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At 3700 W. 37th Ave. in Vancouver’s Dunbar neighbourhood, a well-preserved 1939 bungalow has been stripped to the studs, and then some. The old heritage house might not have been saved from demolition, but at least it’s being saved from the landfill – most of it will be ground up into wood chips instead.

As an alternative to occupying space at the dump, the old houses built prior to 1940 are finding new purposes, such as renewable energy. It might not be everyone’s ideal to see that sweet 1930s-era bungalow chipped up for biofuel, but it does meet the City of Vancouver’s stated objective to create green jobs and take pressure off its landfills. Considering that the average demolished house adds 50 tonnes of waste, that’s a significant diversion.

The city announced the plan to assess houses built prior to 1940 back in June last year, with its Heritage Action Plan. But the plan only properly kicked into action last month, with assessments of pre-1940 houses now a requirement before demolition is considered. The idea is to deter demolitions of the city’s stock of older homes in order to preserve what’s left of its residential history. On average, one single-family house is demolished every day in Vancouver. About 40 per cent of those are houses built prior to 1940, according to the city. They also happen to sit on big lots, mostly on the city’s west side, which makes them demo bait for an owner or contractor looking to build a monster house.

The home at 3407 West 35th St., Vancouver, before demolition... All photos by Caroline Adderson

The city hopes to prevent demolition by offering incentives to keep a house, if it’s deemed to have heritage value. Builders already have the option of adding a laneway house or basement suite, for example. If the owner insists on demolition, they are now required to recycle or reuse 90 per cent of the material, a pain for developers because it slows the job down and costs more, especially since most aren’t familiar with the process. Even if a pre-1940 house isn’t deemed of particular heritage value, developers are still required to divert 75 per cent of the waste from landfills.

Deconstruction is estimated to add about 25 per cent to the cost of the average demolition. But with typical demolitions costing $16,000 in the city, the added cost is only about $4,000, not much when you consider the average house on the West Side on a 33-foot lot is valued at $1.575-million, according to BC Assessment data.

It’s early days yet, but Brian Jackson, the city’s general manager of planning, is still hopeful the added cost and hassle will prove a deterrent.

“I think we’re doing a lot more to slow it down. It doesn’t seem like that to the public, but our anecdotal evidence is that it’s helping to slow down the process.

“And we have some developers who are enthusiastic because they’ve seen it’s an incredible waste.”

It’s been a slow program to launch, in part because there’s not a ready market to receive all that construction waste. While commercial construction is easy to recycle, residential materials are trickier. Old lumber, for example, won’t pass building code requirements for use in new homes.

“You can’t really use lumber for new buildings because it has to be re-graded and certified as a structural component of the building. So selling [recycled house] materials to someone for wood chips is one way,” says Mr. Jackson.

...during deconstruction...

Materials such as doors, hardware, windows and bathtubs sometimes get sold to places such as Jack’s New & Used Building Materials or ReStore Building Supplies, or on Craigslist. But that’s a tiny percentage. Because it takes time to find buyers to repurpose old lumber, for example, most often the flooring and mouldings get recycled into chips. And even recyclers are hard to find.

“That’s why we delayed implementation, to give a chance for those businesses to set themselves up,” says Mr. Jackson.

One business that foresaw demand before the bylaw was even announced is a small Vancouver landscape company that switched to the deconstruction business. Prior to the new bylaw, the city had been offering to fast track permits if builders deconstructed houses instead of sending them to the landfill.

Octiscapes co-owner Amie Poole saw that as an opening. In the last couple of years, business has doubled for Octiscapes and Ms. Poole expects it to increase even more now that the bylaw is in effect. So far her team has deconstructed five pre-1940s houses and March is looking busy.

“We have a lot of houses on our books coming up that are definitely going to be deconstructed, which we are very happy about,” says Ms. Poole. “There’s a lot of opportunity for business in this area. That being said, I don’t think a lot of contractors are ready for this yet. A lot of calls we are receiving are from builders looking for help on how to do it and do it right.”

A deconstruction permit requires a plan as well as a compliance report, which means the materials have to be separated on site. At the recycling plants, the weights have to be recorded so as to determine the percentage of material that has been recycled.

...and after.

But Ms. Poole says there aren’t enough recycling outfits to take the increasing amount of material. It means construction waste has to be trucked out to recycling plants far out, such as the Fraser Valley. That defeats the purpose of reducing the carbon footprint.

“With an increase of supply in these materials, it does happen that the recycling plants are full from time to time, and our city could benefit from more businesses in that area.”

There’s also the problem of enforcement. So far, 10 houses have gone through the process. Nine out of 10 met the requirements. But one contractor recycled only 61 per cent of the demolished house. The city reminded him of the requirements and delayed his permit sign-off. As of March 1, the city will require a refundable deposit of $15,000 as added motivation to comply with the bylaw.

“We believe these targets to be very achievable if demolition contractors simply separate their demolition material and take the various materials to the appropriate facilities, rather than to the dump,” says Doug Smith, the city’s assistant director of sustainability.

Of course, there’s another option. They could leave the house standing and add a laneway house, which would increase density, add value to the property and maintain Vancouver’s historic charm. It would also fulfill the mission of the Heritage Action Plan, which was to preserve the pre-1940 housing stock.

Caroline Adderson, the literary author who catalogues demolished character houses on the Facebook page Vancouver Vanishes, puts it this way:

“It's not heritage preservation. It's waste management.”