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Alex Burgers and Kyrani Kanavaros outside their renovated home in Vancouver. (DARRYL DYCK FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Alex Burgers and Kyrani Kanavaros outside their renovated home in Vancouver. (DARRYL DYCK FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

It can be a challenge to preserve heritage character, as this Vancouver reno project shows Add to ...

From the street, the shingled 1912 bungalow looks like a lovingly preserved character home, a testament to old Vancouver house-building craftsmanship in an era when they didn’t even have power tools.

On the inside, the house is open, airy and bright, the definition of livable design, 21st-century-style. The focal point of the main floor is a long dining table around which homeowners Alex Burgers, Kyrani Kanavaros and their two sons congregate. Through an expanse of windows, the open-concept kitchen at the rear of the house overlooks a yellow garage that perfectly complements the house, as if it had been there all along. But the garage was a new build, an addition to the extensive recent renovation that brought the house from 1912 to present-day lifestyle, as well as construction technology, without compromising on its exterior heritage character.

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It wasn’t an easy renovation.

“It was torturous,” says Mr. Burgers, a project manager who’s worked in the construction industry for 15 years. In order to renovate the house, add the garage, and boost their house’s square footage by around 300 square feet, it took them more than a year to obtain a development permit, including a trip to the Board of Variance to make their case.

“If they had done a new-build application, torn the house down and built a new house, it would have taken three or four months for permits. They’d be able to start a new house,” says Mr. Burgers’s brother Cedric Burgers, architect on the project. “It took over a year for them to get their permits.”

Considering the relative ease in obtaining a demolition permit and building new, it’s small wonder that so many Vancouver homeowners forgo the preservation of an existing house, even one that is in good shape.

Writer Caroline Adderson has been documenting the demolished houses on her Vancouver Vanishes Facebook page, with photos showing all the old houses around the city that have come down. An average of 750 houses in Vancouver are demolished each year, according to a city staff report from July, 2011.

Fortunately, the Burgers-Kanavaros house isn’t one of them. The couple’s house is on the east side, around the Fraser-Kingsway neighbourhood that is becoming increasingly trendy, among a row of identical bungalows built at the same time. Across the street are tall houses built in the 1980s, when a cohesive streetscape didn’t appear to be much of a concern.

“The city doesn’t give enough of an incentive to restore an old house,” says Mr. Burgers. “We basically put this house back on its legs and I don’t see why it can’t go for another 100 years.”

He emphasizes that he had the advantage of being in the construction industry and knowing skilled trades people, as well as an architect brother and the help of his mother, an interior designer. The average property-owner would probably have taken longer to properly restore the house, which was stripped down to the studs. His brother Cedric dealt with the numerous city requirements, such as materials that maintained the house’s character.

The couple believes the process as it currently exists could be streamlined to make it easier for the restoration of an old house, which is a daunting, labour-intensive task already.

“Maybe they should switch it around and make it six weeks to renovate and keep the character,” suggests Ms. Kanavaros.

There is another reason that the city should offer more incentives to preserve the old-timers, especially a city that has the lofty goal of being the greenest city by 2020. About 74 per cent of demolition, land clearing and construction waste at the Vancouver landfill is the direct result of residential demolitions, according to a 2011 consultant report prepared for the Greater Vancouver Sewerage and Drainage District.

In order to offset the wastefulness, the city has implemented a deconstruction program, which offers incentives to slowly deconstruct a house by hand so that, ideally, up to 93 per cent of it will be recycled or reused instead of going to the landfill. Similar programs have been implemented throughout the United States, where an estimated 270,000 houses are being torn down each year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

But deconstruction is labour intensive, and few developers or homeowners are choosing that route over demolition. As well, it doesn’t guarantee the protection of a charming character house. Architect Cedric Burgers says that it takes a day and costs only about $5,000 to demolish the average house, including disposal fees. To deconstruct a house by hand adds significantly to the cost.

Cedric says the amount of demolition waste currently going into landfill is “crazy.” By retaining the shell of his brother’s house, as well as its foundation, siding and landscaping, he cut that waste in half. If the city could only expedite the process, it could inspire other homeowners to follow suit.

“Sometimes we would submit documents and wait three, four months before our appointment came up – we waited and waited and waited,” says Cedric, who’s currently working on a Shaughnessy heritage house. “They could streamline it so it takes no longer than a regular building permit, and then they would see more retention of older homes.

“Speaking from our experience, it was too long a wait and too cumbersome. Sometimes that waiting can ruin a project if you associate it with the cost involved.

“I’m often challenged when a client says, ‘I’d like to retain my old house it has character,’ and when I tell them it will cost 10-per-cent more, typically that’s the end of it. It gets torn down. There has to be something intrinsically of value with an old house that encourages people to retain them.”

Paradoxically, with the current process, the couple could have sent the old house to the landfill and built a new two-level home in a shorter amount of time. It wouldn’t have necessarily cost much more, either.

Not that they regret it. Considering her house’s blend of charming old-world exterior and airy open-concept interior, Ms. Kanavaros says it was worth all the bother.

“I would do it again in a heartbeat despite the obstacles.”

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