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Calgary & Edmonton Prefab homes may help reduce Alberta’s construction waste

Home construction and demolition is a major contributor to Alberta's waste stream.

University of Calgary

Alberta is thought to have one of the biggest construction and demolition waste problems in Canada, but so little actual data exists that the real size of the problem is still unknown.

What we do know is that – in terms of overall waste production – Alberta consistently produces the highest volume of waste per capita in the country, ranks third in total waste production (behind Ontario and Manitoba) and has lower diversion rates compared with other provinces. In 2012, British Columbia diverted close to 60 per cent of its total non-hazardous waste to recycling facilities; Alberta's diversion rate is under 20 per cent.

It's estimated that as much as 30 per cent of the waste sent to Alberta landfills comes from the construction and demolition industry.

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In 2008, the Government of Alberta announced a plan to reduce construction waste in landfills by 50 per cent, but the programme never made it off the ground.

"With the onset of the recession, the government of the day had concerns that the proposed deposit-refund system might be viewed as a tax increase; something then-premier Stelmach had ruled out," says Ken Gibson, executive director of the Alberta Construction Association.

The initiative is now moribund, though efforts continue at the municipal level and with some private operators.

In order to gain a fuller picture of the problem, and seeking potential solutions, University of Calgary architecture professor Joshua Taron in the Faculty of Environmental Design is working with the city to get a better idea of exactly how much construction and demolition waste is produced in the city.

"Demolition waste is a big issue in Calgary in particular because of the drive for densification and the popularity of building modern infill homes in place of older buildings. Alberta also has relatively low performance targets when it comes to landfill diversion," he says.

"The city currently doesn't have a way of tracking the waste being produced as a result of densification," he continues. "Architects, developers, clients; nobody is measuring it so planning and regulations are impossible to implement."

As part of his research, Mr. Taron has tracked the waste produced by the demolition of ten homes in Calgary. The homes spanned a variety of eras and were demolished using a variety of methods. He's looking at ways to predict the volume of waste which will be created by a building, prior to demolition.

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"There's two aims with the research; the first is to track and quantify demolition waste, specifically waste from single family homes, the second is to look at how modular and prefabricated building practices could reduce this volume in the long-term," he explains.

"Typically people tear down a house because of social or economic reasons; it's rarely because the lifespan of the material of the house is done," he continues. "Modular and prefabricated building methods present an opportunity to revolutionize the way we think about our options for expanding and updating our homes, without the unnecessary landfill fodder."

Mr. Taron has spent the last year touring prefabrication factories in western Canada to learn more about the building processes and their potential.

"What struck me touring these facilities was how strange it is that for the most part we're still building houses exactly the same way we've always built them. So really we can't expect them to be any more divertable or recyclable than they've ever been. We need to stop looking at buildings so monolithically." he explains.

But he believes times are changing. "Currently 12 per cent of Alberta's housing stock is prefabricated and that number is accelerating fast," he says.

Mr. Taron says the fabrication methods employed by B.C.-based modular builder Karoleena Homes are the most "deconstruction-friendly" he has encountered in his research so far.

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Karoleena Inc. founder, Kurt Goodjohn, is excited at the premise of Mr. Taron's research.

"There's been a trend in Canada for a while now for builders to put up houses and condos as quickly and as cheaply as possible," he says. "Those buildings won't last a generation and they'll end up dumped in landfill."

Mr Goodjohn has been "predicting the death of traditional construction" for some time now and says tighter recycling regulations will play a part in that.

"Dumping an entire house into landfill is becoming prohibitively expensive. Municipalities are forcing that and so the economics will force change."

Mr. Taron agrees. "Disassembling rather than demolishing costs time and money. But that's less true of modular buildings. In theory they should be easier, faster and cheaper to disassemble. If it becomes cheaper to disassemble and save on landfill costs than to demolish and dump, change will happen."

Part of Mr. Taron's research is also covering how best to create fully-recyclable homes.

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"We need to think about the process of recycling at the point of building and make sure architecture isn't getting in the way of our ability to recycle. It's exactly the same as food packaging; when something recyclable is glued onto something that's not recyclable; the whole process becomes more difficult for the person putting it in the waste splitting bin," he explains.

Mr. Goodjohn says ensuring the component parts of Karoleena homes are able to be recycled is a priority for the company.

"In theory, yes, our homes should be able to be disassembled and recycled but we haven't been building long enough to put that into practice. Our homes are built to last a hundred years but that doesn't mean we shouldn't know what to do with them after a hundred years. It's something we need to be better at."

In June, 2016, Karoleena Inc. was acquired by Calgary-based Horizon North Inc. whose expertise is in temporary work force housing. Mr. Goodjohn says the partnership means a move into the middle ground of architecturally striking, multiunit developments like condo buildings and hotels.

Repurposing is also now high on their agenda and he believes it offers huge potential in reducing landfill waste; without the cost and labour of recycling.

"Repurposing is new to us but Horizon North are experts in relocating entire communities of work force accommodation. By combining that expertise with our knowledge of how to make modular buildings architecturally beautiful; we hope to do some exciting things," he says.

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"In the future I see whole hotels and condo developments being relocated, reconfigured and repurposed fifty to sixty years into their lifespan. And not just the modules but the interior components too," he continues.

Mr. Taron agrees that repurposing offers a lucrative "secondary market" for the modular-building industry. He is currently seeking industry partners to investigate design solutions stemming from his research.

A new real estate report from Royal LePage analyzing trends in the last quarter of 2016 suggests that the GTA will become the hottest housing market in the country in 2017, surpassing Vancouver.
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