With two houses demolished every day in Vancouver, why are we sending 90 per cent of the resulting debris to the landfill?
This is the moment of destruction I’ve been waiting for. The excavator squares to the side of its target, a stately East Coast-style house on a quiet street in Kerrisdale. At the end of its long hydraulic arm is a huge metal bucket, which pauses for a moment above the sloped roof and then comes crashing down with no resistance whatsoever. Asphalt shingles go flying and two-by-fours splinter like matchsticks. The sound is different than what I expected, sharper, more like a clap than a crash.
Again and again the bucket comes down. Crunching the house from the roof down, it pushes all the debris to the middle, filling in the basement and creating a path forward. “There’s no science” to demolition, claims the excavator’s operator, Cameron Turtle, but it’s clearly a skill he has practiced. He moves quickly, and within half an hour a third of the building is gone. Through the dust, it’s possible to see a cross-section of the house, and inside, remnants of a home. There’s an olive-green oven, a washer and dryer, ’70s-style wood-grain cabinets, a pot light hanging from its electrical wire, a door swinging on its hinges.
Within 90 minutes, the whole house – all 4,800 square feet of it – has been flattened. Even though I’d been warned that if I blinked I’d miss it, the speed and efficiency with which one person and an excavator can demolish a house are surprising. Which makes it not surprising that, even though on average two houses are demolished every day in Vancouver, you may have never seen a demolition in progress.
Vancouver proper has reached the outward limits of its growth, so where there is construction there is most likely also demolition. In 2010, 881 demolition permits were issued by the city, the majority of which were for double- and single-family dwellings, like this one, which sits on a generous, cedar-lined corner lot totalling slightly more than an acre. The property was halved when it went on the market last year, and the two pieces sold for a total of just over $8 million. It’s a perfect example of how a rebounding real estate market, fuelled by foreign investment and combined with city policies that encourage denser residential zoning, is driving the demolition business in Vancouver.
House demolition waste
The product of all this demolition is waste – a lot of waste. The construction, demolition and renovation sector in Metro Vancouver is responsible for one-third of the region’s total waste, or roughly 35 million tonnes. And in a typical demolition, 85 to 90 per cent of the volume of each building ends up in the landfill, according to Metro Vancouver.
More than half of that volume is wood and other materials that are recyclable, including asphalt shingles, concrete and metals. While the city of Vancouver is looking at ways to encourage higher rates of recycling, in a business where time is money and margins are tight, it will be difficult to get this sector on board voluntarily.
Currently, hazardous materials – asbestos, drywall, PCBs, chemicals and underground fuel tanks – are the only materials in this city that, by law, must be removed from a building prior to demolition and given special handling.
As an asbestos remover, Larry St. Marie is one of the first – and one of the last – people in a building before it comes down. He’s the first person on-site this morning at the Kerrisdale house, and he takes me through the stripped-down building just hours before it is demolished. Asbestos is fine just sitting there, St. Marie tells me, but when it’s disturbed the particles can hang in the air for 24 hours before settling, potentially in a human lung, where they are known to cause cancer.
St. Marie is required to be here for the demolition itself. If more asbestos is found during the demolition, all work must stop until it’s dealt with, but usually the actual tear-down is an easy day for him. The hard work was earlier, having to remove all the asbestos while wearing a bulky white hazmat suit, just like in the movies. Once the asbestos abatement is complete, drywall crews go through to remove the drywall, and then the salvagers come, who scour for anything that might have resale value.
St. Marie is upset that the salvage crew didn’t take the hardwood floors. “I had people hounding me for that,” he says. “That nice, long-plank stuff – they don’t make that anymore.” Later, during the demolition, he mutters, “terrible, terrible,” as the planks are ripped out and crushed. For whatever reason – perhaps it had been sanded too thin, he suggests – the salvagers didn’t think it valuable enough to remove.