Toronto’s Timber Buildings – The Soul of Our City

Canada has a rich history in commercial timber construction – buildings commonly identified as ‘brick and beam’. Built between the 1850’s and 1920’s, these structures are characterized by big ol’ wooden columns and beams, high ceilings, creaky floors made of 2×6’s nailed together, sandblasted brick interior walls, and the occasional old industrial elevator large enough for a car, with hand-operated shifting cables and slat, wooden doors.

In Toronto alone, over 250 of these buildings* still stand and they’ve recently become a ‘hot’ commodity.

Companies like Allied Properties REIT are buying up every building that hits the market and currently own over 150 brick and beam properties across Canada in Toronto, Montreal, Winnipeg, Quebec City, Kitchener, Calgary and Vancouver.

The Toronto Carpet Factory, made up of seven timber buildings in Liberty Village, has become the heart of Toronto’s creative community, housing tech startups, interior design, marketing, entertainment and fashion studios and public relations agencies. Buildings such as the Gooderham and Worts Distillery, St. Lawrence Market and numerous other old timber buildings along Spadina, Adelaide, Richmond, John, Peter, King, Queen and Front Streets have become the core of our fashion and entertainment districts.

500-522 King Street West, Toronto – Courtesy of Allied Properties REIT

What is it we love so much about these old buildings? Why is it that these buildings attract innovators, creative and performance companies as tenants? 

According to a Senior Recruiter with Softchoice Corporation, a tenant in The Toronto Carpet Factory, “most candidates who come in to visit comment immediately on how ‘cool, funky, and different’ our office environment is and that really seems to resonate with them. People spend so much time at work that it really ought to be a comfortable environment, one that exudes energy and inspires productivity.”

Other tenants describe the TO Carpet Factory as having an abundance of creative energy and openness, and offering the best and most sought after working atmospheres in the city, allowing us to easily find and retain good people, which is youthful, exhilarating and attractive to a new corporate culture.

When asked what it is about the buildings that Allied find so appealing, Michael R. Emory, President of Allied Properties REIT said: “It’s the natural surfaces. They’re authentic. Tenants love the open space and high ceilings. They identify with the space and it defines them. When we purchased our first Brick and Beam buildings and recession hit, they were the only buildings that remained fully occupied: from that point forward things exploded, we couldn’t create space quickly enough.”

Michael Cruickshank, Partner in York Heritage Properties; co-owner of the Toronto Carpet Factory together with Hullmark Developments Ltd, agrees: “While my partner and I have always been attracted by the solid brick and beam buildings constructed at the turn of the last century, the truth is they’ve also made for excellent investments.”

99 Spadina Avenue, Toronto – Courtesy of Allied Properties REIT

Bill Dewson of William Dewson Architects summarizes our love of brick and beam buildingsquite nicely: “We are attracted to these buildings because they are timeless and enduring. In our souls, we’re viscerally connected to them. They are durable, malleable, and eternal. Wood and clay are an everlasting part of us and when we inhabit the spaces built of them, we feel grounded, we feel whole. We are human in these timeless spaces.”

Undeniably, there’s a wave of heavy timber construction sweeping this country. Apart from the many practical and environmental reasons why wood is a better material to build with than concrete and steel, it’s reassuring to know that the materials and buildings that house this city’s soul set a precedent for the types of buildings we’re likely to see a lot more of in the future.


* A Study on Historical Tall-Wood Buildings in Toronto and Vancouver, Kenneth Koo, P. Eng, FPInnovations