A Placemaking Journal

Façade-ectomy: Preserving the skin of the past

Experiencing the most recent façade-ectomy in Winnipeg has left me asking again the much-debated question of the validity of preserving just the façade of a building.

A façade-ecotomy will likely:

  1. Lose historic, cultural, architectural significance
  2. Waste embodied energy
  3. Increase cost of construction over full demolition
  4. Increase tax revenues over doing nothing
  5. Decrease long term viability of new construction


Clearly if a building is of historic, cultural, and architectural significance, attempts should be made to preserve and repurpose the entire structure. Not only is it important to the past, but also to the future, as the embodied energy of buildings is significant.

If a car takes 90 barrels of oil to manufacture, think of the oil it takes to mine, process, manufacture, and deliver a building’s construction materials, transport them to the jobsite, complete construction, and eventually dispose of them. To be a low carbon city, creative approaches to adaptive reuse are essential.

However, the sales and property tax revenue increases that come with redevelopment generally encourage the demolition of old structures. In the event structural challenges make adaptive reuse prohibitively expensive, how much does adding an old façade to a new structure actually add to a building, versus a completely new structure that can address the needs at hand? If our goals are to build structures that are likely to last a few hundred years, how does a façade-ectomy impact the resilience and longevity of the new structure?

Winnipeg has enjoyed the mixed blessing of being a slow growth city, and thankfully has preserved one of the best collections of Chicago School architecture. Chicago itself has had an ongoing struggle itself with façade-ectomies.

Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin warns of the danger of becoming skin deep: “They create a stage-set city that treats buildings like two-dimensional wallpaper, not three-dimensional structures. That destroys a building’s essence and, at worst, makes a mockery of the very history these exercises purport to respect.”

Although I’m unfamiliar with the extenuating circumstances and this Winnipeg ship has clearly sailed, here is one design alternative that would have utilized the full historic structure into an infilled block:

Concluding phase in redevelopment. Click for larger view.

–Hazel Borys

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