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Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places in Canada

A new initiative provides a useful document for design professionals working on heritage conservation projects.

February 1, 2005
by Canadian Architect

Available since June 2004, the Standards and Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places in Canada is the first Canadian document of its kind to provide a common, useful and concrete reference to guide the decision-making process for heritage conservation. These standards and guidelines define an approach to conservation that is based on preserving the values associated with heritage places. In years to come and with the ever-growing preoccupation with these resources as essential elements of our identity, common values and environment, this document is bound to become an indispensable reference tool for architects working on existing structures or within a historic context.

Historic Places Initiative

The Standards and Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places in Canada is part of the Historic Places Initiative (HPI), begun by the Government of Canada in 1999. Recognizing the importance of broadly based community, stakeholders and jurisdictional engagement, HPI has evolved with the input of all segments of the heritage conservation sector.

The Historic Places Initiative includes a number of components designed to encourage citizens to value their heritage, while at the same time creating a culture of conservation in Canada. Other than the Standards and Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places in Canada, these are:

* The Canadian Register of Historic Places, a database available on the Internet at, which will grow to includes the 17,500 historic places officially recognized by one of the levels of government (federal, provincial/territorial and municipal).

* The Commercial Heritage Properties Incentive Fund, which will provide financial assistance for the preservation and restoration of commercial historic places listed on the Register. Please visit

* The provincial/territorial contribution agreements, to allow jurisdictions to be involved in the development and implementation of Historic Places Initiative tools and components.

* Proposed federal legislation, which will define the federal government’s obligations with respect to the protection of historic places under its jurisdiction, give the Register and the Standards official status, and protect archaeological sites located on federal land.

*Aboriginal participation, through the development of programs that enable Aboriginal communities to identify the best ways to preserve their heritage.

Towards a Common and Coordinated Language: Development of the Standards and Guidelines

In Canada and abroad, there already exist several documents that provide guidance on the methods for conserving heritage and on the limits of acceptable change, but the scope of those documents have been for specific jurisdictions involved in conservation. Since Canada has not had a set of Heritage Conservation Standards and Guidelines that were pan-Canadian, one of the priorities of HPI has been to create such a document which would represent a broader-based consensus and serve as a user-friendly authoritative reference providing guidance for anyone involved in conservation. The principles behind the Standards and Guidelines are drawn from international charters: the importance of a comprehensive understanding of the place based on research and investigation, the need for integrated long-term planning, finding a viable and compatible use for the place, and meeting functional goals while respecting the place’s value and using a minimal intervention approach.

Standards and Guidelines: Directions

The use of the document presupposes above all a clear understanding of the heritage value and characteristics of the place in question. These are usually summarized in a document which expresses a consensus about the meaning of the place such as a “statement of significance,” as found in the Canadian Register of Historic Places. This basic information, complemented by the relevant historical research and physical investigation, identifies the fundamental values that should guide interventions on the place.

Next comes the choice of the type of treatment that best respects these values and the project’s objectives. Preservation is always the first treatment recommended, but depends in large part on the condition of the historic place. Rehabilitation is a more permissive treatment since it often involves making alterations or additions related to a new use. The recommended approach allows contemporary interventions, as long as they are compatible with and respectful of the place. Rehabilitation is the most common treatment, especially in programs for the revitalization of historic districts. More rarely called upon, restoration as the main treatment is appropriate when the representation of a particular period of the building can be justified, although it may lead to the disappearance of certain existing elements. It must be based on adequate and accurate documentation.

For each type of treatment there are standards to be met (14 in total), which are the fundamental rules of respectful conservation. Making up most of the binder, the guidelines provide practical advice on how to respect these standards as well as the place’s heritage value and character-defining elements. They are grouped together according to resource type–archaeological sites, landscapes, buildings or engineering works–and their various components. For example, in the buildings section, there are specific subsections dealing with windows, masonry, interiors, etc. This advice is laid out according to the main treatment, i.e., the approach governing the intervention, and organized in order from the least intrusive interventions (preferable) to the most intrusive interventions (requiring greater caution). Each “recommended” action comes with a “non-recommended” counterpart, providing examples of interventions that can have a negative impact on the place.

An Important Milestone in Conservation Practice in Canada

Parks Canada was one of the first to officially adopt the Standards and Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places in Canada. The federal agency uses it to assess its own interventions on national historic sites, to evaluate proposed interventions to federal heritage buildings, and to evaluate proposals submitted to the Commercial Heritage Properties Incentive Fund.

The Standards and Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places in Canada have been adopted by several provinces and are also now used by a number of municipalities in their activities relating to the protection of historic places. The Heritage Canada Foundation recently adopted the Standards and Guidelines for managing its property and will promote its use in the public, private and volunteer sectors.

The product of broad Canadian consensus, the Standards and Guidelines will certainly become the leading point of reference for everyone involved in interventions on our historic places. Its format and systematic approach, useful for analyzing conservation projects in terms of their appropriateness, make it a hands-on tool for architects and other design professionals.

The Standards and Guidelines is available on the Parks Canada website at and a printed copy can be obtained by e-mail at [email protected]

Christiane Lefebvre is an architect specializing in conservation, and is the manager of the Standards and Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places within the Historic Places Directorate at Parks Canada. ve Wertheimer is a graduate in architecture and conservation, and works for the Heritage Conservation Directorate of the Department of Public Works and Government Services Ca

Canadian Architect

Canadian Architect

Canadian Architect is a magazine for architects and related professionals practicing in Canada. Canada's only monthly design publication, Canadian Architect has been in continuous publication since 1955.
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