Bata Shoe Factory is Converted Into Housing

'This project is a model for environmental and social sustainability.'

Front of Bata Shoe building

Scott Norsworthy

In 1939 Thomas Bata left Czechoslovakia with a hundred of his employees and their families ahead of the German invasion to set up a new life and a new Bata Shoe factory in Canada. He bought 1500 acres of pasture land and founded the community of Batawa, described in the fascinating town history as "a small, miniature Zlin, Czechoslovakia." He built a factory, housing, schools, churches, and lots of sports fields; in 1959 they even opened a ski club.

Bata Shoe Factory
Bata via Wikipedia

"They were terribly hard-working people," remembers Sonja Bata, the wife of Thomas and who trained as an architect. "None of these people began their lives as children of rich or well-to-do families. All of them were convinced that through their work, they would live a good life and have many opportunities." The factory eventually became non-competitive with overseas production, but Sonja Bata didn't walk away from Batawa; according to Dubbeldam Architecture + Design:

"The late Sonja Bata pursued her passion for architecture and the built environment through the revitalization of the town of Batawa, located 175 km east of Toronto on the Trent river. As a sustainable community and satellite town adapted to 21st-century living, where residents could live close to nature but maintain a connection to work through high-speed broadband, she envisioned Batawa as a model community for social and environmental sustainability."
Interior of Bata Shoe building
"The residential units boast 12-foot-high ceilings and abundant natural light due to the generous glazing.". Nanne Springer

The factory has been converted into commercial spaces for local businesses, a second floor "intended for educational incubation," a daycare, and 47 residential units of various sizes to provide flexibility as families grow and to permit aging-in-place for people who want to stay in the community. Like the factory was at when it was built, it is all bright and modern.

Angled view of building entry
"Located at the gateway to the town of Batawa and across from the local community centre, the revitalized building connects to a network of bike and walking trails.". Scott Norsworthy

It seems like an odd place to build a multi-story residential rental building, which I described as being "in the middle of nowhere," but architect Heather Dubbeldam reminded Treehugger that there is a major Canadian Forces base not far away, and the booming Prince Edward County is close by as well; it is already close to full occupancy. Dubbeldam notes also that this isn't just a real estate project, it is about taking Batawa into the future, about rebuilding and reinventing a community. Speaking of Sonja Bata, Dubbeldam says "she had an amazing vision of the town to become a hub of social sustainability – she was a force of nature." Dubbeldam writes in the press release:

"In alignment with Sonja Bata’s vision of the building as a model of sustainable architecture, the renovated factory retains the original 1939 concrete structure, saving close to 80% of the embodied carbon from the original building...The original building's waffle slab structure (an innovation that the Bata's brought with them from Europe) and its generous open spans allowed for its conversion into residential units with 12-foot-high ceilings and abundant natural light."
Geothermal Plan

The building is heated and cooled with a ground-source heat pump system with 63 holes drilled 600 feet under the parking lot. New materials are all chosen for durability, health and sustainability, "right down to the carpet tiles made from recycled fishing nets."

Lobby and Stair
Scott Norsworthy

I had heard from others that working with Sonja Bata could be challenging, but Heather Dubbeldam tells Treehugger:

"She was demanding, discerning, fair, and professional and brought out the best of everything. She never cut corners and cared about every part of the building."

There is more to come; the master plan includes townhouses and detached homes. The Batawa Development Corporation describes the future:

"Our development will set a new standard for connecting a community with its natural environment and use that mission as a common purpose that brings people together as a community. We’ll do that by rejuvenating the factory, building new homes, and bringing commercial life back to Batawa, all with a focus on great design, sustainability and community." 

In a recent post about a new building standard, we noted that the definition of sustainability needed to change to a more holistic view, "recognizing a responsibility for all sectors to tackle the three pillars: the social, economic and the environmental elements of sustainability. The built environment must do the same." We can't look at buildings in isolation.

Scott Norsworthy

This factory renovation, designed by BDP Quadrangle as Architect of Record and Dubbeldam Architecture + Design as Collaborating Design Architect, is a great example of this – it's an interesting building on its own, but is far more interesting because of its larger context. Heather Dubbeldam talks about the building's role as "a beacon within the town, focused on a sustainable future,” but it is part of a bigger picture; last words to the late Sonja Bata, about her remarkable legacy:

"My vision is to grow Batawa into an exemplary rural village that attracts and inspires those who are committed to creating a sustainable and safe community that engages people and helps to connect them.” 
View Article Sources
  1. "Batawa - History". Batawa.Ca, 2020.