From the stark concrete of the National Arts Centre to the angular blocks of the public library’s main branch, dozens of brutalist buildings are scattered throughout Ottawa’s downtown.
Beyond an iconic appearance, the polarizing style of post-war architecture may play a role in the city’s efforts to convert vacant office buildings into housing, according to a new report.
With office vacancy in downtown Ottawa hitting a record highcity staff are exploring ideas to save developers time and money on projects that convert empty offices into much-needed housing.
And Ottawa may be primed to do just that.
“We believe there’s already a comfortable market and policy scenario that would allow conversions to begin to happen,” said Jennifer Barrett, managing director of the Canadian Urban Institute, the non-profit research group that authored an April report on conversion potential in six major Canadian cities.
Barrett said the pairing of high housing demand and widespread office vacancies places Ottawa in the “goldilocks” zone for office conversions.
But exactly where those transformations take place may be influenced by the city’s brutalist architecture.
Brutalism in Ottawa
Brutalism emerged after the Second World War and reached prominence in the 1960s through 1970s, according to Sarah Gelbard, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Ottawa.
The style is known for its liberal use of concrete and other heavy materials, she added.
In the post-war era, brutalist designs helped governments fulfill a “deep social need” by engaging in massive civic projects, creating arts and culture spaces and rapidly building housing, she said.
Concrete can be manufactured out of local materials pretty much anywhere, and brutalism allowed countries to develop a singular national style despite mixing the concrete from whatever ingredients were on hand.
In Soviet countries, for example, Gelbard said brutalism was often aesthetically “oppressive” and commonly used in housing complexes.
In Canada, she said, brutalism tended toward a more “pragmatic and big civil expression.”
“I think that was a conscious choice to see that as a way that a Canadian style of architecture could start to emerge,” she said.
Early projects in Ottawa, such as the Department of National Defence building on Colonel By Drive, tended to embrace the stark concrete façade associated with the style.
“It has a big mass to it — and it was a massive construction,” Gelbard said. “It was a deep investment in the style.”
But while federal buildings were costly and highly experimental, she said, they also “paved the way” for private developers to re-implement the style faster and cheaper.
By the late 1970s, she said, private development had begun to use many of the same materials but without the same attention to design.
“It becomes a purely pragmatic, functional building,” she said. “It becomes kind of standardized — and increasingly standardized.”
Today, the presence of brutalism in Ottawa is “pretty representative” of most mid-sized Canadian cities, according to Gelbard, but key federal buildings make its use “a little bit more iconic.”
Brutalist buildings may be prime for conversion
While the style is often maligned for appearing cold or industrial, its combination of vintage design and the quirks that come with it make brutalist buildings appealing candidates for conversion.
First, Barrett said, many reach an age where they need “a fair bit” of renovation. That “obsolescence” means the buildings are more likely to be available.
Once they are, a buyer would discover the signature concrete façade makes it relatively easy to replace the inoperable windows of an office tower with the freely opening windows of an apartment complex.
Attempting to do the same on a glass-fronted building, Barrett said, is much more challenging.
As well, buildings from that period often follow a “tower and podium” design, with a narrow highrise set atop a wide base.
Barrett said the narrow tower, which tends to have a rectangular footprint, allows light to penetrate from all sides — a prerequisite when designing living spaces.
The shape also limits the amount of dead space in the centre of the building and “allows for a flexibility of unit design” often impossible in other office buildings, she said.
The top two buildings in Ottawa most suitable for conversions are brutalist highrises, according to modelling by Gensler architects in the Canadian Urban Institute report. The report does not name the buildings.
Although many Canadian cities are exploring office conversions, the presence of the federal government in Ottawa puts the city in a unique position.
Public Services and Procurement Canada is looking to unload nine of its buildings across the region, meaning Ottawa’s conversion prospects rely heavily on the whims of a single employer.
“That creates a very unique scenario,” Barrett said. “The decisions that get made by that employer, the federal government, will tip the scales in either direction.”
Unknowns make for ‘scary projects’
Christos Panagiotakos, senior vice-president and managing director at CBRE Canada, said converting a building away from its intended use is a complex process.
“When you actually start tearing away the skin of these office buildings, you’re finding a lot of different things,” said Panagiotakos, who works with both developers and lenders.
“They’re very, very challenging, scary projects. There’s just a lot of unknowns.”
The biggest risk for any conversion, he added, is whether or not a developer can efficiently retrofit the existing services within the building.
“A wrong placement for a stairwell, or a wrong placement of a column can significantly affect how you’re going to create your units,” he said. “And that can significantly reduce the value of your end project.”
For many, the risk proves too high. Panagiotakos said most developers he works with contemplate conversions but rarely go through with it.
Gelbard said she’d prefer for the federal government to convert its aging properties into offices instead of destroying them.
“I’d rather see them repurposed than demolished,” she said.
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