A Historic Shoe Factory Serves as a Model for Environmental and Social Sustainability
BDP Quadrangle and Dubbeldam Architecture + Design were tasked with carrying out the vision for the adaptive reuse of Ontario's Bata Shoe Factory.
Ahead of its time is just one way to describe Batawa, a satellite town two hours east of Toronto on the Trent River. Founded in 1939 by the late Thomas and Sonja Bata, the unique community was established when the couple left Czechoslovakia prior to the German invasion, relocating their shoe company, Bata Shoe Factory, and their 1,900 employees.
Now more than 80 years later, the factory—once the heart of the town—has been converted in order to continue to support locals with 47 high-end residential units available for rent. The mixed-use development also features ground floor commercial spaces such as multi-purpose rooms for meetings, an exhibition space, a cafe, an educational incubator with daycare, and an outdoor playground.
BDP Quadrangle’s Dev Mehta, whose firm was hired as the architect of record, first began working on the project in 2012, working directly with Sonja Bata and the Batawa Development Corporation. “When we got involved, we weren’t just thinking about the building but of the community,” he says.
“Mrs. Bata, who has now since passed away, imagined green, wired homes so people could live close to nature and work remotely,” remarks architect Heather Dubbeldam whose firm, Dubbeldam Architecture + Design, was hired as the collaborating architect in 2014. “The vision for this community ties right into what we are seeing happening right now in major city centers,” adds Mehta. The 85,000-square-foot complex was finally completed in 2019.
Just as the needs of the town have evolved, so have those of the factory building itself. By retaining the original concrete structure, the architects were able to save nearly 80 percent of the embodied carbon that would factor into a conversion of this scale. The exterior was then finished with a simple palette that complements the industrial Modernist design: brick masonry, floor-to-ceiling glass, steel, and timber, while timber and terrazzo carry into the interiors. The original waffle slab structure, an architectural innovation the Batas brought over from Europe, creates a grid-like interior that allows for 12-foot ceilings in the rental residences and cantilevered precast balconies.
The front volume, which projects from the building, pays homage to a water tower that once protruded in its place. Wrapped in 8-foot sheets of UV-protected wood veneer paneling, it adds warmth to the stark structure.
LED strip lighting illuminates the cantilevered entrance and is also seen in the lobby where the architects created a geometric steel staircase that appears to be floating in the space. “By the elevator, there’s an original concrete column that Mrs. Bata wanted to cover up. We convinced her that the stair should wrap around the column in order to celebrate it, as an homage to the original structure of the factory,” Dubbeldam adds. The terrazzo flooring was poured on-site.
The architects also prioritized sustainable energy performance and materials where possible which led to the project obtaining a Canadian Green Building Award. With an airtight building envelope, the HVAC system is powered by geothermal energy, carpet tiles are made from recycled fishing nets, and all of the finishes are low-VOC.
“This project is a model for environmental and social sustainability and increased housing density in a rural setting with the lightest impact on the environment,” Dubbeldam says. “The renovated factory now stands to once again become a beacon within the town, focused on a sustainable future.”
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