Vancouver sending heritage homes to the wood chipper

By Knute Berger
Crosscut archive image.

A 1909 home is demolished in Vancouver. Credit: Vancouver Heritage Society

By Knute Berger

The Vancouver Sun calls spring the “demolition season” in Vancouver, BC. Growth and development in the city are booming, driven in part by demand from Asia. The rate of destruction has been high for single-family homes: There are an estimated 1,000 demolition permits issued each year.

It’s not as if the homes are only being demolished for density: There’s a strong market for large, luxury, multimillion-dollar houses to replace smaller, older and more affordable homes. In Vancouver, they call them “monster houses.” Neighborhoods in West Vancouver, like Dunbar-Southlands, have been especially hard hit. West Siders have been described as feeling “under siege.”

In response, the city crafted a Heritage Action Plan at the end of 2013. The idea was to take steps to preserve older housing stock and “character” homes by implementing new rules to encourage developers to adopt green practices and reconsider demolishing structures built before 1940. The plan has been debated — preservationists have been concerned about excluding homes built after 1940, for example — but the worries have become more tangible as the plan, at least in its early stages, appears not to have slowed demolitions.

It has, however, changed the way some of the homes are demolished. Instead of knocking down the older dwellings and dumping them into a landfill, developers are being required to deconstruct pre-1940s homes more carefully and recycle or reuse the bits and pieces.

Most pre-1940 houses must be 75 percent reused or recycled; if they're deemed “character houses” that standard jumps to 90 percent. A “character house” is an architectural judgment about the building’s stylistic integrity, period features and its heritage contribution to the city’s fabric. It need not be a landmark or landmark worthy, though it could be a candidate for the city’s heritage register.

Keeping demoed homes out of the waste stream is a greener approach, but some argue that, instead of preserving heritage, the city is really just making its waste management system greener. The homes are still fodder for the bulldozers.

The increased costs of recycling demolition waste or reusing deconstructed parts hasn’t yet deterred demolition. That means that one of the heritage plan's stated goals — to “encourage preservation and renewal of character homes in Vancouver” — has been left unfulfilled. The demand for new homes is strong and the loss of architectural character continues.

Even worse, some have decided that moving or dismantling older homes for reuse is too expensive, impractical and labor intensive. Instead, they're sending old homes into the wood chipper. Reports Canada’s Globe & Mail, “It might not be everyone’s ideal to see that sweet 1930s-era bungalow chipped up for biofuel, but it does meet the City of Vancouver’s stated objective to create green jobs and take pressure off its landfills.”

What’s that in your gas tank? A heritage home!

The practicality and sustainability of that? It’s debatable. Lower gas prices have put a crimp in the biofuels business, and some have questioned whether burning wood — especially fresh timber — is in fact a green practice, arguing that live trees are better for the planet than energy sources reliant on burning wood pellets. The chipped homes could be contributing to a problematic business model, not to mention giving preservationists indigestion.

In any case, keeping the older homes would not only help maintain a neighborhood’s personality and charm, but is in fact the greener approach. Many of the residential lots being cleared in Vancouver are large enough to accommodate two homes, the old one and a new one. Other homes could be moved elsewhere. Preservationists have called for a broader approach to stopping the demolitions, including favorable zoning and more flexibility on building codes.

Retrofitting older homes turns out to be much greener than demolitions and even greener than new, green construction. That's according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Green Lab 2012 report, “The Greenest Building: Quantifying the Environmental Value of Building Reuse.” Looking at Oregon, the report estimated that “retrofitting, rather than demolishing and replacing, just one percent of the city of Portland’s office buildings and single family homes over the next 10 years would help meet 15 percent of their county’s [Multnomah’s] total CO2 reduction targets over the next decade.”

New construction, even energy efficient construction, can have long-lasting negative impacts in terms of climate change. According to the Green Lab study, “it takes 10 to 80 years for a new building that is 30 percent more efficient than an average performing existing building to overcome, through efficient operations, the negative climate impacts related to the construction process.”

In other words, there’s a huge cost to the wave of demolitions that greener demolitions can’t address.

One conundrum is the market. An active, wealthy clientele for “monster homes” over older bungalows creates a strong financial incentive that is difficult to overcome. Private property owners want to cash-in, new residents want homes to suit their custom needs. Still, there’s an environmental and cultural cost for letting the market rule. Preserving neighborhood character — however that is defined — and improving the planet takes a comprehensive approach.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.