Heather Passmore has wanted for two years to save one of Vancouver’s beautiful older houses from the landfill. She thought she would have her pick of any number, since Vancouver has been on a demolition spree for the past decade at least.
But Ms. Passmore, an artist who also works at the Vancouver Public Library and lives with her family in a rented house on the city’s east side, has had no luck in two years of searching for something she could move to her parents’ property on the Sunshine Coast.
“We go to the city and look at the permits to develop,” Ms. Passmore said. She calls people who own the properties, “but the owners never get back to you.” She even called the Vancouver Park Board when she heard it would need to tear down some older houses it had bought so it could expand parks. No answer.
She is one of many who would like to salvage some of the region’s older houses – along with others who would be quite happy to buy and move some of the newer ones. But in spite of a lot of public angst about the loss of those houses, the city’s efforts to encourage retention and recycling of materials, and a healthy market of people looking to buy, owners just don’t think about it.
That frustrates not just the potential buyers, but the company that does a lot of the local moving for those who do succeed in buying and transporting an older house to a new site.
“We have people circling our website, looking,” said Lynn Barnett, the office manager at Nickel Bros., which has been picking up and relocating homes for half a century, and also buys and sells houses for relocating. She hears all the time about beautiful places being torn down in Vancouver and elsewhere.
“We’d love to take those, but we don’t usually get the call.”
It’s not just older, wooden, character houses people want. The company sells a wide variety, including massive brick mansions from estates, almost brand-new homes, and charming beach houses on the waterfront that are considered far too small by new owners who paid millions for the property.
Saving and recycling
The attraction of a used house is obvious. The Nickel website is offering a 1920s character house currently on south Vancouver Island with 2,700 square feet for $162,000, moving included.
The cheapest anyone could build that for these days, at a rock-bottom $200 a square foot, is $540,000, with likely nowhere near the quality of wood or the unusual interior fittings a house like that would have.
As well, Ms. Barnett says, having a company pick up and move the house rather than demolish it can save owners $20,000 to $40,000.
But a builder who specializes in new west-side homes says he cannot get owners interested.
Eric Lee, who runs VictorEric Premium Homes, said he felt terrible when a client demolished a 15-year-old house on a property he had recently bought for $6-million (building a new one for $13-million). The larger houses Mr. Lee ends up demolishing cost as much as $50,000 to take down, with $5,000 more to separate the reusable material from the waste to comply with Vancouver’s recycling rules.
“The ones who have the money don’t have the same values. Time is more important to them.”
It’s also tricky trying to plan a salvage, he noted.
“If you salvage too early, people know no one lives there, it can attract dumping on site.”
Vancouver city hall, in spite of definitive moves in recent years to slow the demolition of older houses – or at least encourage recycling – doesn’t keep statistics on how many are repurposed by being moved whole to a new site.
City officials do know that more of the demolished houses, of all ages, are being recycled. In 2014, the city introduced a green-building bylaw that required anyone demolishing a pre-1940s house to make extra efforts to recycle.
Since then, says a city spokesperson, about 86 per cent of the material in the homes has been recycled or repurposed – about 10,000 tonnes a year for the 300 pre-1940s homes a year that are torn down.
But it still means a lot of material goes into landfill.
According to 2017 statistics from Metro Vancouver, about 370,000 tonnes of construction and demolition material was put into the region’s landfills or incinerated. That’s less than a quarter of the total amount of construction waste for the year; the rest was recycled. So, things are not hopeless, but 370,000 tonnes is still a lot.
‘The best is gone already’
And houses of every age are still going down.
A scan of the recent demolition permits for Vancouver shows a huge range of what is being demolished: dumpy bungalows from the post-war era, nondescript boxes put up in the 1980s, modest but charming west-side houses from the 1930s and 1940s.
The pace of demolition in Vancouver has slowed slightly since the almost 1,000 permits a year that were issued between 2012 and 2015. Only 825 permits were issued in 2017, 773 in 2018, as the city’s real-estate market has cooled slightly, especially in the single-family sector.
And none of that is making Ms. Passmore’s quest for an older house any easier. She has tried to acquire a house that was going to be demolished for new social housing and condos to be built by Dunbar Ryerson United Church in Kerrisdale. But that project has stalled. She looked at another 1912 house in Kitsilano recently, but it has mold issues.
“I’ve probably made 20 requests,” she said. “I have a feeling that the best is gone already.”