On Stable Ground

Project The Cordova Street Stables, Vancouver, British Columbia
Architect Gair Williamson Architect
Text Courtney Healey
Photos Ed White

Vancouver maintains a peculiar relationship with its architectural heritage as well as a palpable tension between socioeconomic extremes. It is both a gleaming futuristic city of glass and, behind its preserved heritage façades, a troubled city of extreme poverty. Today, the tension between old and new, high and low, can be felt most acutely in Gastown, the dozen or so blocks of industrial waterfront where Vancouver was originally founded.
Gastown’s parade of gentrification has been marching steadily eastward for years, but the trendy restaurants and boutiques have yet to make the leap onto the 100 block of East Cordova Street, where Gair Williamson Architect Inc. (GWA) have recently completed their adaptive reuse of the Cordova Street Stables. Built in 1902, the three-storey brick, stone and heavy timber building has recently been transformed into commercial retail and office space. The building was originally designed as a stable for carriages and horses; back then, carriages passed through garage doors at both the street and rear lane. Horses were stabled on all three floors via a central ramp system. The building passed through various forms of light industry, eventually falling into a state of extreme disrepair. A self-made local financier with a history of giving back to the community through social-housing initiatives fell in love with the building, and purchased it several years ago with the intention of restoring its dignity within the neighbourhood.
Gair Williamson, along with lead architect Chris Woodford, assumed the challenging task of renovating and adapting this unique industrial building for contemporary use. Since its founding in 2002, GWA has gained renown for their growing portfolio of thoughtful and beautifully executed transformations of heritage buildings; nearly all of their projects are located in and around Gastown. Unlike many heritage restorations in Vancouver, where the façade literally marks a hard line between old and new, and the desire for historical accuracy reduces design decisions to choosing cornices and paint colours, it is refreshing to see a project like The Stables create subtle points of cohesion between historical and contemporary elements throughout the building. It does so by stitching or adding together material fragments where past and present hold equal weight but, more importantly, where their reformulated relationship suggests that the distinction between the two need not be so apparent.
Williamson’s interest in heritage lies more broadly in the collective memory of a place and a view of the city as a repository of culture. GWA “takes unusual spaces, orphan spaces, and transforms them, breathes new life into them.” Woodford adds that the firm is not comprised of historians. By declaring this, GWA is freed from the claustrophobia of strict historical preservation. Instead, they employ a critical subjectivity toward the existing building to reveal its true potential while offering a hybrid experience to emerge within spaces that might feel as familiar to yesterday’s stableboy as today’s graphic designer.
The first stage of construction on The Stables began in 2007. GWA first stripped away the many previous renovations, including some dodgy living quarters thrown up by squatters, leaving only the basic structure exposed. The unique system of heavy timber trusses at the third level carries a series of steel cables to support the second floor, which eliminates the need for columns on the ground level. While this system arose from the functional need to accommodate the passage of carriages, its purpose aligns neatly with the contemporary desire for column-free spaces. As Woodford states, the real challenge in this work is that “these buildings were originally made by craftsmen, and craftsmen hardly exist anymore.” Since the City of Vancouver’s heritage by-laws often override building code requirements, GWA was required to provide only minimal upgrades for seismic, fire and accessibility. This allowed the load-bearing brick walls to remain intact. And, although there was also an ambition to keep original Douglas fir floors exposed, avoiding shear walls throughout the space called for some creative seismic design. Driving a nail through each plank every six inches turned the floor into a rigid diaphragm but left it dotted with 80,000 nails, so a new wood floor was eventually added over top.
Williamson maintains a rule of using as few new elements as possible. Then, after designing everything, he always takes something away. He has often referred to the firm’s work as “grafts and insertions,” a theme that plays out neatly in The Stables where architectural interventions are limited to grafting a partial roof and inserting a service core. The original roof sloped toward the alley and made much of the upper floor uninhabitable, so GWA replaced this portion with a countersloping roof that created a strip of south-facing clerestory windows. Another major intervention is a service zone tucked along the masonry party wall. This zone encapsulates the existing wooden freight elevator and provides a new secondary staircase, washrooms, and adaptable spaces for future kitchens or server rooms. These interventions are executed with precise and invisible details that appear to hover in and among the existing building with astonishing lightness. The service zone is made of walls and doors with no trim, and frameless slots of recessed light with no discernible source percolate the third-floor ceiling. Woodford, who currently works at mcfarlane | green | biggar Architecture + Design, hopes to one day move back to his native Newfoundland and start his own practice, acknowledges that heritage buildings often contain many unknown quantities, making it “hard to design at your desk. You need to be on site to work things out because many of these details are never actually drawn.”
Williamson believes that restoring buildings and making them relevant to the needs of today engenders pride and respect for a neighbourhood. He credits a visionary client, a flexible time schedule, a creative team of contractors and consultants, and the close proximity between his office and the site as elements which allowed The Stables to become the ideal project. Among its many accolades, the project has received a 2011 Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia Award in Architecture. The Stables is no simple renovation or reconstruction; it strikes a refined balance between architectural reduction and addition while offering a model where the past is but one element within a continuum of lived experiences. CA

Courtney Healey is the Director of Lodge Think Tank and an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia’s School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture.

Client The DA Group
Architect Team Gair Williamson, Chris Woodford, Shane Meehan
Structural Structural Solutions Engineering Inc. (base building), Glotman•Simpson Consulting Engineers (seismic upgrade)
Mechanical Perez Engineering Ltd.
Electrical SML Consultants Group Ltd.
Geotechnical GeoPacific Consultants Ltd.
Heritage Don Luxton & Associates
Code Consultant Gage Babcock & Associates Ltd.
Building Envelope BC Building Science Partnership
Builder BON Designworks
Area 18,000 ft2
Budget withheld
Completion July 2010