Disposable Housing: Vancouver Home Demolition

With two houses demolished every day in Vancouver, why are we sending 90 per cent ?of the resulting debris to the landfill??

When this house is gone, two new houses will be built, likely using a lot of new wood.

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.


Typically, as much as 90 per cent of the total
volume of a demolished house goes to the landfill.

Reusing and recycling building materials

To be reused or recycled, building materials have to be removed from a building and separated manually before the excavator rolls in and crunches everything together. Craig Fleck of Fleck Brothers Inc., the general contractor on this site, says that while some salvage takes place on each site, it’s minimal – maybe 10 or 15 per cent, he estimates. “It gets very labour-intensive to try to separate it all,” he explains.

It’s this practical consideration that inhibits voluntary recycling in the sector, even though tipping fees for separated recyclables are lower than for mixed waste loads. For example, it only costs between $40 and $60 a tonne to recycle wood at a local transfer station operated by Wastech Services Ltd., while dumping the wood together with mixed construction materials in the landfill costs $97 a tonne, up from $82 last year.

That hike has had an impact on the bottom line in demolition, says Arnie Johansen, projects and risks manager for demolition at Pacific Demolition and Blasting, one of the region’s larger players. However, the cost of labour required to separate materials for recycling is still more than what the company would save on tipping fees, even with the recent hike. 


The cost of going green

Currently, Johansen says, very few clients will make allowances for the extra costs of separation. While the City of Vancouver, for example, and other public institutions like B.C. Housing and BC Hydro often request or demand higher recycling rates in their requests for proposals, the typical homeowner “just wants the cheapest job possible, period,” says Johansen. 

Todd Senft is president of Revision Custom Home Renovations Inc., a company that specializes in high-end, eco-friendly renovations. His company recently participated in a pilot project with Metro Vancouver and the Light House Sustainable Building Centre that aimed to identify challenges and opportunities in recycling and salvaging materials in the renovation sector. Senft’s company gutted the main floor, basement and roof of a wood-framed house in East Vancouver. He estimates that 97 per cent of the materials, mostly wood, that came out were recycled rather than sent to the landfill.

According to Senft, achieving this kind of recycling rate would add about $1,000 to a $250,000 renovation job. However, he says, it’s a short conversation trying to convince a homeowner this is a minor cost compared to the long-term environmental benefits. “People are okay with green,” says Senft, “as long as it doesn’t cost them more.” 

Senft and others think that if recycling rates are to be boosted, local governments have to offer a combination of carrots and sticks: credits for homeowners who insist upon it, incentives such as faster permit processing for contractors that do it, or bylaws with punishments for failing to meet minimum recycling requirements. 

When asked if the City of Vancouver ought to regulate recycling the way it has done with hazardous materials, Fleck responds that wood is the most obvious place to start. It would be impossible to isolate all the wood, he says, but it might be reasonable to require sorting out a minimum portion, perhaps 50 per cent.

David Ramslie, sustainable development program manager with the City of Vancouver, says the city is putting together a draft strategy for an incentive program to promote voluntary uptake of deconstruction. “I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of moving to a policy requirement over time,” he says, adding that the city would first have to determine that adequate markets for recyclable products exist.

Fleck and other demolition contractors point out that existing rules about material handling are difficult to enforce. Fleck says everyone in the business knows about unscrupulous “fly-by-night” operators who will simply dump demolition waste under a bridge, or even worse, on someone else’s job site. “That goes on, unfortunately,” says Fleck. “So you’d have to have somebody watching at landfills, policing for levels of wood.” And that could prove impractical, he suggests.

One thing is clear: in a building sector already fraught with financial risk, the lowest bidder nearly always wins. No company stepped forward voluntarily to treat asbestos as a hazardous material because it was the right thing to do. It took education, communication and, more importantly, regulation. Similarly, if local governments truly want to reap the benefits of higher recycling rates in this sector, leadership will have to come from the top down.