Changing how we advocate for heritage conservation in Ontario

By Evan Karl

 A long-time fixture of the heritage vocabulary has been the word “save.” To save something is not unnoble; in fact, it connotes heroism and valour. It implies that the advocates for historic places are defenders against an omnipresent threat.

However, it also implies we are reactionary.

The heritage community is always responding to a new action that has placed a beloved building or landscape in peril. A relevant example is the National Trust for Canada’s annual call for submissions to the list of most endangered places. It calls attention to historic buildings and landscapes in danger of being lost. By doing so, it hopes that charity will ride decisively to their rescue.

This is the reactionary strategy that the heritage community has been using for decades. Our weapons in these fights: advocacy and community ire. This requires us to be vigilant, and able to repeatedly stir the passions and indignation of our communities. We must fight the same battles over and over: wooden vs. vinyl windows, building code vs. traditional materials, etc., to the detriment of our fatigued and frustrated supporters.

The Royal Victoria Hospital in Montréal, Québec was placed on the National Trust for Canada’s Endangered Places List in 2018. Photo: Jeangagnon

Take for example the recent story from CTV News about an 1840s brick triplex in Kitchener, Ontario, entitled “Heritage Headache.”  A pair of developers purchased the designated property but discovered the cost of replacing all the windows with new wooden ones – which are required under the heritage designation – was unfeasible. Instead, they asked city council if they could use vinyl replacements—citing a cost of $35,000, or roughly a fifth of the price of wooden ones. Kitchener City Council approved the amendment.

As the article describes the decision, “Kitchener City Council sided with the property owners, saying homeowners with honest intentions of restoring heritage buildings should be given some flexibility.” An interesting defence for the new owners, who outlined their renovations by saying, “All we are keeping is essentially the brick; inside we need a full gut in every unit.”

The heritage home in Kitchener, ON was built in 1840 and was recently the subject of a debate surrounding window replacement and conservation. Photo: CTV News

After finishing the article and the video, I was incredulous and indignant. I was struck by a very liberal interpretation of “conservation” and the portrayal of heritage as an inconvenience and a manacle – it is a box that needs to be checked, kind of, sometimes. I donned my armour and typed a sternly worded response and posted it with the CTV News link to my Facebook.

In doing so, however, I became the advocating caricature most people have come to expect. Seemingly, my censure fell on deaf, or at least highly uninterested, ears. Ultimately, I felt that I did little to actually save anything or prevent it from happening again. I drew the conclusion that we do our field a disservice by continuing our reactionary and brow-furrowing ways. In doing so, we fulfill the stereotype of being a nuisance hindering progress. There must be another option.

How then, can we then change our course and adapt our strategy to garner support for our built heritage and cultural landscapes? I believe we need to get out in front of these fights. We need to work to make conservation society’s default. It can no longer be confined to just special buildings with special features. Conservation needs to address the stewardship of our communities through a fundamental appreciation of our impact on the earth and our use of materials.

 I don’t claim this is a new idea. In fact, though early in my career, I have already heard several conversations about making this change. Heritage advocates and organizations have the opportunity to align themselves with major environmental and social movements and use those associations to change public perception about heritage.

The St. Mary’s Pulp and Paper Mill has also been previously placed on the Endangered Places List. It is in need of a vision for preservation and investment. Photo: National Trust for Canada

Numerous organizations such as Historic England and Mohawk College have been publishing studies on traditional buildings and their materials to combat the myth that they are not conducive to meeting climate goals. The National Trust for Historic Preservation in the United States has conducted a study, Older, Smaller, Better, which examines the role that old neighbourhoods and buildings have in urban vitality, with very convincing results. Reports like these are complementing findings in the fields of urban planning and psychology, which are exploring topics like biophilia and life-cycle analysis. We need to attempt to use these findings and concepts to support our cause and reimagine our message.

Perhaps even more importantly, we need to address the biases and glaring flaws in the system. This includes fighting for change to existing legislation that favours new construction over renovation. We need to find areas in planning documents and the building codes that can accommodate conservation values, so heritage stops being both an administrative footnote and legal grey area.

Along with these changes, we should emphasize the many conservation success stories of the last decade involving historic buildings. Once people have clearly defined rules and understand the positive outcomes for people and the planet, I’m sure we will see a shift.

I was thrilled to see in the ACO’s latest email a report by the National Trust for Canada entitled Making Reuse the New Normal. I think it’s a very good indication that our field is ready to break the frustrated cycle of fighting these little fights and feeling satisfied with pyrrhic victories. We will no longer save buildings one set of windows at a time; we will create communities that are adored.

Evan Karl is an emerging heritage professional currently working as a stone conservator. He is a member of ACO and a contributor to the NextGen Blog.