It’s one of the most solidly built structures in Canada, the stately old Hiram Walker Distillery warehouse that sits just this side of the Detroit River lording over the Walkerville section of Windsor, Ontario. The building used to be the storehouse for thousands of kegs of Canadian Club whiskey and, at the time, it was the world’s largest rack warehouse. As such, it required a structure that could support the weight of those millions of gallons, and could also withstand violent whisky-fuelled explosions and contain any resulting damage between ﬂoors. In short, its cast-in-place frame needed to be rock-solid – overbuilt in all ways, really – and so it was. Today, the building stands as the so-called “adaptive reuse” condominium complex known as The Club Lofts.
The ten-storey warehouse has been converted under the stewardship of Sila Investments to house 69 two-storey condos ranging in size from 1,600 to 2,800 sq ft. The idea was to match the appearance of the buildings in the surrounding neighborhood, one of Canada’s last remaining company towns. To accomplish this, precast was used to clad the building exterior. Prestressed Systems Inc. supplied precast column covers and spandrels tied back to the existing cast-in-place structure to give the building the desired look, but the fact that the project was a retrofit provided several challenges.
One of the earlier tests that the precaster faced was in finding a way to hang the column covers. “Our initial idea was to load-bear on their footings on a ledge just under the ground,” explains Maurice Adoranti, project manager for Prestressed Systems, “but it turned out that this ledge was relatively small and unreliable, so we had to come up with ‘plan b,’ which was to hang these panels on a gravity-type connection through out the building.” Adoranti says that this challenge proved to be a little more than what they expected because the precaster ultimately had to drill and epoxy just under 1000 rods into the building, an undertaking complicated by the fact that there was no as built drawings for reference; subsequently they encountered a lot of rebar in the existing concrete, significantly lengthening the whole process. “I think a gravity-type connection or a load-bearing connection at the base of the building would have been more efficient (in similar future installations),” reasons Adoranti. “You’d load bear the panels on top of each other, and end up bearing on an angle off the building or on the footing that is solid and could take the weight.”
The design priority for the aesthetic presentation of the building was to make sure that the “new” structure had a look that would allow it to blend in with surrounding structures, including nearby homes in this quaint old neighborhood; that meant brick – a lot of it – which presented another decision. “They had a choice of trying to brick the whole building themselves which would have taken a lot longer,” says Adoranti, “but instead they chose brick inlayed pre-cast panels because of the efficiency and a quicker erection process. We could get this building up and running for them more quickly than if they had site installed thousands of bricks.”
The solution was a product known as cast-in thin brick: thin bricks – each about a half inch in depth – and a form liner placed into our molds prior to the addition of concrete into the mold, and overtop of the layer of “bricks.” “One of the challenges there was, we’re not really an architectural precast plant, and we did not have an indoor facility to do this type of work, so we did it outside, and in inclement weather at times,” explains Adoranti, adding that the rubber form liner expands and contracts as the weather gets warmer and colder. That made it a great challenge for Canada’s unique weather patterns but also, says Adoranti, made the alignment of the brick a bit of an issue. Govas concurs, explaining that the horizontal alignment of the bricks on the panel itself was a particular test. “If the bricks in one panel are just slightly different from one another,” he notes, “you can tell, so it would be advisable to create some kind of borderline at the end of each panel of bricks to get around that.”
One final head scratcher relating to the cast-in thin brick process involved the column covers, explains Adoranti. “The columns had a 16-inch return on them,” he says, “so trying to place the concrete for this return and holding the bricks in the form liner was a bit of a challenge as well.”
In the long run, certainly for investors in the condo complex, those up-front challenges are expected to pay off with a much more secure envelope than would have been possible if the facing had been constructed of standard brick and mortar. “By using precast,” says Govas, “we hope we have achieved a watertight wall, because we know that bricks let water inside through the mortar joints and that creates problems here and there after five or ten years. To avoid that, we used the precast concrete brick panels to do our work. I think, as a result, we have created a very nice looking face on the outside, and we also accelerated the speed of construction on-site. We were able to change the entire look of the building within just a few weeks.” In fact, erection of the precast product took just five weeks to complete.
Although the former warehouse was built far beyond certain tolerances of most other buildings of its own time, other tolerances have evolved over the decades. “Older buildings don’t have the tolerances that we have now,” Adoranti notes. “We had to deal with columns going up that were not plumb or straight. Therefore, we had to commission a complete as built survey of the building, and coming up with a correct dimension on a column cover that would accommodate the bows or other misalignments with the existing columns. Once we did, everything seemed to fit relatively well. Overall, I think it was a really good project.”
Sila Investments project manager Ric Albano agrees. “I think it was a pretty innovative product design that was incorporated into this building – a new construction technique.”
The first residents are expected to move into the Walkerville Club Lofts by July of 2009.
Contractor/Owner: Sila Investments
Architect/Engineer: Sila Investments
Precaster: Prestressed Systems Inc.