Every year, dozens of old buildings end up in the landfill. We need to get smarter about how we replace them.
IN MARCH OF 2018, a call came into the Focus offices, asking us to hurry down to Despard Avenue, a leafy, sidewalk-free street in Rockland. A crew was at a beautiful old house there, the caller said, and getting ready to tear it down.
The house was a 1,600-square-foot, three-bedroom bungalow, built in 1933. Many of its period details, like its mullioned windows, had already been removed, but the house was still distinctive, topped by a series of gently curved roofs, like a Chinese temple. A neighbour said it had been owned for many years by a doctor who’d lived in Africa, and had recently died.
The crew fired up an excavator and started pulling down the house, smashing its wood framing into splinters.
Photographed in 2017: a unique, 1933-built bungalow, for sale on Despard Avenue.
A few months later, the bungalow mostly ended up in the landfill. The replacement house was three times the size, erasing any claims for greater “energy efficiency.”
A beardy guy named Kevin, who lived in a new place down the street, said that when he’d gone out for a walk, the old house was still standing. Now, on his return, it was half-demolished. Kevin said the house had needed work. What kind? “It was old,” he simply replied, although realtors’ photos suggested the house was in immaculate condition.
An elderly neighbour stopped by. Kevin asked him, “Well, what do you think of that?”
“I don’t know. What can you do?" the neighbour replied. “But that roof looks like it’s in better shape than mine.”
This scene gets repeated dozens of times every year. In 2019, the City of Victoria issued permits to demolish 39 single-family homes, and local municipalities issued 182 such permits across the Capital Region, according to federal statistics. Over the past decade, some 375 houses have been demolished in the City of Victoria alone. The annual numbers peaked in 2015, when 53 houses in the City were torn down — inspiring residents to sign petitions and deliver presentations to Victoria’s councillors, urging them to do more to protect character homes. But the destruction has continued.
Blame our overheated housing market, and rules that amplify its effects. The large demand for the limited supply of land relatively close to the water, and/or downtown jobs, has pushed up prices so much that the few people wealthy enough to buy into Victoria often also have the money to tear down an old house and build new — something our property-tax system actively encourages.
The BC Assessment Authority evaluates properties according to what it considers “the highest and best use of land,” which means putting the biggest, most expensive building upon it possible. Old homes generally don’t qualify, as BC Assessment presumes that buildings steadily depreciate with age, and undergo “functional and economic obsolescence.” If an old house gets torn down, it likely was “no longer contributing to the value of that property,” one assessor told Focus: the buyer realized they could do more with the land. “The system isn’t set up to protect individual houses,” the assessor said. “It’s set up to reflect markets.”
(In keeping with this bizarre logic, a heritage designation on a house actually reduces its property’s overall financial value. “If it impacts the ability to tear it down and build something new, the market’s going to reflect that,” the assessor said. “Any time you have a restriction on a property, it’s going to be worth less.”)
The situation is worse in the City of Vancouver, where around 1,000 houses get demolished every year. In 2017, UBC architecture professor Joe Damen and data analyst Jens von Bergmann created a “teardown index,” identifying Vancouver houses most likely to get replaced because they have a low “relative building value” compared to the land they sit upon. Many of these doomed houses were built before the 1960s, but Damen and von Bergmann argue that in this market, even homes only a few years old will get flattened too: “Despite their high price, their value of these buildings relative to overall property is low, suggesting today's new single family home is tomorrow’s teardown.” They predict a quarter of all single-family homes in Vancouver will be demolished by 2030.
Coming to Victoria? Analysts predict a quarter of all Vancouver single-family homes will be torn down by 2030 because the apparent value of those buildings is low relative to the cost of land.
The casualty isn’t just the loss of built heritage. Damen and von Bergmann say this constant replacement also destroys affordability: because new homes are expensive to build, they jack the value of their respective properties even higher, turning more of the city into an exclusive enclave for global wealth. (This inflationary spiral might be broken if houses were being replaced by apartments, but the vast majority of demolitions occur in areas zoned residential, where one single-family house is simply replaced by another.)
