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Buildings Canada

Hear From Chris Walton, Associate at SMP Engineering

For anyone who may be unaware of your work at the SMP Engineering, please could let us know what your role is and how you apply your work to the construction industry and construction projects?

My name is Chris Walton. I work for SMP engineering. We're consultants and electrical engineering firm, Electro engineering community. I'm an associate here, so I'm kind of middle management for the most part in our structure. I'm a stamping engineer as well. So that is a product from here that would actually be used in the construction industry to be tendered and used as contract docs for the building industry.

What unique challenges do you anticipate when undertaking historic retrofits compared to retrofitting more modern buildings, and how do you address these challenges?

The biggest challenge we face with historic buildings is the inability to touch the actual structure. While retaining the building's historic essence is important, it often works against modern upgrades that engineers are trying to implement. Building codes and minimum requirements have advanced, and historic buildings were not designed with these in mind. So, making these necessary upgrades minimally impactful to the building is the major challenge we face.

On top of this, identifying and highlighting historic elements while trying to be invisible in our interventions is also difficult. Simple tasks like running conduit and other infrastructure elements, which are straightforward in a modern building, become complex in a historic structure. Historic buildings were not designed to accommodate modern systems, so finding space for these elements is challenging.

Overall, avoiding interference with historic elements while maintaining and highlighting them can be both challenging and rewarding.

With government policies and regulation playing an increasingly significant role in shaping the landscape of commercial retrofits are there any examples where these updates have impacted your work either positively or negatively?

Sure. There are numerous architectural codes that need to be addressed, particularly regarding egress and fire codes, such as fire separations. In the electrical world, we fall within some of those subcodes. For example, many life safety systems require minimum standards that older buildings did not originally meet. Fire alarms, exit signs, and emergency lighting all need to be highlighted for public safety.

Installing these systems often requires extending and creating new device locations, sometimes on historic elements. The historic advisors we work with are often unhappy about this, but these are mandatory codes. For example, pull stations outside of exits or stairwells and remote horn strobes must be installed, even on historic walls, because they are essential. We have to communicate to the historic conservation advisors that there is no flexibility on these safety elements—they are non-negotiable.

As sustainable building practices have become increasingly important in today's construction industry. How do you integrate sustainability principles into historic commercial retrofits while respecting the historical significance of the buildings?

Sustainability is always key. It’s responsible for advancing many building codes, driving standards in sustainability, energy, energy modelling, and similar areas. Our best practice is always to adhere to sustainability principles, particularly regarding energy consumption, such as lighting energy and controls.

Lighting controls are front and centre when dealing with this. However, this depends on the architect in question, especially when dealing with historic buildings. In such cases, we might get variances from the city, allowing us to not comply with all elements. However, we still strive to follow best practices, including using vacancy sensors and LED lighting throughout.

Overall, we tend to aim to meet energy density models that are lower than what older buildings were designed for.

Are there any strategies that you commonly employ to minimize environmental impact during the retrofit process?

In historic retrofits, a one-size-fits-all mentality doesn't work because each building is unique. There are best practices, of course, for achieving the project's goals, such as creating a comfortable, energy-efficient environment for current tenants. However, the approach must be tailored to each site. Issues like running conduits and other design elements need careful consideration to meet code requirements.

Sometimes, this involves discussing our interpretation of the code with inspectors, explaining that while our approach may not align with modern standards, it still meets the code's intent. Generally, authorities have been receptive to this logic, and as long as we stand behind our decisions, the response has been positive.

When considering historic retrofits, what do you see looking forward in the next three or four years as the direction that the market will take?

That's a difficult question to answer because historic retrofits tie us to our past and to our community's heritage. Do these historic elements resonate with society, and are they worth the investment? From a financial and efficiency perspective, it is often easier and more cost-effective to demolish old buildings and construct new ones. However, historic buildings connect us to our cultural heritage, and that is the foundation upon which owners often build these projects. Preserving historic elements fosters a sense of community, history, and continuity, beyond mere efficiency.

Owners must look beyond the financial aspects because older historic buildings will not operate as efficiently as new ones. Accepting that an old building will present more challenges is crucial. Nonetheless, maintaining these structures invokes a sense of how things were done in the past, which is valuable for cultural preservation.

As buildings age, more will gain historic significance. While Calgary is relatively young compared to other cities, the classification of historic elements depends on various factors. People will want to maintain these historic elements, and I hope they do.