There has been much discussion about the need for housing supply and increased density in Vancouver. But what that means for the environment has been given short shrift, say those in the housing industry who are concerned about the sustainability of massive redevelopment.
It matters because buildings and their construction are responsible for nearly one-third of total global energy consumption, according to the International Energy Agency.
“Metro Vancouver and Greater Victoria are experiencing an unprecedented explosion in residential home demolitions,” says Glyn Lewis, “and the process to achieve urban density is proving to be unbelievably wasteful.” The 38-year-old entrepreneur and his company, Renewal Home Development, aim to save existing house, repurpose and retrofit them to be energy efficient and give them a contemporary facelift.
Mr. Lewis says he is all for more density. He just doesn’t like the wastefulness of getting there.
“This year alone, 2,800 single-family homes across Metro Vancouver will end up in local landfills. As a result, over 250,000 old and new growth trees embodied in these homes will be thrown away in the next 12 months,” says Mr. Lewis. “With all the pressures for urban density, this wastefulness will only get worse.”
“We are going through a grand demolition across Metro Vancouver and Greater Victoria and that’s happening because all levels of government are promoting urban densification, because we are trying to address the housing shortage crisis, and to build complete communities, and trying to invest in mass transportation,” he says.
“I agree with the ultimate objective of urban densification. Having single-family homes a block away from a SkyTrain station makes no sense. But the process to achieve that densification is so wasteful. The conversation needs to happen at all levels of government… to figure out how we divert homes from landfills.”
The first step toward a solution, Mr. Lewis says, should be to relocate good homes, the second to incentivize deconstruction. He cites another young company, Unbuilders, which deconstructs houses in Metro Vancouver so next to nothing goes to the landfill. The company also sells reclaimed wood, much of it old growth timber.
Michael Geller, planner, adjunct professor, former architect, real estate consultant and developer, said demolitions of perfectly fine houses are the result of rezonings, which increase land values. He has developer clients in the Cambie area who’ve benefitted. But instead of knocking everything down, there is another option, he says, which is to incentivize infill around the existing homes.
“We used to say the most sustainable building is the existing building,” Mr. Geller says. “But now what’s happening, is they are knocking down these relatively new houses and they might be five years old. But they’re knocked down because the land values are so high. It just seems such a waste.”
In Cambie corridor, the houses will continue to come down. To move them, Mr. Lewis and others need help from municipalities to allow access to barge sites and from the utility companies that oversee trolley and power lines.
Mr. Lewis’s current project is to move three large homes from the Cambie Corridor area to properties on a waterfront location. He says he is working with an investor partner who will help purchase the properties outside the Lower Mainland. He’s also partnered with Nickel Bros., the structural moving and heavy transport company that will move the homes.
Last year, he repurposed and updated a home moved to Gibsons, the coastal community accessible only by ferry, which was then retrofitted with solar panels, an electric vehicle hook up and rainwater catchment. That home sold last fall for around $1.2 million.
Mr. Lewis’s ultimate goal is to master plan a community of salvaged houses on the Sunshine Coast or Powell River. But moving houses is an expensive business. In an urban area, there are charges for moving power lines and trolley lines that are in the way. For his Cambie project, it means it’s more efficient to move all three houses at the same time. The houses are so large they will have to be divided in half in order to be moved. The multi-million-dollar houses are on large lots at 650 and 690 West 29th Ave. and 5235 Kersland Dr., They are part of the mass rezoning of the Cambie area that allows for townhouses.
Jeremy Nickel of Nickel Bros. says he and Mr. Lewis are hoping that government and other agencies involved in the process will help facilitate such moves, as some other jurisdictions in North America do. They would like the creation of designated move-out corridors that would allow easier barge access. Trees and branches would be cleared ahead of time and trolley lines unclipped when the houses needed to pass through intersections, like an express lane for unwanted houses.
Mr. Nickel cites the example of Seattle, which helped him move a historic house through a jumble of trolley lines at one of that city’s busiest intersections so it could be barged to Shaw Island.
Nickel Bros. moves between 200 and 400 buildings a year, but another 8,000 buildings of all types were demolished last year in Metro Vancouver, says Mr. Nickel.
“We are the demo capital of the world,” says Mr. Nickel, a long-time conservationist.
“We are only going to save 5- or 8-per cent of the buildings from being demolished. And even if we were able to save 5 per cent, there is still a huge percentage of homes that need to be deconstructed.
“I’m hopeful some of these young people [like Glyn] can take over the torch and carry on the fight I’ve been fighting for 30 or 40 years,” said Mr. Nickel.
Mr. Lewis is working with developer Jamie Vaughan on two of the houses. Mr. Vaughan has three projects underway in the Cambie Corridor, totaling 116 townhouses. Mr. Vaughan was biking on West 29th Avenue when he saw the row of assembled houses for sale. Knowing that the area had been pre-zoned for townhouse density, he ended up purchasing all six of the houses. The house at 560 West 29th Ave. was built 10 years ago and had sold for $6-million in 2017, according to Redfin brokerage data. The other at 590 West 29th was built in the 1990s but had undergone a renovation. The large houses are due for demolition this summer. However, Mr. Vaughan, director of Sightline Properties, would like to save two of the houses, and so he’s working with Mr. Lewis to do so. The developer previously tried to save another house on King Edward Avenue and relocate it to Vancouver Island, but the process fell apart.
“It’s tough when you see some of these nicer houses come down, but at the same time, the city is in desperate need of townhomes to fill the missing middle and the desire there, so we have gone down this path.”
Mr. Vaughan also has a six-storey rental project underway at Dunbar and West 41st Avenue. He said it’s key to move trolley or utility lines on a schedule that works for everybody. It’s also tricky.
“It obviously isn’t done for a lot of reasons, and a big part of that is it’s tough to get people on board. For a developer, timing is everything. If I want to move a house on 29th and it takes me an extra month or six weeks to do it, it becomes really unfeasible, because I have deadlines and obligations to the bank. That six weeks can cost a developer a lot of money.”
But as the city densifies, a lot of houses will continue to go to the landfill, he says.
“To me, everyone should jump on board and make it happen . . . what’s the point of putting a nice house into the garbage?”
In a written response, Coast Mountain Bus Company and TransLink said they would support a designated corridor “if infrastructure can be managed for repetitive moves on a proposed route.
They added that, “even if a designated route were created, there would be associated costs to the moving company for each move.”
When reached for a comment, the City of Vancouver did not have a response to the idea of a designated move-out route. However, a spokesperson said they’d be willing to discuss options.
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