top of page


Heirloom - the Idea, 2016 

University of Toronto; Architecture

Advisor: John Shnier,

Master of Architecture, University of Toronto

Related link: Heirloom Architecture, M.Arch thesis




Designing Enduring Values


There is beauty in legacy. When architecture endures through generations, it becomes sentimentally and culturally substantial. Whether it's enabling social interactions, exhibiting wondrous architectural details, exercising superior performance, or offering affable dexterities, we all find a sense of comfort around the heirlooms we grew familiar with.


[Click Video + Images Below]

In the world of high technology and consumerism, nothing is sustained. Despite our restive efforts to maintain and improve, commodities of the American dream are treacherously ephemeral. The seasonal fashion, the 3-year cell phones, the 10-year family car, and the house we call home, all have expirations, and often by planned obsolescence. According to some, this is merely life cycle and consumerism; but now, with the mandate of sustainability we cannot continue to prioritize the inefficient light bulb over detriments of short-lived buildings. Designers need to (re)discover feasible strategies to transcend finite materials into heirloom artifacts.

Being heirloom is not a critique on mainstream sustainability, nor is this a study on conservation or adaptive reuse. Rather, it’s about the architect supplanting strategies of substantiality and attribute of sustenance at the design table. The goal is to enable a product that is relevant and resilient. Up until today, the industry has been largely producing “plastic bottle” buildings: they’re arduously designed, commodiously made, but monotonous in use. Just as plastic bottles exist, once its designed function is consumed and its resource depletes, it becomes disposable; in turn, our built environment becomes fragile and ephemeral.


[Click Images Below]

I live in Toronto, one of the most diverse cities constructed with the most uniformed architectural landscapes. If you walk around the streets of Toronto, you will notice two common typologies. One, you will find old brick industrial buildings with renewed interiors and occasionally additions. Although they have been repurposed into lofts, offices, or commercial spaces, the utility of these retrofits are often inharmonious with its heritage body, blighted by uncomfortably high ceilings, oversized bathrooms, and an underperforming envelope unfit for Canadian living.

Second, you will find a plethora of plinth-tower constructions, built for high-density, high-rise, living. Conceived out of the city’s Places to Grow Act in 2005, condominiums have since became an exacerbate tool in the Canadian capitalist market. Marked by low performance building envelopes, high maintenance amenities, and overdosing local populations, it’s no wonder there are many who question its long-term viability and presence. In 25 years, the city’s skyline could be masked in scaffolding and vertical cavities. We could see systematic demolitions and the (re)introduction of mid-rise neighbourhoods. Both of these typologies are deficient and perishable; they are unlikely to become architecture that’s worth preserving.


The making of an heirloom design hinges on both the intention of the founder and the being of the artifact. The founder must imbue in the artifact an intention to be passed on. The justification can vary, and the holder is not required to consider enduring functions, performances, relevance or aesthetics. However, the artifact must represent a value he or his community holds in the zeitgeist.


[Click Images Below]

If the artifact should remain everlasting, it will also depend on its holistic being. Firstly, an heirloom cannot survive in perpetual extraneousness. It must always find relevance in every contemporary – culturally, socially, or functionally. In the same manner, heritors often understand the value of jewelleries much better than a collection of Meerschaum pipes; the use of precious stones has been relatively consistent compared to the use of smoking vessels. In architecture, if a space remains relevant, it inherits the quality of heirloom. For example, Toronto’s St Michael’s Cathedral continues to hold worship services after 171 years. 


Secondly, architecture can survive by craft, the profound ornamentation or formal considerations. Often, this quality is conceived independent of utilitarian purposes. For instance, although Toronto’s Old City Hall has become a dysfunctional building, it remains a prominent icon of the Romanesque Revival style. Today, the building has gained heritage status, and it will remain a permanent part of the urban fabric. 


The third heirloom quality is performance. An object can sustain through time with robustness. We rarely entertain the idea of demolition when something is operating well. This is evident in many brutalist buildings such as Toronto’s Robarts Library. The substantial massing and structure ensures its lasting prowess.

Finally, an enduring artifact may display resilience through versatility. By becoming functionally or physically amorphous, it engenders the ability to resist change to its fundamental identity. Like the numerous post-industrial factories in Toronto, its open floor plans, generous ceiling heights, and over-designed structures enable dexterous adaptations; some of them became offices while others
became residential lofts. 


As architects, we bear immense authority and responsibilities with our designs to provide containers for such memories. And the way we amortize these embodied energies is by making our creative works robust, substantial, and beautiful. Such that architecture reinstates its responsibility of centennial service with intent, and not fortuitously. In hopes, our future generations could look upon the world we created
as inheritance, and not inconvenience.

Therefore, when we build, let us think that we build for ever. Let it not be for present delight, nor for present use alone…and that men will say as they look upon the labour and wrought substance of them, “See! This our fathers did for us.” - John Ruskin, The Seven Lamps of Architecture, 1907.



bottom of page