Daphne Roubini thought she’d found the replacement home of her dreams.
Her newly purchased, completely renovated, 2,600-square-foot, three-level mid-century modern custom-built home, was worth around $950,000, not including the lot. The four-bedroom house sat on a lot in the highly priced Cambie corridor neighbourhood, near Queen Elizabeth Park. About three years ago, the 1950s home had undergone a major renovation with high-end finishings, including an extension.
Ms. Roubini saw its oak engineered hardwood floors, gourmet kitchen, marble counters and 22-foot ceiling foyer and knew she could never afford to build a home such as that one. The developer, Pennyfarthing Homes, had contacted movers Nickel Bros. to move the house at 4989 Ash St. Ms. Roubini had purchased it for $200,000.
The house was on one of four properties that Pennyfarthing had assembled in order to develop two four-storey condominiums.
Ms. Roubini was one of 17 people who bid on the house, which Nickel Bros. had listed in the late summer. The company keeps a database of thousands of buyers looking for houses, and there are currently about 500 people actively seeking homes that are movable.
Ms. Roubini’s own recently renovated home on Cortes Island burned down last year when a power cable snapped and made contact with her roof. She’s a singer and poet, and couldn’t imagine owning a home such as the one on Ash Street, which had a total assessed value of $4.4-million. Nickel Bros. chose her bid because her property had waterfront access, making it easy to transport the house by barge.
“It was stunning, a house we would never have dreamed of being able to own, a dream come true after the fire,” she says. “It was amazing to have our first house, to be honest, never mind being able to afford a second house to replace it.”
The company has been moving houses for 65 years, and only puts houses up for sale once they’ve assessed whether they are movable. They look at surrounding trees and power lines, accessibility, and they often create several route maps. They also assess whether the house is in good enough shape for a move. Confident that the Ash Street house was movable, they created a route map and set to work dividing the large house in half so that it could be moved in two parts. However, there was a major obstacle: the City of Vancouver couldn’t issue the move-off building permit because of a trolley line that was in the way, and operator Coast Mountain Bus Company couldn’t address it in time.
The company said they received the request mid-October, but it was “too large in scope to accommodate their timeline without jeopardizing transit service.”
They recommend eight to 12 weeks lead time for such requests, which they try to accommodate, and which they receive frequently from a number of third parties needing a trolley line moved.
“Accommodating their request would have caused cancelled service for nine trolley bus routes – which equates to roughly half of that morning’s total trolley bus service on our system,” CMBC said in an e-mail.
An alternate plan to do the move at night could not be accommodated by the Vancouver Park Board, CMBC said.
Instead of moving the house to Cortes Island, on a late November day, an emotional Jeremy Nickel watched an excavator rip the house down. A major portion of the estimated 90 tonnes of construction waste went to the landfill, and the company’s three weeks of full-time work, and around $50,000 in costs, had been for naught.
Mr. Nickel’s business moves and lifts buildings, and does residential as well as industrial work in Canada and the United States. He’s a long-time conservationist who sees his business as a key part of the reduce, reuse, recycle waste-management mantra. His team drives around searching for houses to save, and they get an average of two calls a week from homeowners and developers who are trying to save a structure from demolition. Of the ones that they assess, only about one quarter are eligible for a move. Once it’s deemed movable, they sell the house based on the moving cost, and apply to the municipality for a permit to move the house; in Vancouver, that’s a building permit.
Even at the best of times, it’s not easy to move a house. It often needs to travel through a park, or requires trolley line removal, and it’s a major juggling act that involves the co-operation of numerous parties.
Demolition material makes up one-third of the region’s landfills, according to Metro Vancouver. As well, there are the 80 or so trees that go into the building of a house with 1,200 square feet of living space, as well as the carbon footprint of demolition and construction, Mr. Nickel says. And unwanted homes that are in excellent shape are a source of affordable housing.
“The current densification plans within Vancouver and throughout the Fraser Valley will see more than 5,000 structurally sound homes demolished and hauled to landfills in 2022,” he said in an e-mail.
“At the same time in B.C., we have a housing shortage crisis with many regions, including our First Nations communities, in desperate need of affordable housing. We have solutions for these challenges that would dramatically reduce waste, while providing perfectly sound homes to many residents.”
He says this is the first time that he’d failed to obtain a permit for a house they had so thoroughly prepared for a move.
Ms. Roubini, who’d had her Cortes property prepared for the house’s arrival, was also out of pocket, by about $12,000.
“I’m not pointing my fingers at developers, because cities develop. I come from London, England, and I’m used to cities that change. But something we have in London is a real care for old buildings and character buildings,” says Ms. Roubini, who’s currently renting an apartment until she finds another Nickel Bros. house to buy. “I just feel that that house could have been saved, and reused and recycled, and instead it went to the landfill.
“I just don’t feel that’s okay. And I feel the way Vancouver is moving is that more of those houses are going to be demolished through development, and I would like to see those houses as much as possible saved.”
Corrie Okell, the city’s director of permitting services, said in an e-mail response that staff were supportive of relocating the house “and made every effort to assist the applicant.”
However, CMBC could not address the trolley lines until mid-December, according to the city.
“This move can be quite impactful to the various systems and would need time to work out/co-ordinate this complex request,” the city said.
Kevin Hussey, Pennyfarthing vice-president of development, said they wanted the house demolished by mid-November and they gave Nickel Bros. an extra month to try to save it. When he got the call that it wasn’t going to happen, it was the only house on the development lot still standing. He had to bring the demolition crew back, which cost extra. But he said he’s still supportive of saving houses from demolition and would rather not see them go to the landfill.
“It’s a shame to see them get demolished,” Mr. Hussey said. “It might as well go to someone’s use, if it can.
“With all our homes, we try to give Nickel Bros. a quick hit on it to see if there’s a market for saving them. Often, they’re older and it doesn’t make sense.”
This house would have been the first one they had saved, he says.
Ronel Dreyer is sales manager for Nickel Bros. and she is working to find another home for Ms. Roubini, who will be prioritized on their list of buyers. The list prices are based on the cost of the move, not the house itself, she says.
“I find the house, list it, make sure we can get it out, and that listing carries a representation of what it would cost for us to market the house, take it on, do the assessments, and then be able to move it and get it barged to a site.”
A move costs from $60 to $95 per square foot, she says. She is in the process of moving a house to Tsawwassen for an elderly, disabled couple who’ve been living in a camper on Gabriola Island for many years. They will probably complete the entire house for less than $200 a square foot, she says.
Ms. Dreyer says Pennyfarthing was “awesome” in their effort to save the house.
“They did what they could. And we don’t know if they gave us much more time if it would have worked out anyway.
“That is something that is difficult for Nickel Bros.; we have to put you in our schedule, but maybe the developer isn’t ready. Our crews are hung up. At the other end, the developer wants the house off now, and meanwhile we need the permits. So there is always negotiating back and forth, but most of the time we manage to get it done.”
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