Business

Unbuilding the future: how a young industry is turning yesterday's materials into tomorrow's buildings

The deconstruction business could create thousands of new jobs, save old-growth lumber from the landfill, and preserve heritage—if it can get off the ground

By Jimmy Thomson
February 27, 2021
Business

Unbuilding the future: how a young industry is turning yesterday's materials into tomorrow's buildings

The deconstruction business could create thousands of new jobs, save old-growth lumber from the landfill, and preserve heritage—if it can get off the ground

By Jimmy Thomson
Feb 27, 2021
Workers at the Cook Street deconstruction site survey the home. Photo: Jimmy Thomson / Capital Daily
Business

Unbuilding the future: how a young industry is turning yesterday's materials into tomorrow's buildings

The deconstruction business could create thousands of new jobs, save old-growth lumber from the landfill, and preserve heritage—if it can get off the ground

By Jimmy Thomson
February 27, 2021
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Unbuilding the future: how a young industry is turning yesterday's materials into tomorrow's buildings
Workers at the Cook Street deconstruction site survey the home. Photo: Jimmy Thomson / Capital Daily

On a cold morning in early February, a crew is hard at work disassembling a home that has seen Cook Street grow and change since 1908. They strip the walls of plaster and drywall, revealing wide planks of old fir, straight-grained and solid. The floors are made of white oak. Out back, neatly organized piles of wood are ready to be incorporated into new structures. 

“This is not just wood you can buy at Home Depot,” explains Adam Corneil, the founder of Unbuilders, a company that takes buildings apart piece by piece. “This is old-growth lumber from big old trees.”

Deconstruction is a new phenomenon in a construction environment that prizes speed and efficiency above all else. But the “efficiency” of tearing down a building and discarding its valuable insides is a false one, built on an outdated premise of limitless resources. 

An estimated 8,000 tonnes of construction and demolition materials from the City of Victoria alone end up in the Hartland landfill every year. "We’re filling up our landfills on the Island with old-growth lumber,” says Corneil. “It’s so irrational. It’s so disheartening.”

Deconstruction can divert 95% of the material that would otherwise end up in landfills. 

For a city keen to reduce its environmental footprint through measures like banning single-use plastics, a bylaw restricting the waste of old-growth lumber seems like a logical step to take. Corneil says the amount of plastic waste generated every year by single-use items like straws amounts to roughly the waste from just five house demolitions. 

“I think that we can do better than throwing old buildings into the landfill,” Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps says.

But for most people demolishing a building to replace it with a new home, the price of deconstruction—and especially the additional time it requires (usually several weeks)—remains a disincentive. 

A demolition can cost as little as $10,000—though Corneil argues demolitions that cheap require doing unsafe and potentially illegal things, and at the very least requires exporting waste instead of dealing with it here. 

An estimate he provided to Capital Daily shows an average deconstruction project costs about twice that of a demolition. That accounts for whatever cost can be offset when materials, stripped from a building being deconstructed, are either sold or donated to Habitat for Humanity for a tax rebate.

Rory Tooke, a young City of Victoria official who wrote his PhD dissertation on predicting building energy consumption at a city scale, is in charge of figuring out what a bylaw to restrict waste of old-growth lumber might look like. His staff are in the process of looking at other jurisdictions’ approaches, and last year that research took him down to Portland, Ore.

The Portland example

Preston Browning was working as a finishing carpenter in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina flooded entire quarters of the old city, destroying homes that had been in people’s families for generations. 

The grand Creole-style homes—some more than 150 years old—that New Orleans was famous for were waterlogged and moulding. Tens of thousands of houses had to come down, but Browning fought to have parts of them saved.

He co-wrote an op-ed in the New York Times, pleading with the Bush administration to devote some of its emergency funds to deconstruction instead of demolition. He got a seat at the table, but the money didn’t come through.

“FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] and the Army Corps of Engineers have a very rigid way of disaster remediation, which is to scrape everything clean as quickly as possible,” he says. “Because it was untested, we got a lot of pushback.”

In the end, about a dozen homes were deconstructed to varying degrees—a drop in the bucket, he calls it—while the rest were demolished. The fight was in vain.

“What I learned, personally, is that people’s imaginations aren’t that big,” he says. “It’s got to be grassroots. That’s the only way to get things done.”

He returned to Portland, but soon lost his carpentry job when the housing market dissolved in 2008. He and his sister found themselves scrambling, but then they started a company: Salvage Works. As homes were deconstructed, the company would buy up the wood, kiln dry it, and either resell it as raw material or incorporate it into furniture. The company thrived, and when Portland began considering how it would incentivize deconstruction, he was invited to the table once more. 

Shawn Wood was at the head of that table. His career had been leading up to that moment: the city wanted an ordinance that would cut demolition waste by more than a quarter, create new jobs, and save the city’s heritage from the wrecking ball as people flocked to the newly ultra-hip city. 

His job was to get input from salvage retailers like Browning, as well as home builders, historical preservationists, deconstruction contractors, and more, and come back with a recommendation for the US’s first deconstruction ordinance.

