Replacing a fire escape sounds straightforward, right? Hire a contractor, obtain a permit and carry out the work. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy, particularly when dealing with a heritage-designated building. But replacing a structural element can be successfully accomplished when planned carefully.
Vancouver’s Hampton Court
Nestled in Vancouver’s west end, the 100-year-old Hampton Court recently underwent extensive steel repairs. Constructed in 1911 by Grant & Henderson Architects, the building contains five large rental suites on each of its six storeys, supported by heavy timber framing and mass masonry exterior walls. The building faces are clad with signature yellow and iron-speckled Clayburn brick – the same brick found on prominent heritage buildings in the Vancouver area. Over time, the wet Vancouver climate had taken its toll on the building’s steel fire escapes. A structural review revealed many of the steel elements were broken, loose or disengaged. It was clear the fire escapes had reached the end of their service life and needed to be replaced.
Using Hampton Court as an example, here are some valuable tips property owners and managers should keep in mind when undertaking complicated structural repairs.
1. Be realistic about the project time frame.
Building code restrictions can severely delay projects, so ensure there is a budget for unforeseen setbacks and contingency plans are in place.
Collectively, permitting for Hampton Court took two years. The process involved: regular visits from City staff, working with a code consultant on proposed changes; meetings with project coordinators, district inspectors and the chief building official; and the waiting time between milestone submissions.
2. Be creative and negotiate.
When applying for a permit, the word ‘heritage’ often strikes fear in owners, engineers and contractors alike. However, with the support of an expert team, it is possible to successfully upgrade a facility while retaining the building’s heritage aesthetic.
A major challenge encountered with the Hampton Court upgrades was that the Vancouver building bylaw didn’t allow exterior steel fire escapes on buildings over four storeys. Hampton Court is six storeys. It took some negotiation but the City compromised and allowed the existing fire escapes to be retained instead of re-purposing the interior for a new stairwell. In exchange, a lower set of first floor landings were installed on all fire escapes.
3. Capitalize on the opportunity to improve the building.
Proactively looking for opportunities to better a structure helps minimize invasive repairs down the road and preserve the building’s integrity.
Hampton Court’s original fire escapes lasted 100 years because of lead-based paint protection. The new fire escapes were designed to obtain a similar life span utilizing healthier (and building code-approved) coatings. This included a combination of hot-dipped galvanizing, epoxy primers and urethane topcoats. The resulting system, if well maintained, will outlast the original.
4. Maintain the building’s integrity.
Ensuring that a building’s defining factors are unaffected is a primary goal for all projects.
In the Hampton Court’s scenario, brickwork is a staple piece of its history and played an integral role in all design considerations. Avoiding wall collapse at suspect wall areas was the foremost concern. By carefully reviewing brick connections, assurance was gained that the wall was well-supported, allowing the repairs to be completed by boom lift in lieu of full perimeter scaffolding and wall support. Impact to the original fabric was further mitigated by reusing existing brick (where possible) and existing through-wall anchor holes.
Lindsey Tourand, P.Eng., is a project manager at Halsall Associates, a national engineering services company.