Special Report: Lister Block

Restore the Lister

According to a recent assessment by an experienced architect, the Lister Block is structurally sound and a good candidate for restoration.

By Ryan McGreal
Published March 01, 2006

This week, Scott Valens, Rob Hamilton, and Rollo Myers of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario (ACO) announced that an investigation they commissioned into the beleagured Lister Block refuted LIUNA's claim that the structure is unsound.

Chris Borgal, a principal at the architecture firm Goldsmith Borgal & Company Ltd., assessed the condition of the interior and exterior of the Lister on February 3, 2006 "in relation to its potential for restoration and re-use." The investigation was visual only, and did not include materials testing. However, the building is made of reinforced concrete and appeared to be structurally sound.

Borgal "did not see any significant structural cracking or out-of-plane alignment" and "nothing in our observations suggested problems with the structural integrity of the building". He found neither "bowing or bending of floors" nor "cracking of supporting members."

Based on his assessment, Borgal recommends restoring the building instead of demolishing and replacing it.

Based on observations made on site, it appears that the structural frame of the Lister Building would be a suitable candidate for restoration. The brick portion of the facades is in good condition and requires minor restoration. The terra cotta work requires more extensive restoration but can be restored - there is a considerable amount of such work underway in North America at the moment and we have had excellent success with the City TV building in Toronto on which we provided restoration services 20 years ago.

Borgal further notes that retaining the structure and restoring the interior "will represent approximately 20% of the cost of a replacement building and would save the cost of demolition." However, the costs of cleaning up mold, lead paint, and exterior damage, plus the cost of replacing mechanical systems and rendering interior walls that meet fire regulations would entail significant costs.

He notes that the total costs per square foot for restoration are around the same as the costs of demolition and replacement. However, he proceeds to extoll the additional benefits of restoration as opposed to new construction: "Being of robust construction, the lifetime maintenance costs of buildings of this vintage [Lister was built in 1924] have been proven to be lower than those of contemporary buildings built of cheaper and lighter materials. [emphasis in original]"

Borgal also notes that restoration is more labour intensive, and requires more skilled labour, than reconstruction, which benefits the local workforce. For the record, the restoration also saves considerable material from the garbage dump. "However," Borgal concludes, "the largest benefit is the richness of urban cores, which include restored heritage structures."

The simple fact is that a building constructed in 1924 will age more gracefully and last far longer than a building constructed today. If the Lister is restored today and cared for, it still function well two decades from now, while a new building constructed today will already be starting to fall apart.

Many groups want to stop wasting time and get on with the demolition. The Hamilton Chamber of Commerce believes, "we as a community can no longer afford the luxury of having a derelict building occupy a major intersection of our downtown. We strongly recommend that the City expeditiously approve the project and otherwise move forward with the development of that property along the lines as is currently proposed by the owner/developer (LIUNA)."

The Downtown Business Improvement Area (BIA) believes it is "in the best interests of the community" that "the City of Hamilton ... move forward to approve the project," and trust LIUNA to "do their best to restore the look of the building to its former glory."

The get-on-with-it set will try to punch holes in Borgal's report, pointing out that it was based only on visual examination. However, Borgal is an experienced architect with a long and successful history of restoring buildings. His opinion carries the weight of that experience and shouldn't be discounted. At the very least, it warrants further study.

As I wrote earlier, builders today no longer seem willing or even able to construct buildings that are beautiful and enduring. If a restoration costs the same as a replacement, then we should pick the option that has the longer shelf life. Our city's long-term health is too important to leave to the whims of a fast depreciation cycle.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

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By me (anonymous) | Posted March 16, 2006 at 10:53:14

But if we do not have the skill is it worth the money to try it? The building has been left to decay so long I fear that a restoration attempt will cost more in the end. But it is hard to say without truly getting a look. I am aslo a bit disinclined to hold on to this relic of the past because the city has done far too much backward thinking and that has got us into a whole lot of trouble. I think perhaps instead of a superficial restoration as Liuna proposes or the a deeper one like this guy supports, knock the thing down and do something new and dare I say it, progressive? Just a thought.

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