Heritage conservation: Engineering old buildings
As a result of aging existing building inventory, Canadians have begun a shift to placing greater emphasis on sustainability and building retention, resulting in an ever increasing number of heritage buildings.

A decent generalization for “heritage” is a term used to suggest that something holds value because of its contribution to society, knowledge, or culture. It is critical to understand that the “something” heritage is describing does not need to be a physical object, such as an old building or artifact – it can be a cultural practice or an association with an important event or person.

Irreplaceable structures

Buildings and artifacts can physically represent the intangible value that such practices, events, or persons have embodied at a point in time. Heritage value can also be represented by a cultural landscape, natural or human-made; a buffalo jump, for example, can represent the cultural practices of a group of Indigenous peoples. Ultimately, “heritage” describes something that a community values and wishes to retain for future generations to understand their shared history, and what has been learned over time – be it an old building or a traditional dance.

Heritage buildings are not only a window into the past — they are a part of our country’s character. Conserving and restoring our historic structures and heritage buildings is a means of preserving Canada’s unique and compelling story to be appreciated by future generations. As RJC anticipates this future for our industry, we must take care to understand fully what heritage means and how it applies to our heritage conservation services to accomplish this goal of heritage conservation.

RJC is most likely to encounter heritage at old buildings or structures - often as part of the maintenance and rehabilitation type of projects attended by our Building Science and Structural Restoration team members, or potentially when new structures are added to heritage sites and are designed by our Structural Engineering team. We are often engaged to repair, rehabilitate or restore the physical aspects of a heritage resource.

The importance of heritage conservation

Heritage sites are often considered to be a physical component of a city or community’s identity, featuring unique architecture, strategic locations, and uses that reveal stories of how the city or community came to be, while providing a foundation for where it may go. These features add character, culture, and beauty, and foster a sense of home. Heritage conservation also discourages wasting resources and energy and fully replacing existing materials with energy-consumptive products such as steel or plastics.

Project teams intervening at heritage buildings have several options for repairing and strengthening physical materials, and engineers can collaborate to present solutions that prioritize preservation of historical significance and value of the site, while considering economics and engineering efficiencies.

Heritage projects are also a space for engineers to collaborate with other heritage professionals, particularly those who evaluate the intangible aspects of a site. These team members research the history of the site and present information about why it should be considered a heritage site, why it has value, what those values are and what physical aspects of the site embody these values.

Heritage conservation in action

RJC was recently engaged to assess an abandoned mine site to provide structural stabilization designs for a nearly 100-year-old steel structure. Some of the roof truss members were heavily modified or damaged, and it would have been a much simpler task to remove and replace the steel with a new section by discarding the original material, but at the cost of the historic value of the structure.

For heritage conservation in this case, RJC designed unobtrusive braces that strengthened the existing truss and kept existing damaged members in place. Original materials in the building were maintained and the building retained its intangible value as a symbol for Canada’s mining structures, serving as a prime example of how a heritage rehabilitation project is an ideal space to see RJC’s brand statement, Creative Thinking, Practical Results on full display.