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Vancouver crew ‘unbuilds’ home in record time, as it aims to offset demolition waste

This day has been five years in the making — Unbuilders CEO and founder Adam Corneil is watching a crane lift a piece of roof the size of a putting green off a 90-year-old home in Vancouver’s Kerrisdale neighbourhood.

Instead of demolishing houses, Corneil’s company deconstructs them and salvages the materials so they can be returned to the supply chain.

Taking apart this home on Elm Street near West 44 Avenue was supposed to take about three weeks, but the crane makes the process much faster.

Corneil tried out the new workflow for the first time Wednesday morning and by mid-afternoon, his team had already removed the roof, snapping it away in chunks like pieces of Lego.

“We’ve got a number of days work done in the last six hours,” he said proudly. “As far as we can tell, we’re the first company to use a crane like this. It’s a game changer.”

A before picture of the 1930s home that was deconstructed on Elm Street in Vancouver, B.C. (Jesse Johnston/CBC)

Lumber going to a landfill

Corneil says he got the idea for Unbuilders about five years ago when he was working in construction, watching demolition crews toss out lumber from old homes.

“I knew the value of that lumber because it was all old-growth Douglas fir lumber in those pre-1970s houses,” he said. “It was just driving me crazy to see all of that lumber going to a landfill or the incinerator.”

A 2018 city report found Vancouver’s Green Demolition bylaw, which requires companies to recycle three quarters of materials from homes built before 1940, was responsible for diverting nearly 40,000 tons of construction waste from landfills.

The bylaw was widened in 2019 to include all homes built before 1950. 

Corneil says recycling lumber by chipping it up and using it for fuel is better than throwing it away, but he believes salvaging it for other building projects is a much better option.

“We no longer cut old-growth Douglas fir, thankfully, for conventional lumber, so this is a rare resource,” he said. “With every demolition, it becomes more scarce.”

Crews use a crane to remove the roof from a 90-year-old home in Vancouver’s Kerrisdale neighbourhood on Wednesday. (Jesse Johnston/CBC)

Cost and time

Corneil donates materials, such as doors and fixtures, to Habitat for Humanity.

The partnership allows Unbuilders to keep prices competitive with demolition companies because homeowners are given tax receipts for their donations.

Corneil says now that they’re using cranes instead of dismantling homes by hand, they’ll also be competitive with project timelines.

“This allows us to do significantly more homes per year,” he said.

“Every year in Vancouver, there are about 1,200 demolitions that happen in the residential sector and of those, about 700 are pre-1950, which is where you’re getting that really nice old-growth lumber.”

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