New Vancouver Island ‘deconstruction’ company breaks down heritage houses by hand

Environmentally conscious Unbuilders salvage as much as possible

After more a decade in the Vancouver construction industry, Adam Corneil couldn’t stomach to watch another load of old-growth lumber go from a demolished home to the incinerator.

A builder since his teenage days, Corneil, 35, had made a side career of rescuing and refurbishing old-growth wood and other materials from homes set to be demolished.

In the meantime, he watched as demolition crews sent endless amounts of old-growth lumber from century-old homes to the incinerator.

“I’ve seen old-growth go to the landfill or, in Vancouver, into a chipper and used for energy, and it just drives me crazy,” Corneil said.

Until now, it’s only been the “cowboy salvagers” out there picking through soon-to-be-demolished homes. Salvagers seek everything from clapboard siding to old fixtures such as doors, doorknobs, hinges, and especially old-growth oak and fir flooring, and floor joists.

With the climate crisis in our face, and the need to keep forests in the ground, Corneil recognized an opportunity for a holistic approach to demolition. He shifted his Vancouver construction business two years ago into a deconstruction company called the Unbuilders, and business is good.

“Three years ago we were building a house in Vancouver,” Corneil said. “I took the whole crew off the job and over to a deconstruction site until it was done. That was our first job.”

Last year the Vancouver crew deconstructed 21 houses and another 12 renovations for 33 projects.

Unbuilders employee Eric Vanstone carefully chips the stucco off the side of a salvaging project. The crews carefully deconstruct old homes to rescue as many reusable materials as possible, including old growth timber.
(Unbuilders photo)

Unbuilders now have a Vancouver Island crew led by Dan Armishaw in Nanaimo. They completed their first Island deconstruction on Saturday, including a used lumber sale in the front yard of the 1905 home at 240 Wilson St. in Vic West.

Prior to this, Corneil was a cowboy salvager himself. It’s easy to pick out the high-value goods, he noted, but it’s taken a lot of work figuring out how to make “deconstruction by hand” a cost-competitive option compared to regular demolition.

The answer was partnering with a charity, Habitat for Humanity, and also with The ReUse People.

“Because of our partnership with Habitat for Humanity the homeowner gets a tax receipt,” Corneil said. “Up-front, the costs for deconstruction are more than demolition but the tax receipt drives it down to be cost-competitive or even less. Plus, it’s much better for the environment.”

This week the Unbuilders bought all the reclaimed lumber that didn’t sell at 240 Wilson St. and it remains for sale, stored at a site in Nanaimo.

The rest of the reclaimed goods, which in this case includes doors and cabinets, were donated to Habitat for Humanity.

“They’re an all-star charity, we’re so happy to work with them,” Corneil said.

READ ALSO: Greater Victoria developer rushes to demolish historic wall ahead of heritage protection

Corneil has met with representatives from the municipalities in the Lower Mainland, the City of Victoria, and the Capital Regional District, in hopes of more aggressive policies for deconstruction.

In Vancouver, homes built before 1950 must have 75 per cent of non-hazardous materials recycled. That minimum is 90 per cent if the home is deemed a ‘character house.’ It’s only for houses from 1910 and older than must be deconstructed and have a minimum wood salvage of three metric tonnes.

“Something we stress is that even though we’re a relatively young country and our cities are young, they were built with ancient lumber that took 500 years to grow,” Corneil said. “They’re milled from trees here in the region, old-growth fir that’s now extremely hard and strong. It’s really high-grade lumber that we don’t see today.”

reporter@oakbaynews.com

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