Constant replacement is also terrible for the environment. Developers sometimes claim old houses should be replaced because new homes are more “energy efficient,” but that’s deceptive. In a 2018 paper, Damen and von Bergmann calculated that once you factor in the energy used in constructing a modern house — which the high cost of land often incentivizes the owner to build to maximum size, requiring more energy to heat — it would have to stand for 168 years to produce less carbon dioxide than the leaky old house it replaced. “The results show that at the scale of both the individual building lot and the city,” they concluded, “the environmental benefits of tearing down and replacing even very poorly performing buildings are dubious at best in Vancouver.”
But that pattern got repeated on Despard. The 1,600 square-foot, 1933 bungalow was replaced by a rectanguloid of nearly 5,000 square feet. The new building is assessed at $1.77 million and the land at $1.47 million for a total of $3.24 million, making it one of the 10 most expensive residential properties in the City of Victoria.
Waste another big issue
Unaffordability and energy overuse aside, perhaps the most obvious stupidity of demolishing old homes is that their remains typically get treated like garbage, and not as a bank of materials to be reused in new housing. As recent back-and-forth arguments in the Times Colonist have noted, the Capital Regional District is planning to cut 73 acres of forest to expand the Hartland landfill — partly, it turns out, to accommodate a growing volume of construction and demolition waste.
“The only material to have increased in waste generation compared to all other years since 2001 was wood and wood products, now representing 61 kg/capita [annually],” a 2018 report to the CRD noted. “This is primarily wood from construction, renovation and demolition activities. All other primary materials have either stayed consistent or have decreased in the overall weight arriving at Hartland.”
A solution to this waste problem has emerged, though — and you can see it in action at 1015 Cook Street, where the Unbuilders are systematically taking apart a two-storey house built in 1908, and rescuing nearly every bit of material used in its construction.
“We hit 95 percent on every house, that’s 95 percent salvage and recycle,” says Dan Armishaw, the Unbuilders manager for Vancouver Island, standing in what used to be a dentist’s office, surrounded by items his crew has already set aside.
The stained glass will be reused in The Charlesworth, the five-storey, 31-unit rental apartment block slated to replace the old house. The kitchen and bathroom fixtures will be donated to Habitat For Humanity. The windows, doors and mouldings — painted wood usually goes in the landfill, Armishaw notes — will go to Demxx, a massive heritage resale warehouse in Coombs. Even the old stucco scraped off the walls outside will get recycled into concrete.
But upstairs, in the house’s two former apartments, Armishaw’s crews are getting ready to extract the house’s real treasure: the dense, old-growth lumber used in its framing and walls.
Armishaw pries off some strips of lath to reveal the Douglas-fir studs underneath. This is true dimensional lumber, he says, likely milled in the 19th century. “This is the wood that made BC’s economy what it is. To throw it away, it’s like throwing our history away.” Perfectly preserved inside the walls, it could be reused in furniture, or even to frame new houses.
Armishaw says he prefers to see old houses renovated instead of deconstructed, but this site, just south of Fort Street, suits greater density, and the house can’t realistically be saved. (Nickel Bros. looked at moving it, but decided the house wasn’t in good enough condition and too many utility cables were in the way.) “This building has to come down,” Armishaw says, “but at least there’s peace of mind knowing that people in the community are going to get a piece of that heritage, and that the wood used to build that house can be put back into circulation.”
Signs of improvement at 1015 Cook, where the Unbuilders are dismantling a house built in 1908.
Dan Armishaw reveals old-growth lumber that the Unbuilders will salvage. A forthcoming City of Victoria bylaw, modelled after those in Vancouver and Portland, could mandate such deconstruction.
Demolishing a big house might cost $10,000, while deconstruction can run three or four times that. “We’re six people on a site for a few weeks, instead of a machine operator for a few days,” explains Adam Corneil, the Unbuilders founder. But the extra cost is worth it to owners. In some cases, they can donate the building’s materials through Unbuilders to Habitat For Humanity, which gives the owner a hefty tax credit. In other cases, Unbuilders wholesale what they salvage, which reduces their bill, and gives the owner an appealing story.
