How designers modernize heritage buildings while preserving that heritage

November 14, 2016 Geoffrey Lynch

The benefits of building virtually, before knocking down walls

As Canada’s capital city, Ottawa is full of heritage buildings, from the well-known sights of Parliament Hill, to the smaller and less known buildings in older neighborhoods. As part of their maintenance and repair, these unique and precious pieces of our past undergo retrofit and rehabilitation. During such work, it is important to ensure their historical voice is not lost to future generations.



Due to their historic construction and heritage value, these buildings can often pose significant hurdles that must be overcome to ensure their continued operation, compliance with current codes and regulations, all while maintaining their heritage features. Constraints commonly faced by planners, designers, engineers, and contractors include:

  • Space constraints within ceilings
  • Maintaining heritage features such as walls and architectural features and materials
  • Often no designated area for modern mechanical and electrical equipment and service distribution (HVAC simply didn’t exist in the early 1900s!)

When faced with such challenges, my first reaction is usually “anything is possible.” We just need the right tools to find the right solution—one that will allow us to provide the best design for the systems we must incorporate, and one that also reduces the need for incursions into the heritage components of the building. Sounds great, but it’s not always easy in practice.


Enter Revit 
Revit is gaining increasingly more traction in the design field. Its ability to create three-dimensional (3D) models with exact dimensions (down to the millimeter) makes it the perfect tool when designing equipment in extremely confined spaces.

Indeed, many suppliers have Revit models of their equipment, which you can drop directly into your designs and test, effectively building your project without ever lifting a hammer or wrench.

The benefits to this approach, especially when considering work in heritage buildings, are numerous:

  • Maximize the use limited space

  • Determine operational capability of terminal equipment—not only will it fit, but will it work

  • Reduce the need to invade precious heritage spaces (maybe you don’t need to knock that wall down!)

  • Decision making with clients becomes easier, you have accurate representations of proposed solutions in your hands, not just educated assumptions

  • Reduces the need for safety factors to virtually zero—you know your design works already

  • Contractors have highly detailed instructions, enabling them to bid accurately

  • Ambiguity in design is reduced, with contractors able to visualize exactly how the equipment is to fit in a confined space

From my experience on recent projects in the Ottawa area, I know our project success would not have been possible had we stuck to traditional design methods. Perhaps a wall would have been taken down that didn’t need to be. Perhaps a piece of architectural decoration would have been destroyed to accommodate a ventilation shaft, that really could have fit elsewhere.

The importance of maintaining our heritage buildings with as many or their original features necessitates designers reach out to all the tools available to them. Revit is one such tool that can greatly enhance your ability to successful design with your client, the community, and future generations in mind.

About the Author

Geoffrey Lynch

Geoffrey Lynch is a principal in Stantec’s Buildings Engineering group. Geoffrey has managed several high profile projects in heritage buildings, coordinating design and project management.

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