Vital People: Unbuilding a more ethical, sustainable alternative to demolition

Instead of ending up as a heap of rubble in a landfill, older buildings facing demolition can now find new life in another house or furniture as part of a B.C. sustainable-deconstruction venture.

Vancouver-based Unbuilders offers homeowners and builders a more environmentally friendly alternative to demolition, where typically only a few items are salvaged and the rest goes into an already stressed landfill.

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The company’s goal is to reduce the volume of materials that end up in the trash by carefully dismantling homes rather than bulldozing them, and recycling and reusing what it can in new construction.

“We’re not reinventing the wheel. Building salvage has been around for ages,” said Adam Corneil, founder of Unbuilders. “What we are trying to do is engage policymakers and appeal to non-green builders that there are clear environmental reasons to choose on-site dismantling.”

For many years, builders chose demolition because it was relatively inexpensive and quick.

“While dismantling is almost equivalent to demolition, it still costs more,” said Corneil, who started his company in 2018. “We need to educate people of both the social benefit and health benefit to the community when we deconstruct a building. They also get a tax receipt for the value of the salvaged goods.”

Corneil points out that his prices are “fairly competitive” with those of legitimate demolition companies that follow the rules for safe disposal of materials.

He says there is a world of difference between ethical businesses and unscrupulous ones that undercut their quotes and illegally dispose of their materials.

All the lumber he salvages is resold, from dimensional lumber to shiplap and strapping, posts, beams, joists and wide-plank oak and fir flooring.

The tight-grained wood, some of it from old-growth trees, goes to builders, furniture-makers and hobbyists.

“Old wood, like wine, gets better with age,” said Corneil. “The best is in pre-1950s houses, but anything pre-1975, before the extensive use of plywood, is desirable.”

Unbuilders works with companies that specialize in reclaimed wood as well as donating electrical and plumbing fixtures, door hardware and building supplies to the local Habitat for Humanity ReStore.

The Victoria Foundation has contributed capital from its Investment Readiness Program to assist the company in starting operations on Vancouver Island.

The business plan calls for the eventual establishment of a used building hub in collaboration with other demolition companies on Vancouver Island.

Since its first project in December 2019, Unbuilders has deconstructed 25 single-family houses and one commercial building.

Corneil is hoping to expand the business to other cities across North America.

“I am on a mission to influence the industry to change to a more ethical, sustainable net-zero future.”

parrais@timescolonist.com

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