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heritage homes

The castle house at 3825 West 39th Ave. is of a signature West Coast style that is fading as old homes are being demolished to make way for monster houses.Caroline Adderson

The house at 3825 West 39th Ave. is a 1938 castle house, a signature West Coast style that could have come out of a fairy tale, with a turret, weather vane and cedar shakes. It's charming, like an English cottage, and the west side of the city used to be known for them. It will soon have its date with the bulldozer.

The developer, Kingstone Development, already tore down a castle house next door at 3815 West 39th, which was owned by the original builder, Jack Wood.

In place of Mr. Wood's house now stands a much larger, boxier house, covered in white limestone tiles. It is under construction, a 4,915-square-foot project that its developer estimates will cost $1-million. Tim Wang paid $2.58-million one year ago for the property, and once redeveloped, it will probably sell for around $4.8-million.

For Vancouver, it's just another day and another demo.

An average of nearly one pre-1940s house every day has been demolished in the past six years, according to city statistics. That includes the past year, in which a new recycling bylaw was brought in to deter demolitions. It doesn't appear to be working.

On top of demolition season, there is the ongoing clear-cutting of the city's trees. City statistics show that an average of 13 trees a day came down in 2013. In 2014, the average was seven trees a day. That's a total of 7,300 big trees in two years.

What city can afford to lose one character house and seven trees every day?

The Dunbar-Southlands neighbourhood is on the path to a major makeover. At the current pace of demolition, all pre-1940 homes there will be gone by 2041. Considering that there's been a 13-per-cent increase in demolition permits this year over last, city-wide, the houses could vanish much sooner than that.

Kingstone has been redeveloping houses on Vancouver's west side for the past eight years, says Wendy Wang, who meets me for a tour of the second castle house, the one that will soon be demolished. Mr. Wood built that one, as well. She also invites me inside the new house under construction next door, in an effort to show me its superior quality. Her husband, Tim, owns the company, and Ms. Wang explains that he is "very famous for his houses" in Vancouver, which are "made of the finest materials." A single limestone tile on the house's exterior costs $20, she said.

By contrast, Ms. Wang explained, the castle house is old and its eight-foot ceilings are too low. However, there was a time when someone would have gladly restored the home. The exterior is made of white painted brick, with a shake roof. The interior has curved doorways and walls, oak doors and inlaid oak floors. There is water damage and other signs of neglect, although it's not clear how long the house has stood empty. Mr. Wang purchased both houses in the past year.

The old castle house is an icon among heritage enthusiasts, so its pending demolition is causing a stir. Architecture writer Robin Ward included the house among his detailed drawings in his 1993 book, Robin Ward's Heritage West Coast. He describes the house as "a miniature Norman chateau," and, as if tempting fate, he wrote: "This house and a similar doll's house chateau next door, both built in 1938 by a builder, J.S. Wood, anchor an exceptionally well-preserved period streetscape – so far, not a monster home in sight."

In less than a year, both Norman chateaus will be replaced with monster homes. Almost the entire block of nearby West 38th has already been transformed into these big houses, which are, really, spec houses dressed up with faux stone and tile cladding. The city is full of them.

Inside the new house, I meet builder Peter Papagian. He says he's worked on at least 15 houses for the Wangs, and business is "crazy."

Mr. Papagian, who is from Greece and lives in a 1950s house in Surrey, says, "it's sad" to see the good houses coming down. "Somebody's garbage is somebody else's treasure," he says.

"You don't want them to come down … but that seems to be the way of the future. … You got a little house, and they put up a big house like this. Some neighbours are angry, but the city gives them permission to do it."

Architectural historian Imbi Harding lives down the street with her husband, a retired University of B.C. professor. If her house could be protected from demolition, she'd happily take a major reduction in equity, she says. She is passionate about Vancouver's history.

Ms. Harding, who worked with Arthur Erickson early in her career, had nominated the castle house at 3825 W. 39th Ave. for the upgraded heritage register just before she found out the city had issued the owner a permit to demolish it. She was furious.

"This house is an icon of this area," she says. "Why choose this one to tear down? The city shouldn't have given them a permit."

Experts are working on an updated heritage register as part of the city's Heritage Action Plan, which is aiming to somehow abate the demolitions. Ms. Harding worked on the heritage register that was put together in 1986, which overlooked many valuable properties. However, she knows the register cannot save a house. Ultimately, it's left up to the owner to decide whether an important house will be saved.

There's little that's sustainable about the demolitions. The city requires 90-per-cent dismantling and recycling of materials that come out of a historically important house. However, the house at 3815 W. 39th was not dismantled. It was hastily bulldozed – windows, weather vane and all.

And as writer and heritage activist Caroline Adderson points out, the demolitions have created a pervasive mentality that an old house is simply not worth maintaining.

"If the city is actually committed to sustainability, the first job of the sustainability department should be to deter the destruction – not issue guidelines on how to send handcrafted, perfectly livable homes built of irreplaceable first-growth wood to the chipper," says Ms. Adderson, who has also been fighting to save the castle house.

One move the city could make is to change zoning and prohibit the building of a bigger house where a character house stands. However, that would put the city at loggerheads with both the development industry and equity-focused homeowners. It seems nobody wants to put that scenario to the test.

The developer in this case has been accommodating. When Ms. Adderson suggested he try having the house moved, Mr. Wang contacted a house-moving company. However, the company wasn't interested. As for preserving the house, Mr. Wang is in the business of maximizing his profit. An old character house isn't part of that equation.

The problem is that city zoning offers no protection for Vancouver's fine character houses. They are at the mercy of the free market. Because Kingstone was redeveloping a house that was deemed of merit, the city allowed the company to build only up to 60 per cent of the site area instead of the usual 70 per cent. On a lot that is 50 feet by 140 square feet, that 10-per-cent penalty is hardly a disincentive. The castle house at 3815 W. 39th was replaced with a 4,915-square-foot house. The castle house at 3825 will be replaced with a similar house.

Mr. Papagian, a finishing carpenter, is using medium-density fibreboard, or MDF, for all the mouldings inside the new house. The boards are stacked around the huge living room. MDF is made of sawdust, urea-formaldehyde and glue, and it's a common material in new houses. I ask him if it's as good as the oak or fir used in the old houses, and he says, "No way. But that wood is so expensive now."

To illustrate the inferiority of the MDF, he picks up a small piece and whacks it against a plastic garbage pail. He shows me the dent he's just made in the piece of moulding. "You see? I broke it, on plastic. There's nothing much you can do about that."

There are growing tensions between new builders and old neighbours, he says. He worked on a nearby new house and one morning arrived at the site to find that someone had stuck a garden hose through the mail slot. The house was flooded with water.

That anger is misdirected, says Mr. Papagian. "They're not to get angry at me, or the owner, or whoever the contractor is. The system allows it."

He has a point.

Editor's note: The original print and web versions of this story contained an error in saying that Imbi Harding was working on an update to the heritage register. In fact, Ms. Harding worked on a previous edition of the register. This online version has been corrected.