Artscape Wychwood Barns
Barn Raising: A former transportation facility is reinvented to serve its community in a whole new way.
Once an active transit hub at the western terminus of Canada’s Toronto Civic Railways (TCR), the five parallel streetcar storage and maintenance barns comprising the St. Clair Carhouse fell into disrepair after being decommissioned and abandoned in 1985. The story of the facility’s revival as Artscape Wychwood Barns, a neighborhood arts and cultural center surrounded by the single-family residences of Toronto’s 21st Ward, offers multiple lessons in the value of adaptive reuse and sustainable design, historic preservation, and community engagement.
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The TCR constructed the barns on the 4.3-acre site between 1913 and 1921 as the city and its urban railway grew. As the role of streetcar transit diminished, the Toronto Transportation Commission (which succeeded the TCR) closed the facility and, soon after, it became the subject of debate as the neighborhood struggled with what to do with the property. An effort to remediate the brownfield site was spearheaded by Artscape, a nonprofit arts-based developer, and the City of Toronto. It faced civic and community opposition, but after 10 years resulted in a 60,000-square-foot amenity, surrounded by a city park, which provides affordable housing, office and studio space for nonprofits and a host of public facilities.
To draft a feasibility study, Artscape turned to Toronto-based Joe Lobko Architect. The team looked for inspiration to precedent-setting adaptive reuse projects and participated in public meetings. “Out of those workshops,” says Lobko, “a series of principles were developed.” First, the community expressed an interest in sustainability (which jibed with Artscape’s core value of environmental stewardship). “For some,” notes the architect, “that meant you don’t tear down old buildings. However, a vocal minority felt that the buildings would impede the creation of a large park.” The team investigated various options, from demolishing all but one of the sheds, to retaining all five. “We understood that it was not simply about looking at the buildings—we had to understand the whole concept,” says Lobko.
The team published its feasibility study evaluating the range of scenarios in 2002. Key to their approach was a balance between providing park space and preserving aspects of the existing barns. “The options that included more programs and partnerships were the ones we concluded were most feasible financially and socially,” says Lobko. “The more multidimensional the project,” concurs Liz Kohn, Artscape’s director of communications, “the more interesting it became to the community, the easier it became to raise funds.” The proposal was accepted in 2004 and Artscape, with Joe Lobko Architect as part of the development team, obtained a $1-a-year lease on the buildings from the city. Funding for the project, which is a private-public venture, was secured through higher levels of government and private sources.
The five linear buildings, which are numbered, prompted the team to organize the barns by theme. The northernmost #1 Studio Barn houses 26 affordable live/work units and 15 work-only studios. A multipurpose Covered Street occupies #2, the original 1913 building, and hosts a weekly green market. Barn #3, or the Community Barn, contains offices and studios for grassroots arts and environmental organizations. At its southern end the complex dematerializes. Barn #4, or the Green Barn, includes a temperate climate greenhouse, which connects to a community garden sheltered within the eastern walls of the original shed. Barn #5 was not included in the Heritage designation (which covers the other barns) and is, in fact, part of the public park. The team partially demolished the building, retaining fragments of the structure and the end bays, rendering this space as a porch connecting the complex to the outdoors.
“The fundamental bones [of the original buildings] were magnificent,” notes Lobko, whose firm merged with du Toit Architects Limited/du Toit Allsopp Hillier (DTAH), which oversaw the $14.3-million (Canadian) project through construction. The architects hoped to celebrate the original sheds while overlaying a modern language with the conversion. “These old buildings have incredible resilience,” notes Lobko, “and a capacity to take on new life.” But the original structure had deteriorated. “The steel in the older barns was starting to corrode to the point that strength was being lost,” says Craig Nicoletti, associate engineer at Blackwell Bowick Partnership. “And the concrete structure [of the 1921 barns] had spalling and corrosion, as did their concrete roofs.” The team did extensive repairs to both the steel and concrete framing and concrete roofs, and reused much of the masonry and clay block. They then replaced the two older barns’ wood roofs with metal decking, opened up apertures between the buildings, and built new steel frames within barns #1 and #3 to insert second stories. In the Covered Street the original central skylight running the length of the shed was restored and new glass put into place.
For heating or cooling, the team, encouraged by the city, investigated ground-source heat pumps. A test drill to assess the thermal conductivity of the soil revealed 300 feet of overburden above the bedrock, not an ideal situation. However, confident of energy savings the team installed 50 400-foot-deep boreholes. “The secret to geothermal,” points out Mike Godawa, principal of Stantec, “is a balance between heating and cooling loads.” The climate—combined with the fact that the complex is mixed use and used year round—makes geothermal a particularly good application here. Supplemented with two gas-fired boilers for heating (for backup), it provides 100 percent of heating and cooling, say the engineers.
In addition to maximizing daylighting, the team used energy-efficient lighting throughout. The greenhouse has dedicated water, lighting, and HVAC systems, and its mechanized skylight and awning windows are tied to sensors that monitor light levels, humidity, and air temperature. Though the city now mandates a certain percentage of green roofs on new, larger-scale projects, at the time of Wychwood’s design this was not so. “There was an extensive debate about whether to use green roofs or rainwater harvesting,” says Godawa. Water harvesting won out because sufficient graywater usage was demonstrated and the team hoped to set a model for addressing stormwater management. Water is captured from an acre of roof and stored in a 6-foot-diameter concrete pipe beneath Barn #2 in the former grease pit and supplies all toilets and is used to irrigate the park.
Once it receives certification, says the team, the barns will be the first LEED Gold Heritage project in Canada. Sustainable strategies aside, the complex’s greatest strength may lie in the synergy between its various programs and the people it serves. “The barns are a showcase for collaboration and innovation where art, people, and environment intersect,” says Kohn. “And the life that comes out of that is an articulation of the community.” Artscape Wychwood Barns, after a protracted dormant period, once again reflects the spirit of the city of Toronto. In its early years, it played a critical role in the municipal public transit system that was integral to the city’s growth. In its new incarnation, the barns have become a catalyst for a different kind of community building by providing a neighborhood center and a home for a variety of concerns that seek to support and bring together the people of the 21st Ward.