Advocates for lifting and moving homes to a new location rather than demolishing them are encouraging governments to streamline the relocation process to help meet waste-diversion goals and provide affordable housing in underserved communities.
“We just need the municipalities to connect the dots, remove the red tape, expedite … permits to allow more buildings to be saved,” said Jeremy Nickel, president and CEO of Nickel Bros., a family-founded business that has been moving homes since the mid-1950s.
Given the legacy of a company like Nickel Bros., saving homes from the wrecking ball due to development is not a new concept.
The company is one of several in British Columbia that moves dozens of homes each year. With property values at record highs and landfills choked by demolition waste, Nickel and others say now is the time to scale up home relocation.
In a 2020 report, Metro Vancouver highlighted home relocation as a viable way to reduce waste from the demolition and construction industry. A third of all waste at landfills like those in Metro Vancouver comes from the sector.
Advocates point to a house relocation on Vancouver Island earlier this year as a model example.
TLA Developments could have demolished two single-family homes in Esquimalt, B.C., to make way for a five-storey, 46-unit condo building. Instead, the wood-framed homes were donated and moved to the Songhees First Nation.
Songhees First Nation Chief Ron Sam said the endeavour provided his community with housing and met regional waste-reduction targets
“We look forward to more chances to work with developers like TLA, keeping viable homes out of the landfill and providing families with safe, secure, and long-term housing,” Sam said at the time.
Advocates say such relocation projects could be more common if cities smooth out the process.
Light House, an organization that studies green initiatives in the building sector, recently produced a study about home relocation in B.C. to identify what was keeping more homes from being moved and reused elsewhere instead of being demolished.
The study said that around 3,000 homes were demolished in Metro Vancouver last year. Twenty per cent of them, 600, could have been relocated.
The cost to relocate a home is approximately $100 to $125 per square foot, while new construction can cost up to $450 per square foot, the report said.
Call to reduce barriers to relocation
The Light House report says barriers to relocation include a “lack of industry awareness, unsupportive permitting schemes, tight timelines and a misalignment of incentives.”
It’s calling on more municipalities to require homes to be automatically assessed for possible relocation, issue permits that give additional time for house relocation before demolition and require developers to pay deposits that get returned if relocations are realized.
Homes that can’t be moved should be assessed for deconstruction in order to salvage building materials.
“The challenges we face are around the industry moving very quick to demolish,” said Gil Yaron with Light House.
“You acquire land, you want to clean it quick, as fast as you can so you can build. So there’s a time imperative.”
Joseph Dahmen, an architecture professor at the University of British Columbia, developed a tool in 2017 that forecast 25 per cent of homes in Vancouver could be demolished by 2030 due to a surge in property values.
He welcomes the call from industry to make home relocation in B.C. more viable.
“They’re pointing out the need for policy to catch up with ability and capacity,” said Dahmen.
Local leaders say they are receptive to changes that would help preserve homes through relocation.
The City of Coquitlam has 600 homes built in the 1960s in its Burquitlam neighbourhood, where property values have now outpaced the homes’ values because of the expansion of mass transit in the area and a desire to develop multi-unit dwellings.
Craig Hodge, a Coquitlam city councillor, says his council is working to have those homes moved rather than demolished, with a handful already slated for relocations by Nickel Bros. next month.
“We just have to get away from this idea that we’re going to crush and carry houses away,” Hodge said. “That should be the last option, not the first option when we look at redevelopment.”
Hodge, who sits on a regional zero waste committee and chairs the National Zero Waste Council, had a home on his Vancouver Island property moved to the back of the site, rather than demolish it, to make way for a new build.
He plans to rent out the relocated home, which was moved with the the furniture still inside.
“It proved to me that it could be done,” he said.
“We saved the house and we created some rental … in a community that’s short on rentals, which around British Columbia is just about every community.”
Hodge says council in Coquitlam is having its engineering and planning departments work together to come up with friendlier policies for house relocation.
Examples include allowing multi-phased demolition permits that would allow houses to be lifted before the final demolition permit is issued.
Hodge and others said the province also has a role to play in potentially amending B.C.’s building code to allow older homes to be shifted more easily to new foundations at new locations.