09/26/2013 08:00 EDT | Updated 11/26/2013 05:12 EST

Expensive surprises often lurk during restoration of heritage buildings

VICTORIA - As new skyscrapers are erected in cities across Canada, a number of building owners and developers are working to maintain the heritage buildings that have stood for centuries.

Victoria architect Christine Lintott has been involved with heritage restoration since 1992 when she worked on the refurbishment of St. Ann's Academy in Victoria.

Despite the costs of restoring heritage buildings, Lintott said there is a lot of value of place in the community that fuels the incentive to maintain them.

"Communities place a lot of value on these spaces," said Lintott. "It's community memory and memory of place, and these buildings have a lot of value in the eyes of the community."

Communities are often included in the progress of the development and construction of the buildings and, according to Lintott, if there is a heritage aspect residents will often be vocal and advocate for some kind of adaptive reuse or at least integration of heritage elements into new buildings.

Lintott has worked on the restoration of the Dogwood Building, also in Victoria, and is currently working to restore a 100-year-old building at Shawnigan Lake School, northwest of Victoria.

The importance of Victoria's heritage is also recognized by the city and to help offset the costs of refurbishing the buildings has set up a tax incentive program.

"In the city of Victoria there is a huge incentive particularly in Old Town to refurbish old buildings," said Lintott.

"Economically there is very little value in retaining an old structure, particularly when you're trying to meet current seismic codes. The economics don't work unless you incentivize it, and the city of Victoria recognizes that and recognizes the value of their community."

Even though heritage buildings are important to the cities they are found in, Victoria architect Peter de Hoog said there are significant challenges.

De Hoog's firm is working on the restoration of the New England building on downtown Victoria's Government Street.

Despite being built in 1894 as a hotel, de Hoog said the New England was in relatively good condition. But despite its state, de Hoog said there were several challenges.

"It is kind of interesting inside because all the floor levels are at different heights," said de Hoog about the New England. "It's also a building that has one side that faces on to Government Street and the other side faces on to an alley.

"The other two sides are property lines with no options for windows. What we've done is make it into a little apartment building, and getting a plan working where each apartment can get a window is a challenge."

In addition to these difficulties, de Hoog said there are a lot of unknowns involved in restoring a heritage building.

Even though architects and contractors come up with plans for their projects, de Hoog said there are a lot of decisions made at the last minute because of surprises that can emerge in stripping the buildings's interior.

"It is really important when you're working on one of these buildings that you are working with a team of highly specialized contractors and subcontractors who are keen to go in and do this work," he said.

"You have to be able to respond to the unexpected at any time. We are sort of through that now, but at the beginning there seemed to be surprises every time we opened a wall. You need to be very flexible and responsive," he said.

"They are fun projects and it is wonderful when they are all refinished."