Corneil got the idea for the company in 2014, when he was mainly building new passive-solar homes in Vancouver with single-use products. (“Even though I was building energy-efficient homes, they weren’t really aligning with my values,” he says.) One project involved gutting a heritage house, and the wood he took out was so beautiful that he reworked it in a shop and reinstalled it in the finishes. “That’s all the owner could talk about when the job was done — they didn’t talk about their fancy kitchen and their marble, they just talked about the reclaimed wood. And at the same time, every house around me in Kitsilano was being demolished,” Corneil recalls. “So I said, ‘We’ve got to make a business out of this.’”
That business will soon get a boost from the City of Victoria. Last November, staff unveiled the City’s zero-waste strategy, aiming for a 50 percent reduction in landfill disposal by 2050. Some of its forthcoming actions have already been mentioned publicly, like a ban on styrofoam takeout food containers, but another includes “new requirements for contractors, property owners and developers to recover waste materials during construction, renovation and demolition,” with the goal of making reuse and deconstruction commonplace. City staff are crafting a bylaw, likely to come later this year.
In 2014, the City of Vancouver introduced its own bylaw requiring reuse and recycling of demolition materials for pre-1940 homes; in 2018, it expanded the bylaw to include pre-1950 homes, and require deconstruction for pre-1910 and heritage-registered houses.
“It’s a good start, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough,” says Corneil. “The ‘recycling’ bit is greenwashing, because what occurs in the industry is smashing all that lumber, and then taking it to a facility that mulches and incinerates it” — releasing its stored carbon and contributing to climate change. Corneil wants to see deconstruction required for pre-1940 homes, as it is in Portland, or even pre-1950 ones, because they still contain old-growth lumber. “I’m pushing the City of Victoria very hard to follow suit,” Corneil says.
Whether Victoria’s bylaw will make a significant dent in our region’s volume of waste is unclear, as other levels of government still seem afraid of running afoul of the construction and waste-removal industries. In its draft Solid Waste Management Plan, which anticipates the expansion of Hartland, the CRD only outlines vague, long-term strategies to reduce construction and demolition waste, such as “develop and disseminate educational tools to support material diversion,” “promote green building standards,” and “investigate” bans on dumping clean wood and mixed demolition loads at the landfill — even though the Regional District of Nanaimo has banned such dumping since 2014. Back in 2009, federal and provincial environment ministers, including British Columbia’s, committed to developing Extended Producer Responsibility programs — the eco-fees currently levied on items like paint and batteries to pay for their recycling or disposal — to cover construction materials, but no such measures have appeared.
“You can do whatever you want in the interest of sustainability, if you’re not concerned about housing affordability,” says Casey Edge, executive director of the Victoria Residential Builders’ Association, when asked about the City’s plans. “We’ll see what the City of Victoria wants to do with mandatory dismantling of homes, but it’s not going to increase affordability, which is the biggest concern right now when it comes to housing in our region.”
“We’re cutting old-growth forests at an alarming rate, and we’re throwing old-growth timber into the landfill at an alarming rate,” replies Victoria mayor Lisa Helps. “So [the prospective bylaw] is about more than zero waste, it’s about reclaiming, reusing, and looking at environmental protection at the same time.” Helps says it’s not clear if the bylaw will issue a mandate, or provide incentives, but like with its plastic-bag ban, the City will consult with local businesses to ensure they’re on board. “At a certain point, this will just be the new normal.”
As for affordability, Helps says that should be improved by the City’s forthcoming “missing middle” bylaw, which could permit triplexes or fourplexes to be built on current single-family lots — although others say such blanket “upzoning” merely increases the value of land even further, and accelerates the demolition of existing homes.
In any case, arguments about the fate of old houses are sure to continue. The bungalow on Despard Avenue may be gone, but a 1928-built home across the street, on a 13,000 square-foot corner lot, is currently up for sale.
Ross Crockford lives in a suite in a house built in 1910. According to its latest assessment, the building is worth one-eighth the value of the land it occupies, likely making it a future teardown.