With three 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. 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 totaling 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, fueled by foreign investment and combined with city policies that encourage denser residential zoning, is driving the demolition business in Vancouver.
The City of Vancouver has issued an average of 940 demolition permits per year for single-family homes and duplexes since 2012, with the largest number given to property owners in Dunbar and Southlands
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.
Asbestos is fine just sitting there, 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.
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.
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. While some salvage takes place on each site, it’s minimal – maybe 10 or 15 per cent.
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.
The cost of going green
Currently, 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.
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.
Who is Ridgewater Homes
Ridgewater Homes is the company that you can trust for your custom build, home renovation, heritage restoration or commercial. Our focus is complete customer satisfaction. At Ridgewater Homes, we are passionate about the services we provide to our customers. Ridgewater Homes cares just as much about what goes into our customer’s homes, as what we would put into our own.
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