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Vancouver sees three to four houses torn down every day, and often buildings of good quality are replaced with lesser structures.
Vancouver sees three to four houses torn down every day, and often buildings of good quality are replaced with lesser structures.

Disposable Vancouver: Are we throwing away good homes? Add to ...

In Vancouver, it seems nothing is safe from the bulldozer.

Heritage Vancouver released its top 10 endangered sites Watch List this week. It’s a list of important buildings that are targeted for demolition and, for the first time, the architecturally stunning and historically important Point Grey Secondary School in Kerrisdale made the list.

The list also includes a unique community-oriented 1970s development called Marine Gardens, and a pair of historic buildings used for social housing in the Downtown Eastside.

Because the Vancouver School Board has been demolishing historic schools that they say are in need of seismic upgrading, Point Grey Secondary has wound up in the VSB’s crosshairs. Point Grey, built in 1929, is one of the city’s oldest schools, a regal example of Collegiate Gothic architecture that was rare for a school, says Heritage Vancouver. Now, it’s under threat of demolition. Other cities, including Victoria and Seattle, have seismically upgraded their schools without demolishing them.

Heritage Vancouver blames the school board for “a lack of creative thinking.” In its release of the top 10, the society outlines the school board’s disregard for the historical importance of these buildings. It says that for years, the VSB has deferred maintenance on schools to the point where the cost of upgrading them to be more resistant to seismic activity is now inflated. It has stripped architectural features instead of repairing them, postponed updates to the buildings and slapped on makeshift additions, says the society. Architects aren’t consulted until after the VSB has already decided to demolish.

“Instead of defaulting to demolition, the VSB should seek out creative solutions to upgrade heritage buildings,” says the report.

If the VSB’s go-to is demolition, it’s because, well, that’s what we do in Vancouver. Increasingly, it seems like a novel idea, to fix up an old building and keep it going. There are always handy reasons to demolish. The most common ones are that the building is in disrepair, or that it’s got to make way for more density or a more energy-efficient building. Considering that all newly constructed West Side houses are 77 per cent bigger on average than the old house they replaced, the reason for demolition is more likely due to the fact the owner wants a bigger, newer house.

Sometimes, the houses being demolished aren’t even old. It’s now routine to see houses built in the eighties or nineties get taken down. A Shaughnessy mansion at 4338 Marguerite St., built in 1992 and priced at around $5-million, was recently demolished. A 36-year-old house at 3739 W. 24th Ave. was just flattened.

In an effort to reduce materials sent to the landfill, the city introduced a program this year that requires 90 per cent of pre-1940 house materials to be recycled or reused. Since there’s hardly a market for salvaging old house materials, the bulk of the old houses are being recycled into wood chips. Wood chips get turned into things such as biofuel and toilet paper. It diverts some waste from the landfill, if doing nothing for the city’s history. But a better option is to save the building, says a U.S. sustainability expert.

Steve Mouzon argues that in the majority of cases, demolition shouldn’t even be an option. Mr. Mouzon wrote the book The Original Green: Unlocking the True Mystery of Sustainability. Ongoing rampant demolition is not only unnecessary and wasteful – it’s the opposite of sustainable.

“Preservation should be considered the foundation act of sustainability, because if you don’t preserve something, it is not sustained,” he writes in his blog.

And yet, many who insist that old buildings don’t pass muster often challenge the idea that “the greenest building is the one still standing.” As a result, the preservation movement has become the enemy of urbanists in some circles, in cities such as San Francisco, where preservation is getting pushback from proponents of more density.

Mr. Mouzon has made it his mission to debunk this current thinking and makes the case for preservation as the true mode of sustainability.

“There isn’t any shadow of a doubt,” says Mr. Mouzon, when reached in Dallas, where he was speaking at the Congress for the New Urbanism. “If the choice is to keep an old building or tear it down and build a more efficient building, you keep the old building.

“This idea of scraping the earth and starting over like we’re so used to doing in North America is something we need to steer away from.”

He’s done his research to back up his claims. He says studies have shown the average LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) certified building is 28 per cent more efficient than a regular building. But a LEED-certified building would have to be twice that – 56 per cent more efficient – to even equal the efficiency of a long-standing historic building that’s been maintained.

“I’ve tracked the embodied energy in those old materials that go into the landfill and the energy required to construct a new building, and I’ve compared that with a historic building that’s proven its lovability.

“You’ll find the people mostly advocating for tearing down old buildings and doing LEED buildings are the people who benefit from that, and so you have to question the motivation. I am an architect and I am LEED certified. So, I’m speaking about my own.”

Three to four houses are torn down a day on average, and the new push for “land assemblies” is probably adding to the clear-cutting. Around West King Edward, Granville, Oak and East 12th Streets, houses on major routes are going to the highest bidder, as money is to be made from multifamily zoning. Many of the houses are solidly built and a lot of them have charming architectural details. Instead of razing several city blocks, density could be added with laneway houses and secondary suites. Small houses could be relocated to the rear of the lots and used as laneway houses.

Solid old houses can easily be renovated, says Javier Campos, president of Heritage Vancouver. Mr. Campos is an architect of modernist design, but he believes in the preservation of the city’s past. He also lives in a 1911 house in Kitsilano that he’s updated with a modern interior. Kitsilano is largely preserved because it would be difficult to build much bigger on the small lots.

“The development model is difficult because it’s not built for quality over time; it’s built for maximizing profit,” says Mr. Campos. “And zoning works into that because people want to get the most house for the money.

“At the same time, I blame us,” he adds. “At end of the day, if nobody wanted the product that developers had, they wouldn’t be making it. Because the developer just wants to make the thing he’ll make the most money at. And there’s somebody buying it.”

Not every building should be saved, he says. Some were poorly built and others are truly beyond repair. But having hundreds of demolitions a year doesn’t make sense, especially when so many houses in Europe have lasted centuries. Most Vancouver houses don’t make it to the 100-year mark, and the newer ones aren’t made to last.

“In my mind,” says Mr. Mouzon, “the life of a regular house should be measured in centuries, not decades.” Anything else, he says, is “throwaway architecture.”

Industry experts have previously expressed how they feel about the wastefulness. Jeremy Nickel, of Nickel Bros. House Movers, says he sees solid homes being demolished to make way for houses of lesser quality. Construction company president Jim Perkins says a lot of the new houses won’t be standing in 50 years.

“It’s a question of resources,” says Mr. Campos. “It’s the wastefulness, and the idea that it seems like it’s the right thing to do – to preserve some of our character. We should understand that we should preserve our past, not because we are conservative, but we should value our culture and give it historical place.

“We have this poor environmental policy because we don’t give the environment any value. As soon as you value the environment, you make different decisions.”

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