemlock and red oak flooring. The heritage staircase within Canada House features a new custom designed hand-tufted carpet and a striking Bocci-designed light fixture, offsetting Canadian marble and granite.

3.    An ambitious project schedule
We call it programme in the UK, but whatever term you use, we were given an extremely ambitious schedule and a hard deadline. We were awarded the project in June 2013. The contractor began work on site at the end of March 2014. And project construction was completed at the end of January 2015. Given the intensity of renovation to this heritage building and the complex logistics of working on an “island” site on Trafalgar Square surrounded by central London’s major transport routes, we had no time to waste.

SOLUTION: Given the nature of the project, Stantec maintained a significant site presence throughout the construction phase to allow rapid turnaround of queries and resolve issues as they would arise (not uncommon due to the age of the building).

RESULT: We delivered the project on budget and on time for the official opening by Her Majesty the Queen on February 19, 2015.

4.    Dealing with the surprises
Working within 200-year-old buildings meant we had to engage with many features and systems for which no records exist. Linking the two buildings through walls over a metre thick was tricky, as was the continual discovery of heritage elements as the remodeling proceeded. 

SOLUTION: Having a responsive design and construction team was of great assistance to us, with everyone understanding the importance and opportunity of working on such a project. A spirit of collaboration and “one team” brought the client, contractor and designers together and delivered a quantum of work within the timeframe. This could only have been possible with all the team members pulling in the same direction.

RESULT: With cooperation, we were able to keep the project on track despite numerous surprises. We continually refined the design to suit the actual conditions on site as more was discovered about the buildings. These surprises included heritage ceilings, where we worked with English Heritage to catalogue what had been left after numerous unsympathetic previous refurbishments.

Sometimes these surprises were a blessing. The renovations uncovered four original skylights in the structure. These skylights were incorporated in the refurbishment design and helped us bring more natural daylight to the interior of Canada House. 

5.    Re-instating the double height “library” space and adding a rooftop terrace
Until the 1960’s, a double-height library for the Royal College of Physicians occupied part of the building. Eventually that space was reconfigured and the double height void and roof lights infilled. During the 1980’s, the original library in Canada House was abandoned and filled in. Our renovation required us to create more dramatic spaces and take advantage of light and views in this unique locale both inside and outside. 

SOLUTION: In the renovation, we took down a ceiling to reinstate the original double-height volume of the library and create an open and light-filled workspace. We also added a terrace above on the north side of Canada House overlooking Trafalgar Square with spectacular views of Central London.

RESULT: The double-height library features open plan office space on the lower level and new meeting rooms and a gallery space on the upper level. The rooftop terrace at Canada House we created as a new outdoor amenity features both a green roof and living wall—complete with bee hives—and provides Canada with an enviable event venue for guests.

Revitalising a heritage building such as this presents a unique set of challenges and obstacles. But, with the right client and right team like we had at Canada House, the results are incomparable.

Read more: Transplanting the spirit of Canada into London’s Trafalgar Square

Aaron is an architect and registered RIBA Client Adviser. He leads Stantec’s business development activities in the United Kingdom and is a board member of the professional trade organisation, British Expertise.

More from Aaron: The best of Canada, at home in the UK

Emphasizing the building’s original architectural details gave us a worthy backdrop to bring the space to life and tell the story of Canada.

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