Carly Farmer – Activating Heritage as Climate Action

In 2012, Carly Farmer, then a 3rd year architecture student at Carleton University, got drawn into heritage conservation when she read a newspaper article announcing the threat to one of her favorite places in her hometown: “Lindsay’s Old Mill: A Treasure to be Restored, or Ruin to Be Demolished?”  Burned in 1978 and preserved as a ruin, the stone mill (built circa 1869) had become a public safety liability and drain on municipal finances. Farmer jumped on board Lindsay’s “Old Mill Task Force” formed to develop an adaptive reuse vision for the site and never looked back. “I was always interested in sustainability in high school,” explains Farmer, “but was never very interested in history. The threat to the Old Mill just pulled me in.”  Her Carleton Master of Architecture project focused on how rural Ontario towns (like Smiths Falls) could become more resilient by creatively reusing their rich legacy of industrial heritage buildings.

Old Mill Lindsay

TRACE Architectures is a natural fit for Farmer who has worked there since 2015 as a student and OAA Intern Architect. Under the leadership of founding Partner Mark Thompson Brandt, for the past 15 years TRACE has been a Canadian leader in exploring and operationalizing the connection between heritage conservation, sustainability, and climate action. Farmer has also been a key volunteer in helping develop the APT Sustainable Preservation Technical Committee’s OSCAR project (Online Sustainable Conservation Assistance Resource), which aims to improve the sustainable performance of heritage buildings while capitalizing on their historic character, values, and materials.

At National Trust Conference 2023 (with CAHP and IHC) in Ottawa, Farmer presented on how TRACE is using powerful data insights to shine a spotlight on the federal government’s climate action logic gaps driving its decision to demolish and replace the massive Alexandra Bridge (constructed 1898-1900), a historic centre-piece of Ottawa.

With its estimated 10,445 tons of concrete and 3,809 tons of steel, the materials of the existing Alexandra Bridge represent approximately 14,000 tons of embodied CO2, the equivalent carbon of 6,020,000 litres of gasoline. Those large, abstract numbers come to life, Farmer told conference goers, when considering the nearby University of Ottawa is proposing to install 21,000 solar panels on campus buildings for a potential savings of 14,000 tons of CO2 over 25 years. Demolishing and replacing the Alexandra Bridge, then, will effectively cancel out any carbon savings gained through the solar panel project.

The currently broken and ineffective carbon offset market needs to be disrupted, says Farmer, “Why can’t the rehabilitation of the Alexandra Bridge be a carbon offset project?” It would have many co-benefits, such as retaining heritage and embodied upfront carbon, and minimizing virgin resource extraction and landfill.

For Farmer, it comes down to a mindset issue, one rooted in Western throwaway culture, that needs to change. “People don’t really think about waste in terms of buildings and infrastructure. Do you value what you have and are you thankful for what you have? It is easy to find someone to fund something shiny and new, but who is going to fund maintenance?”