Designing While Honouring the Legacy of Heritage Buildings

March 20, 2023
Retrofit Renovation - Designing While Honouring the Legacy of Heritage Buildings - 155 Water Street Vancouver

Architectural heritage reflects a community’s collective past. How do we renovate and retrofit interiors for our contemporary needs while protecting and honouring historic authenticity?

Interior alterations in retrofits and renovations are often necessary to improve a heritage property’s energy efficiency, minimise deterioration, or change its function in adaptive reuse endeavours. Working on such buildings undoubtedly poses challenges, and the role of the interior designer is epitomised in the strategic and sympathetic ways that they approach them.

The designer’s role in protecting heritage

In our hometown of Vancouver, certain designated sites are protected by the Heritage Bylaw. Neighbourhoods like Chinatown, Gastown, Shaughnessy, and Yaletown exude their charm and maintain their area character largely in part thanks to this bylaw. The exterior — or certain portions — of classified properties cannot undergo alterations without heritage alteration permits. Most countries and cities have similar legislation in place. These can help design professionals, developers, and homeowners set the degree of their alterations.

Interiors, however, are more often than not exempt from heritage protection laws. It is up to the designer and the client to choose whether to renovate, refurbish, or retrofit.

Renovations and restoration of heritage interiors can be a challenge. Many people hold the view that “old is gold” when it comes to design-related fields. Unfortunately, that saying doesn’t always hold true in interior design and architecture, and each case is entirely unique depending on a range of factors, from the original structural integrity to the level of care maintained over the years. Additionally, these buildings have been around for a long time and have likely witnessed multiple tenancies — which means frequent floor plan changes and disparate features scattered throughout.

Much like the exterior facade, the interior of a heritage building is a testament to a collective past and designers retained to work on such properties are faced with the predicament of choosing what to restore and what to renovate. Structural interventions can be necessary to adapt an interior to contemporary needs and standards, so these decisions are not easy to make.

Celebrating and complementing the remnants

A building’s legacy can live on in the features that have remained intact — or perhaps, simply covered — over the decades. These are likely to be the wallcoverings, flooring, and structural elements like beams and columns. Celebrating heritage can be a matter of exposing and emphasising the remnants to show them off, while keeping the impact on their original state minimal.

At MCM Interiors, we view heritage projects as exciting challenges that grant us a privileged role in the historic layering of the corresponding neighbourhood. Moreover, minimising the use of new materials allows us to take part in a circular economy.

At the offices of an animation studio in a Yaletown heritage building in Vancouver, we honoured the historic fabric of the building by retaining exposed ceilings, wood beams, columns, and masonry brick walls.

155 Water Street Designing While Honouring the Legacy of Heritage Buildings 2

When it comes to furnishings, some designers might choose to source antique or reproduction furniture to complete the setting. The results vary from one case to another, but an entire replica “period aesthetic” can often seem forced and out of place. 

To create a coherent identity at the Yaletown heritage building, we chose to complement the older features with traditional wall panelling, millwork, and furniture sourced from a network of local artisans.

A designer’s role isn’t to imitate, but rather, to make way for continual evolution and allow amalgamations to unfold. When executed properly, the old and the new can coexist and create fascinating interior settings. 

Explore more of our projects, including various heritage renovations, here

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