On the Sunshine Coast, a short ferry ride from the Lower Mainland, two enterprising millennials plan to assemble a unique neighbourhood entirely from scratch, to help other millennials like themselves find a sustainable, close-knit community – by barging in and upcycling old character houses that would have otherwise gone to the landfill.
One by one, as they find houses that are available, they will move them to a large property on the Sunshine Coast, where residents will live mostly off the grid, without water-sucking lawns and gas-guzzling cars. Theirs will be more than a mere development or urban planning project. Instead, they aim to create the Canadian version of a progressive movement for younger people who are disenchanted with the status quo, and who seek a back-to-basics but modern way of living. Their inspiration is Culdesac Tempe, which is a car-free apartment neighbourhood that will ultimately house 1,000 residents on a 17-acre lot outside Phoenix. Culdesac’s founders are San Francisco tech industry workers who are planning to scale the concept into future car-free communities for thousands of residents. They aim to build the first car-free city, and after initially being ignored, the startup has found substantial interest from investors.
And with the pandemic making remote work viable, that concept, says Renewal Home Development founders Glyn Lewis and Alan McNee, now has even greater potential.
They say their thirty-something demographic is starved for the type of community they envision. Mr. Lewis, an entrepreneur, studied sustainable community development at Simon Fraser University, and Mr. McNee, who is from Scotland, works in the construction industry overseeing large-scale projects. Mr. McNee works around the world, while Mr. Lewis moves between Costa Rica and B.C.
Mr. McNee co-founded the company, he says, because it’s the type of lifestyle he wants for himself.
“It’s been a dream of mine for a very long time, to live in one of these communities, quite honestly,” Mr. McNee says. “I believe the world’s gone too far in the wrong direction in terms of social interaction and engagement. Where I grew up, you left your door open and the neighbours came around and you shared things. You were a proper community and that’s been lost, quite a lot. I’d like to live in something like what we are talking about.”
They have kicked off their plan with a show home to test the market, a rancher they moved from Coquitlam to 75 Veterans Rd., just outside the municipality of Gibsons. It was barged over by Nickel Brothers and they’ve doubled the floor space, and added a basement suite, a detached garage, and a sloped roof with solar panels. The five-bedroom, three-bathroom, 3,000-square-foot house within walking distance of the beach is nearing completion and will be listed in May, for around $975,000.
“The home produces 80 per cent of its energy,” Mr. Lewis says. “There is an EV [electric vehicle] car hook up, powered through sunlight. We are doing rainwater catchment, and so the home will catch water, and grey water goes back to the garden.”
They chose the Sunshine Coast for their first community because a lot of young remote workers and families already live there, drawn by a restaurant scene, beaches, and less expensive real estate.
They are now negotiating to move two character houses out of Kerrisdale, which has seen thousands of good character homes lost over the years. Mr. Lewis says the beautiful houses couldn’t compete with increasing land values. Author Caroline Adderson, who hosts the Facebook page Vancouver Vanishes, is helping Mr. Lewis find houses that are about to be torn down. Last year, she says, the City of Vancouver issued 665 demolition permits as well as 498 permits to build detached houses.
“This practice is completely contrary to every purported goal of our city,” Ms. Adderson says. “They should be bending over backward both to stop this practice and to help people like Glyn.”
The biggest challenge is that by the time Mr. Lewis gets to them, the deal for demolition has usually been signed.
Mr. Lewis would like municipalities to make it easier to find which houses are coming up for demolition, earlier in the process.
“I reach out to the architect or developer and often it’s already too late,” Mr. Lewis says. “And it’s really too bad, because we would save them the demolition cost, which is 30 or 40 or 50 thousand dollars. Just let us have the house.”
Once they’ve sold the rancher near Gibsons, they will move more houses. They’re currently negotiating with the owner of two Kerrisdale houses that would otherwise be destined for the landfill. Their five-year plan is to scale up to a neighbourhood size area, with a cluster of about 10 or 15 houses.
They are looking for acreage that has no infrastructure, such as utility hookups or roads. They want to start building a community from scratch, adding houses as they become available. It will be an identifiable community where people agree on common goals, such as riding bicycles, electric cars, communal gardens and amenities and living as self-sustainably as possible.
“We would have to write up an overall agreement,” Mr. McNee says. “There would be a fee for the small farm on the property, and everybody would feed into that if they wanted to live there.”
Mr. McNee is working on finding investors, which is how the young Culdesac Tempe founders have grown the concept.
“I know personally quite a lot of the developers locally and a lot of the business owners, and I’ve had several of them mark an interest in what we are doing,” Mr. McNee says. “The whole ethos of the entire idea is fantastically received by almost everybody I talk to. Everyone loves it.
“We are saving these beautiful homes from the landfill, we are enhancing them and adding sustainable elements and essentially helping the environment. You only need to look at what’s happening with the climate change movement and the investment in wood buildings right now, it is absolutely huge – It’s the way the world is moving.”
And their investor partner would need to be aligned with the same values, Mr. Lewis says. They’d have to believe in upcycling and recycling.
It’s not the first time a group has looked to house relocation as an answer to the housing crisis. On the San Juan Islands, a cluster of a recycled houses built in the early 20th century has been growing since 2015. They were moved by barge from Victoria, which has also seen a number of demolitions as land values soared. The San Juan Community Home Trust, however, has deed restrictions that permanently restrict sale price, which keeps the homes affordable. It was considered one of the first projects of its kind, driven by desperate working class families who need homes.
Once they scale up, the pair hopes to make affordability more of the focus.
“You have a lot of people moving to Squamish and further up to Pemberton to try to get closer to nature. This is a step further,” Mr. McNee says.
“People are just crying out for what we are trying to provide. It’s just that they don’t know how to get it.”
Your house is your most valuable asset. We have a weekly Real Estate newsletter to help you stay on top of news on the housing market, mortgages, the latest closings and more. Sign up today.