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Developing Story: Vancouver's Opsal Steel building resurrected

The historic Opsal Steel main building on Second Avenue has been re-erected after a painstaking conservation effort.

The historic Opsal Steel main building on Second Avenue has been re-erected after a painstaking conservation effort.

The project involved tearing it down, transporting materials to another site, repairing wood and other materials, and piecing the building back together again while marrying salvageable portions with new construction materials and techniques to meet current construction standards. Exterior work still needs to be completed on the main building, including installing the roof, siding and windows.

Opsal Steel consists of two structures the one on Second, about three-quarters of which was saved, and a smaller building on the lane. Crews were pouring concrete Wednesday in advance of re-constructing the second structure.

Designed by T.H. Bamforth and built by Dominion Construction in 1918, Opsal Steel was originally home to the Columbia Block and Tool Company, but its now included in a Bastion Development Corporation project under construction on Second between Ontario and Quebec. The heritage building will be flanked by two residential towers, one 12 storeys and one 26 storeys. Opsal Steel is considered a prime example of early industrial construction and reflects the neighbourhoods industrial history. The building had fallen into disrepair, so care had to be taken in the restoration effort.

We did it very carefully, I guess you could say, explained Ryan Lomas, Bastion Developments construction manager. There were a couple of big holes in the roof and there were a lot of [structural] members that were rotten, but there was also a lot of really, really good timber inside the building and so we worked with our heritage architect Barry McGinn [of McGinn Engineering and Preservation Ltd.] and we tagged every single piece of wood that was deemed to be re-useable. We individually tagged and catalogued it and took it all apart. We had another location not too far from the site where we restored the wood, any connections we needed to do, and any steel that needed to be replaced got replaced.

Soda and walnut blasting was used to remove debris from the old wood. Some pieces had caught on fire or had become twisted over time, which couldnt be saved. Bastion worked with engineering firm London Mah and Associates Ltd. to find connectors that reflected the heritage of the building. Some material that was at one time structural, but no longer met structural requirements, was also kept for cosmetic purposes.

It wasnt easy using old wood and taking it apart and then bringing to back again and having to have the new engineering standards implemented, but we were able to do it not an easy project by any stretch, Lomas said.

Bastion vice president Kim Maust said whats unusual about the building is its one of the few heavy-timber framed construction buildings that have been restored. Elements like windows were also saved they were taken apart and reassembled. The heritage restoration is tagged at about $5 million.

Bastion had hoped to save the painted-on Opsal Steel letters on the siding. They were glued onto backing and then removed from the building at the start of the project, but the old cedar siding fell apart in transportation. The attempt to save [it] was the disappointing part, in which we watched it crumble and disappear on us. We will still put on signing that is similar and paint it in a similar colour, Maust said.

Bastion did save a turn-of-the-century wooden crane people may not have realized was installed inside Opsal Steels rear building. Its been disassembled and will be put back together as a feature in the new development.

Maust believes people will be pleased when work is completed. On the inside you will see all of the old heavy timber structure. There is new roofing material that people will see in between the timbers. With the new material were keeping a natural wood look and the restored material will have a bit of a different finish, which is the finish which happened through the soda blasting, she said. So youll be able to tell the old from the new when you look up into the rafters of the building.

A brewery restaurant is going into the restored building. Restoration work will likely be completed by late fall and the entire development by February 2014.

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