They proposed that buildings older than 100 years—roughly a third of demolitions—would have to be deconstructed instead of demolished. 

It worked. The ordinance spawned new deconstruction companies and new retailers selling reclaimed wood—Browning insists he welcomes the competition—and created jobs in deconstruction. More than a million and a half kilograms of lumber have been reclaimed, and much more material has avoided the landfill. It put pressure on demolition companies to clean up their act, raising the relative price of demolition while deconstruction benefited from innovation and competition to lower the cost. 

The best sign of success: “We had a significant number of projects that said, ‘I got bids for both, and I’m just gonna do deconstruction,’” Wood says. People are choosing deconstruction even when they don’t have to because the cost has become similar enough that the benefits outweigh whatever additional cost remains. 

Portland’s success has set the bar for the United States and Canada. Palo Alto, Milwaukee, San Antonio, Pittsburgh, Phoenix, Vancouver, and others have adopted or are in the process of adopting their own versions of Portland’s legislation. 

That was the context that greeted Tooke when he arrived to see what lessons Victoria could learn—so his enthusiasm and that of the City of Victoria is understandable. It’s seemingly a perfect match for the city’s goal of reducing waste, and he believes that just to start, with the existing market, it could get as far as 10% of the way there. He thinks he’ll be able to bring a proposal before council by the end of May. 

Browning recommends making sure the city is fostering a business community that can handle the materials that come out of deconstruction. “In retrospect, that’s what I would have said on the advisory group,” he says. “They need to support small businesses to market their material.” 

But contractors say a major stumbling block remains before the industry can blossom like it has south of the border.

‘A terror to the industry’

Most of what comes out of Unbuilders' Cook Street project—the doors, windows, flooring and lumber—will be sold to Demxx, a Coombs-based retailer and contractor owned by a man named David Behan.

That's not what he wants to talk about, though. The first words out of Behan’s mouth when Capital Daily reached him on the phone is a cursing-out of WorkSafeBC. He says the provincial agency, which is responsible for setting and enforcing regulations for workplace safety, is strangling the deconstruction business in the cradle. 

“They’re a terror to the industry,” he says. “I think [deconstruction] is a very noble cause, but in reality the legislation is not in favour of it. The whole regulation is against recycling.”

Demxx routinely processes entire buildings into valuable reclaimed materials that fetch a high price, and that, he says, is what motivates him. “I’m a capitalist—I’m not an environmentalist,” Behan says. “We do not do this out of the goodness of our hearts.” 

But he says even the value of the materials isn’t always worth the struggle. He describes a situation in which a gym floor had to be scrapped because WorkSafeBC deemed the lead paint in the floor’s lines too great of a hazard. 

Lead and asbestos are commonly found in older buildings and do pose serious health risks to workers if not handled properly. Behan, however, argues that the lengths contractors are expected to go to in eliminating the risk unfairly benefits demolition over deconstruction. 

“There’s asinine and then there’s asinine,” he says, among many colourful expressions that can’t be reprinted. 

Corneil, of Unbuilders, agrees in some ways (though in characteristically milder terms) that applying the same standards to deconstruction as it does to demolition seems “silly”—like requiring crews to construct guardrails on a job when the floor is being removed within “a matter of hours.”

WorkSafeBC disputes that its regulations are too onerous. The organization declined a request for an interview but said in a statement that its officers “don't make decisions on what to save or dispose of” and that the responsibility for making those decisions is on the contractors themselves, within the constraints of the law.

Corneil says he is working with WorkSafeBC to encourage them to adapt their regulations to make more sense for the new deconstruction environment. 

For now, though, Behan says the demand for materials far outstrips the supply. 

“We’ve got a 10-acre site, and we divert a vast, vast quantity of building materials away from a landfill,” he says. “Could we double that or triple it? Yes we could—if we could get the materials.” 

Wood says the Portland ordinance has actually spurred the planning office to crack down on unsafe practices in the demolition industry—now, contractors need to pay more attention to potentially hazardous materials, even stripping the entire outside of the building, before the demolition can go ahead. That has further benefited the competing deconstruction business. 

Back at the Cook Street deconstruction site, Corneil's project is coming together as the precious material stacks higher and higher outside. It's his Vancouver-based company's second foray onto the Island, but with the support of the city's coming bylaw he expects to be coming back regularly.

If the industry gets off the ground on Vancouver Island, the next challenge will be to keep it healthy. That’s what keeps Wood awake at night now that deconstruction has been proven as a viable alternative to demolition: how can governments help ensure business can find a market for the old-growth wood coming out of these homes?

Reclaimed wood has been a popular aesthetic in bars, restaurants, coffee shops, and offices over the past decade. There’s no guarantee that trend will carry on. Along with encouraging the reclamation of materials through deconstruction, Victoria may have to help businesses find ways to find new markets, make new products, and stay relevant.

If not, Browning says, “you’re just producing a lot of expensive firewood.” 

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