Set amid Toronto’s 26,000-acre ravine system, the adaptive reuse of a 120-year-old brick factory is creating new community roots with engaging programs in an inspiring locale. Sixteen warehouse buildings that were boarded up for several decades now buzz with activity. Crates filled with organic salad greens, loaves of fresh bread, and artisanal cheeses draw thousands to a year-round Saturday-morning farmers’ market. In an adjacent building during colder months, ice skaters circle a manufactured ice rink under open rafters that allow snow to drift down from above. Chef-led cooking classes, and children’s and community gardens entice city dwellers to get their hands dirty. This is Evergreen Brick Works.

“Reenvisioning this site was a magical opportunity,” says Geoff Cape, executive director of Evergreen, a Toronto-based nonprofit focused on ecological restoration, especially in urban centers. “We wanted to establish active relationships with nature in the urban environment and to develop programs and architecture that express the future of city building.”

The ongoing renovation of the 12-acre historic site commingles Toronto’s history and future. From 1889 to 1984, the Don Valley Brick Works supplied brick for commercial and residential construction across North America before the factory was shut down. In 1989, the City of Toronto expropriated the abandoned factory as a heritage site. While part of the site was transformed into a park and nature area in the mid 1990s, the reuse of the historic buildings constructed from the early 1900s to the 1950s are Evergreen’s focus.

Toronto-based firms Diamond and Schmitt Architects, du Toit Allsopp Hillier, and Montreal-based Claude Cormier Landscape Architects collaborated on Evergreen Brick Works’ master plan. “It was a complicated project as we sought to restore parts of the site, keep the rough industrial aesthetic and reinvent certain spaces for modern functions,” explains Donald Schmitt, AIA, principal at Diamond and Schmitt.

The buildings’ characteristics helped define their use. For example, instead of removing three 365-foot-long kilns from one warehouse to create an indoor parking garage, the project team retained the kilns and considered different options. The distinctive space can be anything from a large-scale contemporary art gallery to a private-event space, with an indoor climbing wall at one end.

The Young Welcome Centre, located in one of the historic structures, now houses the farmers’ market during winter months and is the orientation hub for those exploring the site. Here, the architects preserved a massive brick press and an elevated foreman’s shed, two original features that recall the warehouse’s origins. Throughout the site, decades of graffiti were left intact and two artists were commissioned to add new graffiti to create a mix of new and old that represents the different layers of history present on site.

Evergreen also wanted to show that urban building can leverage passive strategies and progressive technologies for minimal environmental impact. The masonry walls of the Welcome Centre remain uninsulated to expose the historic brick, while the space is heated by hydronic radiant flooring installed in the concrete floor. In the future, waste heat from the ice rink will be captured for use in the event spaces and will warm a café slated to open this spring.

Diamond and Schmitt designed the only new building on site: the five-story, 54,000-square-foot Centre for Green Cities, which is on track to receive LEED Platinum certification. The facility comprises offices, multipurpose rooms, and the existing space housing the Young Welcome Centre. The new components span the historic warehouse on an independent steel structure. A modern staircase weaves up into the new space, where industrial materials and detailing complement the historic palette below.

The building is extremely well-insulated, achieving values of R-32 in the walls and R-50 in the roof, which helped reduce the energy loads of the new building. In cooler temperatures, triple-glazed energy-efficient windows set in insulated fiberglass window frames transmit less cold to the interior. Operable windows and thermal chimneys in the center of the building provide natural ventilation.

Fifteen 5,000-gallon above-grade cisterns capture rainwater from the site’s roofs for use in irrigation and the public restrooms. Rainwater stored at two of the cisterns at the center also is used for make-up water for the cooling tower during summer months.

The Centre for Green Cities remains a work in progress. On its top, 3,000 square feet of solar thermal panels will be installed to help provide heating and cooling. During the summer, the heat from the thermal panels will run the building’s absorption chiller, and cool air will be delivered to the upper-floor offices and multipurpose rooms through raised access flooring and into ground-floor event spaces via ceiling diffusers. A high-efficiency biomass boiler fueled by wood waste from local manufacturing will also generate energy. The solar panels and boiler will heat fluid that runs through tubing in the Welcome Centre’s radiant floor and into coiled fluid radiators on the upper stories. The timing of the addition of these various elements is dependent on funding.

The cogeneration system will offer great environmental benefits. “Energy models predict that the new center will consume 57 percent less energy and emit 51 percent fewer carbon emissions than a comparable building built to ASHRAE 90.1 standards,” Schmitt says.

“The creative balance of sustainability and history brought a genuine sense of meaning to the place,” Cape notes, “and integrating progressive concepts in a historic context helps ground the ideas and make them seem more plausible.”

KJ Fields writes about sustainability and architecture from Portland, Ore.