A good news renovation on Fourth Avenue

By Andrew Elliott

89 Fourth Avenue

Renovations at 89 Fourth Avenue were executed in accordance with rigorous standards. – Photo: Andrew Elliott

Currently, a developer can threaten to construct a building with a “buttugly” design on 174 Glebe Avenue because another proposal was found to be unacceptable by city planning staff, city planning committee and Glebe residents. This is a sorry state of affairs indeed. Shouldn’t developers be required to construct buildings that are of outstanding design, beautiful to behold or better yet, that re-use existing historic structures?

This is why an ongoing project located at 89 Fourth Avenue stands out as being special. Many of you may recall that I wrote about the history of this house last year in the Glebe Report. The house was sold in August 2011 to Jason Lambert and his family, on the condition – which he agreed to – that it not be demolished. Lambert is a contractor with the company 707 Construction.

Over the past year, I have watched his work and wondered what would happen. Skeptical, at first, after having seen the damage done to some of our other historic building stock, I gradually realized that this project was very different. In particular, it did not involve demolition of the existing building; it did involve the construction of an addition compatible with the rest of the streetscape, and it was renovated using green technology.

Recently, I asked Lambert about the work. Were there any obstacles? In general, there weren’t, but he noted: “The tricky part is matching the old and the new. We wanted to keep the feel of the old house and therefore keep the ceiling height.

That meant getting the new foundation at the right height to match the floors of the existing structure… measure, measure, measure and then cross your fingers!”

What new things had he done? Some were avant-garde, he noted. For example, he has installed a new computerized, on-demand heating system: “one extremely efficient boiler in the basement that heats our floor, pool and potable hot water. The cooling is done by ductless air conditioners in each room, which double as heat pumps for the spring and fall, which has the ability to control the temperature of each individual room in the house;” related to this, a new concrete pad was installed underneath all the hardwood floors, allowing for heat to rise from the floor when heat is needed. Also, a new kind of insulation was installed: “spray foam made of recycled soy beans. This product is exceptional” and has the “ability
to stop drafts.” In addition, all the replacement windows replicated the historic look of the originals.

Lambert hired numerous sub-contractors, including an excellent heritage mason who worked on the front exterior addition. Lambert asked that all bricks from the original side wall be re-used, and so they were: you’ll see the attractive historic window archways and tooth-like dentil pattern of the original house. As Lambert says, “The bricks match perfectly because they are the same brick! It was a labour of love to clean, stack, store and reuse them… but I think the end product validated the effort.” Also, the distinctive rosette plaque was returned, and placed in a visible spot close to its original location. Moreover, the front garage, unlike the eyesores transplanted from suburbia, blends with the rest of the house, proving that a garage can be aesthetically pleasing.

During the renovations, some interesting artifacts were uncovered including old licence plates from the 1920s, letters and photos from the 1930s, the name of the original builder inscribed into the back of a staircase and some architectural magazines from 1896. How much did this project cost? Lambert responded that this was not for the “faint of budget,” and that his kind of project is “not trivial. However, there are ways to do parts of it at a lower cost…you must pick and choose as owners where and how you spend money. I am happy to sit down with people and work through what they want to do.” Lambert’s primary business is to buy, renovate and rent out old houses; he appears exceptional among contractor/developers in his willingness to embrace this kind of self-imposed rigour. He notes: “I believe in keeping with the ‘feel’ of a neighbourhood. I also believe in bringing the house up to a modern standard of electrical, hvac and insulation. This is a fine balance because it usually involves a complete gut inside. This means removal of the plaster and lathe. Although the houses still look vintage, they are quite modern inside.” He adds that because “the Glebe is zoned for high density…[it] means that whoever bought 89 Fourth Avenue could have knocked it down and put up a six-plex.”

Speaking with Lambert, I was struck by his enthusiasm for using green technology and maintaining high design standards that complement an existing historic structure. The community benefits from his choice to adaptively re-use an historic building. Lambert should get an award for his work.

Wouldn’t it be nice if all such developments were required to undergo similar rigour? There is something we can do to change this: we can urge the city to initiate a secondary plan, a legal document that spells out (via community input) that certain specific design and height requirements be followed in a development (infill or renovation). This could help stop
our historic streetscapes from being blighted even further than they are already. This is something I’ll be talking about in more detail in an upcoming column.

Glebe resident, Andrew Elliott, is an archivist, writer and architectural historian who can be reached at ajg.elliott@utoronto.ca.

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