Convert grain elevators into people spaces, architecture grad says

Thousands of grain elevators have met the wrecking ball but an architecture graduate with Prairie roots envisions new uses for the iconic structures.

Ali Piwowar would like to see coffee shops and hotel rooms in refurbished grain elevators

Ali Piwowar wrote her architecture thesis on converting grain elevators into spaces for people. (Ali Piwowar)
Ali Piwowar travelled to Indian Head to consult with the community on what they would like to see done with the local grain elevator. (Ali Piwowar)
Thousands of grain elevators have met the wrecking ball but an architecture graduate with Prairie roots envisions new uses for the iconic structures.

Instead of tearing grain elevators down, Ali Piwowar suggests converting them into spaces for people.

Piwowar, who studied at Carleton University in Ottawa, wrote her masters thesis in architecture on preserving the heritage of grain elevators by transforming them into community spaces.

Saskatchewan once had over 3,000 wooden grain elevators. One by one, however, the structures have been disappearing from the skyline, victims of changing economic and transportation conditions. Today, Piwowar estimates there are around 400 such elevators remaining with only 80 in working order. 

"We need to stop being OK with them coming down," Piwowar said. "Every community just puts up hands up their hands and says 'OK, we can't fight about this.' I think we should fight about it."

[A grain elevator] was meant to be a public space for people in that community.- AliPiwowar

Piwowar became fascinated with elevators when she moved to Regina from Ontario when she was 10 years old.

"I always knew I wanted to be an architect," she said. "I was very interested in the grain elevators because they were so mysterious to me because I didn't know what was going on inside them."

When it came time for university, Piwowar moved back to Ontario and it was then that she realized how much she liked the Prairies and the beauty of Saskatchewan's landscape. 

Masters thesis

The idea for her to focus her studies on grain elevators came to her after having undergone surgery to remove wisdom teeth.

Loopy on pain medication, Piwowar had a vision of grain elevators with people living inside of them. She imagined them as condominiums and houses all across the province.

Ali Piwowar says grain elevators should be saved to help preserve Saskatchewan's heritage. (Ali Piwowar)
"The idea evolved," she said. "It kind of morphed from there into more of a public space which is making it accessible to everyone in the community instead of dividing it and becoming an individually owned piece of property. [A grain elevator] was meant to be a public space for people in that community."

Piwowar's thesis examines in detail an elevator in Indian Head, Sask., a community which at one point had more elevators than any other place in North America. She consulted with locals on what they would like to see within the structure she was studying.

Her thesis describes a tourism information booth, a community gathering space, two guest suites and a coffee shop that could fit in a refurbished elevator.

"There is a gap about what can be done with grain elevators," she added. "There is a lot of text on why grain elevators are important but nobody says 'OK, this is what we can do with them in the future to preserve them.'"

Special handling of grain dust

Piwowar noted grain dust would need to be removed by a high-powered airbrush because it is highly flammable.

She would add windows by creating long horizontal slits.

"From the outside of the building it still looks like an elevator," she explained.

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"The horizontal slits actually mimic the horizontal wood siding and then from the inside it actually accentuates Saskatchewan's horizontal landscape."

A specialized lift would make the building wheelchair accessible.

"I think if you find a good engineer that is willing to work with an architect to make something like this happen and you're able to find people to put some money into it, it's not unrealistic," Piwowar said. "We just need to make a plan and make it happen."

Piwowar will be presenting her thesis at the Heritage Canada National Trust Conference in Calgary. She said she hopes to do workshops on her ideas with communities across Saskatchewan.


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