Rethinking 24 Sussex: A Call for Sustainable Preservation

My name is Natalie Bull, Executive Director of the National Trust for Canada, a national charity that has been powering the heritage movement since 1973.

My colleagues here today from HODI are in a strong position to make the business case for rehabilitating 24 Sussex. And certainly the heritage value of this iconic property is without question: 24 Sussex is a landmark and a touchstone with people and events that have shaped our national story. It is the real thing, with layers of history intact – not just a reference on a plaque or a photo at the archives.

Today I want to make the point that the decision about the Future of 24 Sussex is as much about CARBON as it is about money or heritage value – and together those 3 factors point clearly to the imperative to invest and reuse.

With the climate emergency the most pressing issue of our time, and the Worldwatch Institute estimating that the planet will have run out of many raw building materials by the year 2030, every decision about the future of an existing building needs careful scrutiny. Measuring the upfront carbon emissions of every new building project and comparing it to retaining the existing building almost always points to the imperative of reuse. Witness the recent high-profile rejection of Marks & Spencer’s proposal to demolish and replace their main store in London  – rejected on the basis of the carbon impacts alone.

24 Sussex should be no exception to the re-use imperative – indeed, it is a high-profile opportunity for the government to follow through on its new standard on embodied carbon in construction, and send a strong message against the disposability of existing buildings – our largest consumer good.

Despite a level of heritage significance deemed by government itself to be on par with the Parliament Buildings, 24 Sussex represents a longstanding failure to invest and maintain that was well documented by the Auditor General in 2008 and reminds me of that same Auditor General’s prediction in 2003 that heritage in the hands of the federal government would be lost to future generations unless something was done to turn the tide.

It can take up to 80 years for even a new green building to pay back the carbon emissions debt of its construction. We need impact right now. Committing to giving 24 Sussex a future – and showing Canadians that even special, designated buildings can be adapted with flexibility, site intensification, and thoughtful building additions – is the best message government can send now for all existing buildings.

Natalie Bull
Executive Director
National Trust for Canada

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