Builders and Cities Seek Alternatives to Demolition

Meeting the need for new homes doesn’t mean old ones belong in the landfill.

At night, a large burgundy wood-paneled house is loaded onto a large yellow trailer for relocation.
Photo by Christine Fwu

Housing construction is mushrooming in many Canadian cities. But what happens to the houses that need to be removed to make way for more housing units?

For BC’s Renewal Home Development, the answer is to save homes from demolition by moving them out of the wrecking ball’s trajectory—often to areas facing high levels of housing insecurity. Although home relocation seems like a win-win, the lack of monetary incentives for developers—combined with the logistics of moving giant structures—make it a complicated challenge.

“It’s like solving a Rubik’s cube while you are standing on a platform that’s about to fall underneath you,” said Glyn Lewis, founder and CEO of Renewal, in a Zoom interview. His company has facilitated the relocation of several buildings from the Metro Vancouver area and is pushing for policies to make it easier to do more.

According to Lewis and his team, encountering resistance is part of the job. For example, last year, Renewal received media attention for preserving a 111-year-old yellow schoolhouse, barging it from Vancouver’s Kitsilano neighbourhood to Xwmélch’tstn (Capilano) on the North Shore. Behind the success story, the project faced many roadblocks. Lewis says multiple government bodies were concerned about complexity and the potential damage the relocation could cause. Decision-makers were finally convinced to go through with the project because the Squamish Nation was looking to house an early childhood education centre and ancestral-language school. 

Every relocation project requires that the building’s infrastructure be assessed and permits obtained. Then comes the engineering feat of loading the house onto giant trailers and wheeling it down streets at night to avoid traffic, typically to reach waterways for smoother transport. 

Building relocation is not new, but with record rates of growth in Canada, it may be needed now more than ever. In Metro Vancouver alone, homes have been demolished at an average rate of about eight a day for the past decade, with a total of 2,371 homes in 2022. According to estimates from Light House—a consultancy organization focused on green building practices and circularity in construction—9,000 of the homes demolished between 2004 and 2022 could have been relocated instead. 

Tearing houses down and replacing them with more energy-efficient homes might boost real-estate prices, but it doesn’t lower emissions. A 2018 study of new-build emissions in Vancouver found that it takes an average of 168 years for the efficiency gains of a single typical high-efficiency home to offset the carbon emissions from building it.

9,000 of the homes demolished in Metro Vancouver between 2004 and 2022 could have been relocated instead.

In this climate, advocates are calling for incentives for homes to be reused instead of demolished. But the mindset around multi-unit developments, according to Lewis, is usually that relocation is just one more item to add to a short project timeline. 

“We need housing, and there are many constraints, so there’s this huge push—basically from every level of government—to create and increase supply,” says Lewis. “The challenge is that the process to achieve that density is unbelievably wasteful.”

Over the past year, Renewal has presented an action plan to Vancouver-region municipalities. The 12-page document calls for policies such as automatic building assessments for relocation, permits allowing buildings to be moved quickly, and density bonuses for developers who agree to relocate homes.

Even if buildings aren’t viable for relocation, their components can be preserved. Several BC cities have already implemented construction-waste diversion requirements for demolitions. However, in some municipalities, these apply only to buildings from before the 1950s or ’60s, when homes framed with durable first-growth timber were the standard. Exceptionally, Burnaby and Surrey mandated in 2022 that at least 70% of all building-demolition waste be diverted from landfills. 

Globally, one third of landfill can be attributed to construction materials, and the construction industry accounts for nearly 40% of carbon-dioxide emissions. Over 75% of construction waste contains potential value, while billions of tonnes of concrete, panelling, and other materials pile up in dumps. Building waste is the second-biggest contributor of non-biodegradable waste to Canada’s landfills (after plastic waste), at 60 kg per capita per year. 

According to Adriana Velázquez Rendón, a senior project engineer with Metro Vancouver’s Zero Waste plan, Metro Vancouver supports the best practices being developed and implemented among its municipalities. In the fall of 2023, Metro Vancouver began offering temporary storage for home relocations. By early 2024, it had been used for five homes, with the Zero Waste Committee estimating that just the first home parked there kept 18 metric tonnes of waste from being created. 

“We are working with municipalities to switch the industry’s mindset [to see] that construction materials are a resource,” said Velázquez Rendón in a phone interview. She adds that while it’s more challenging to reuse materials from post-mid-20th-century houses, “it is possible if you get creative.” For example, she notes, builders can reuse a fully constructed wall rather than picking out the pieces of wood, and homeowners in Vancouver can now donate materials to Habitat for Humanity for sale and reuse. 

Deconstruction is the skilled, piece-by-piece process of taking down a building.

Several major American municipalities have established models for avoiding unnecessary waste by promoting “deconstruction”—the skilled, piece-by-piece process of taking down a building. In 2016, Portland became the first city in the US to enact a deconstruction ordinance, essentially banning mechanical demolitions of all homes built before 1940. Since then, cities such as Seattle, Pittsburgh, San Antonio, and Minneapolis have adopted similar policies.

In Canada, Victoria has taken the initiative on handling demolition waste better. Victoria’s sustainability manager, Rory Tooke, wrote in an email that city staff reviewed regulatory precedents across North America, commissioned a study to determine the market for salvaged wood and deconstruction services in their region, and in early 2020 travelled to Portland. The result was a refundable-deposit policy for demolition waste and salvage, which the city began to phase in starting in 2022. 

Victoria’s Demolition Waste and Deconstruction Bylaw requires that those applying for a demolition permit for houses built before 1960 pay a C$19,500 deposit, which the permit-holder gets back after salvaging a specified amount of wood and providing documentation on how the wood was saved and its plan for reuse. According to Tooke, the new policy is expected to divert up to 3,000 metric tonnes a year of valuable old-growth wood from landfills and recirculate them into the local economy.

Renewal says they are gaining policymaker support by demonstrating the positive impact of successful relocation projects. The company is planning to “rescue, relocate, and repurpose 250 homes per year as affordable low-carbon housing for communities in need by 2029,” says Lewis. 

It’s tempting to use the metaphor of hoisting a whole home on wheels as the major lift needed to scale solutions to construction waste. Relocating and deconstructing homes will require new policies and infrastructure—including builders and developers willing to repurpose buildings, experts to complete the work, and recycling banks to accept materials. Ideally, the next step will be constructing homes with circularity in mind.

While impacts remain to be determined, municipal-level initiatives are making room for new homes, while giving old houses new life. 

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