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Heaslip House at Ryerson University

They are no longer squatters on their own campus. That’s the main reason Ian Hamilton is thankful for Heaslip House, the new home for the G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education at Toronto’s Ryerson University.

“The Faculty of Continuing Education at Ryerson was experiencing incredible growth,” says the director of campus planning and facilities for Ryerson. “Members would use space at night that belonged to other academic departments during the day. They really had no place of their own.”

The new seven-storey building serves as both administrative headquarters for the continuing education school and classroom space for its students.

“It’s dramatic because of the high percentage of the building cantilevered out,” says Hamilton. Seen from the northeast, Hamilton says the building’s modern face, with its ribbon windows backed by a black spine, evokes the image of a tall ship.

The building overhangs a public area that features the reflecting Devonian Pond, which adds to the impression of a sailing vessel. In winter, the pond serves as a public skating rink. With about five per cent of the pond area covered, “you can actually skate under the building,” says Bill Lett, Jr. design architect for Lett Architects Inc.

While pleasing to the eye, the design owes much to practical considerations. Heaslip House sits in a very tight urban site where zoning bylaws impose height limitations. “Early on, we came to the conclusion that they couldn’t fit the program that they wanted within the height restrictions,” says Lett.

Lett and his associates came up with several workarounds. Most notably, Heaslip House sits perpendicular to its site, cantilevering over the property line and “Lake Devo.”

Thankfully, the building has off-property “air rights.” Establishing air rights, though, meant involving the City of Toronto Urban Design and Planning departments.

“They were quite excited about how the building integrated with the park,” Lett recalls, and approval for using the area needed for the overhang followed soon after. The spot has already proven popular in summer for outdoor events and simply relaxing in the shade.

Challenges with the overhang didn’t end with municipal urban planners. “We had to cut open the skating rink, repair and reroute the lines underneath around the caisson footing that we put in,” says Craig Lesurf, Vice President of Operations for Vanbots Construction Corporation, the general contractor on the project.

The west side of the building also tested architects and builders alike. The original five-storey building on the site was once the O’Keefe Brewing Company’s head office. Built in 1937 of limestone with copper accents, it was designed by notable Toronto architects Chapman and Oxley, whose credits include the Bank of Nova Scotia building in the heart of Toronto’s financial district.

A bas relief sculpture graces the façade. Attributed to sculptor Frances Loring, it consists of two young men holding sheaves of hops and barley. Little wonder, then, that City of Toronto Preservation Services asked that this façade be kept.

“From a design standpoint, because we had an existing building façade, the O’Keefe Breweries, with punched windows and limestone, we wanted to respect that and complement that on that façade,” says Lett.

Now, natural copper cladding on the taller and wider new building forms a backdrop for the existing limestone façade.

Lett explains. “The limestone the building was made with is no longer available and we wanted some contrast. So we chose a material that was complimentary to the existing building.”

“We also chose copper because of favourable market timing – the copper market was depressed,” says Rob Boyko, partner with Rounthwaite Dick & Hadley Architects Inc. “The cladding is fabricated from copper coils, which are predominantly comprised of recycled material. Copper itself is 100% recyclable and it’s got a life span of over 100 years.”

Respect for the 1937 limestone façade also shows in the punched windows on the entire west face of the building.

Since there were no historical elements on the east side, “we could do something a little more dramatic there,” he adds.

The transition point from heritage to modern is a black aluminium spine wall separating the copper and glass elements of the building. This wall juts north towards the pond and penetrates the interior of the building, where it creates the illusion of greater space. The wall also marks a boundary between offices, situated behind the copper façade, and the open office areas behind the glass façade.

In the opinion of Tibor Magyarosi, Senior Project Manager for Vanbots Construction Corporation, the exterior aluminium cladding seems continuous. “The interior design picks up from the outside skin,” he says.

To combat the “box effect” of closed floors in work zone areas, drop ceilings were eschewed in favour of letting the space go right up to the steel deck above. Mechanical services, which would be hidden by the ceiling, are all painted black.

Once they walk through the main doors of the five-storey heritage façade, visitors enter a two-storey atrium with an exposed balcony above. From the inside, though, those two stories correspond to three levels of windows in the heritage facade.

“The existing building behind that façade had to be demolished,” says Boyko, “because it had very low floor-to-floor heights, which would not accommodate today’s mechanical equipment.” Two stacked double-height spaces – the atrium and another double-height space which relates to the uppermost two floors of the heritage façade – have replaced the original five floors.

The project presented other challenges as well. While the building behind it fell to the wrecker’s ball, the façade itself was propped up in its place throughout the project. That made an already tight construction site even tighter, especially since the one side of the site facing a street was partially blocked by the façade.

Bedrock sits 50 feet below street level, so original plans called for the building to sit on a raft slab, which it does. However, the size of the slab had to be reconsidered during construction.

“During excavation of the basement, the bearing capacity of the soil was found to be 1/3 of that indicated in the preliminary soil investigation,” says Boyko. “The design team weren’t able to do bore holes in the middle of the old facility,” explains Lesurf, so holes were drilled adjacent to the site. The soil’s inconsistent bearing capacity surprised all involved and delayed formwork into one of the colder winters in Lesurf’s memory.

Any money saved on copper cladding evaporated owing to a massive spike in the cost of structural steel during the spring and early summer of 2004, just before the project went to tender.

For all this, faculty finally moved in to their new home in December, 2005. Ryerson’s Hamilton sees it as a great Christmas gift for students and staff. “Before, they were in a number of different locations. Now they work more effectively in one place, where they can enjoy a sense of place.”

Now the building even plays host to its neighbourhood. “We hold community-wide events in the assembly space on the seventh floor because people in the community want to be there,” says Hamilton. “It’s a beautiful building.”


Location: 297 Victoria Street in downtown Toronto, one block away from Yonge & Dundas

Architect: PRIME: Rounthwaite Dick & Hadley Architects, Design – Lett Architects Inc.

General Contractor: Vanbots Construction Corporation

Landscape Architect: Corban and Goode Landscape Architecture and Urbanism

Geotechnical Engineer: Shaheen & Peaker Limited

Structural Consultant: Carruthers and Wallace Ltd

Mechanical Consultant: Hidi Rae Consulting Engineers Ltd.

Electrical Consultant: Ellard-Willson Engineering Ltd.

Heaslip House total area: 42,000 sq ft

Heritage Consultant: E.R.A. Architects Inc.

Contractor for support structure for heritage façade and demolition work: Greenspoon Specialty Contractors Ltd.

Total Project Cost: $10.8 million

originally published in Award Magazine