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Company harvests old growth from old homes

Adam Corneil of Unbuilders has built a company around salvaging valuable lumber that would otherwise end up in landfill
Unbuilders founder Adam Corneil: “that’s what’s driven me from being a builder to being an unbuilder, is just the fact this is so badly needed and no one else is doing it” | Chung Chow

Every year in Canada, 3.4 million tonnes of waste from construction, renovation and demolition is disposed of, mostly in landfills, according to Environment Canada.

“Construction, renovation and demolition (CRD) wastes make up one of the largest solid waste streams in Canada,” according to a 2019 Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment report.

One study estimates that 26% of landfill waste in Canada comes from construction and demolition waste, 75% of which could be reused or recycled but isn’t.

In the Greater Vancouver region alone, about 3,200 homes are bulldozed every year. And while there are some regional restrictions on landfilling demolition waste, a lot of the wood waste still ends up either in a landfill or ground up and burned for energy.

Of the roughly 3.4 million tonnes of CRD waste generated in Canada annually, 20% is “clean wood” – wood that has not been treated, varnished or painted and which, therefore, can easily be reused or repurposed.

Worse, much of the wood waste that ends up either landfilled or burned for energy is old growth, which is superior in strength and durability.

Clearly, there is a business case in Canada for salvaging that wood from home demolitions and reusing it, especially as municipal governments step up regulations for waste disposal.

That may explain why, when Adam Corneil, founder of Vancouver’s Unbuilders, went on Dragons’ Den in August, every Dragon investor leaned forward to hear his pitch, and then got out their chequebooks.

Unbuilders specializes in deconstructing homes and salvaging the wood. Corneil had been asking for $500,000 for a 12.5% equity stake in his company; he walked away with $600,000 and six Dragon investors collectively taking an 18% stake in his company.

Corneil said he will use the $600,000 to invest in new equipment and infrastructure needed to expand the operation, which operates mostly in Greater Vancouver and on Vancouver Island. Corneil plans to open a new shop and warehouse next year.

The 36-year-old started building and flipping houses as a teenager.

“I flipped my first house when I was in high school, with my dad,” he said.

Corneil, who is certified under passive house energy-efficiency standards, formed his own company in 2013. In 2014, he was performing renovations on a house in Vancouver during a construction boom. All around him, he could see his fellow builders bulldozing houses that he knew contained valuable old-growth wood.

“It was driving me crazy to watch this old growth that was fir lumber locked behind the walls of all of our houses going straight in to the landfill,” he said. “It just seemed crazy to me when I knew the value of that lumber and the quality of that lumber.

“It’s wood that we don’t have today, and the only place you can find it is locked behind our walls, and it’s a shame for us to be bulldozing it and putting it into the landfill. That’s what’s driven me from being a builder to being an unbuilder, is just the fact this is so badly needed and no one else is doing it.”

Corneil decided to pivot from building houses to deconstructing them. His current business model is to charge developers or individual home builders a fee to deconstruct older houses that are being removed to make way for new ones.

Some of the clean wood that is salvaged can be reused as construction material in new buildings. But many of the finishings, fixtures and cabinets are donated to charities like Habitat for Humanity, and the developer gets a charitable donation tax credit.

“Usually the tax receipt value drives the overall cost of deconstruction lower than demolition,” Corneil said.

Deconstruction can cost more than simple demolition and can take longer – but not by much. While it used to take several days, Unbuilders has shortened the process to two days.

“We’re adding maybe a day of time, two days of time, versus demolition,” Corneil said.

The company had about $340,000 in revenue in the first year, with seven employees. The company now employs 17 people and expects revenue of $1.6 million to $1.7 million by year’s end, when the company will have deconstructed 30 homes and one large commercial building.

Using salvaged wood in new construction can give developers credits in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standard certification.

The salvaged wood is not typically used for structural lumber, but for making things like wide-plank flooring.

“The plan is, over time, to roll out a product line and to continue to have new product offerings,” Corneil said.

Much of the wood salvaged from homes built prior to 1970s is old-growth Douglas fir. Old growth is superior in quality, Corneil said, because the grain is much tighter, so the wood is stronger and more durable.

“It’s got 12 times less embodied carbon than new lumber so it’s more sustainable,” he added.

While Unbuilders operates largely in Greater Vancouver and Vancouver Island, Corneil thinks there are opportunities to expand into other regions – Seattle being the next most likely area.

“Most of our work has been residential to date,” he added, “but we are branching out into the commercial sector.”

As municipalities move to reduce the waste that is either landfilled or incinerated, Corneil believes there will be increased opportunities for companies like his.

In Vancouver, there is a green demolition bylaw that requires some recycling of materials in homes built before 1950.

“Basically the wood is mulched up and is burned for energy,” Corneil said. “Is that really progress? In my mind, not really. You’re taking old-growth lumber and putting it into an incinerator.”

But he expects the City of Vancouver’s green demolition bylaw will eventually require more reuse and recycling of construction materials from demolition. Other municipalities are also moving in that direction, he said.

“You will see, over the next few years, a wave of policy coming towards deconstruction, and it’s already started down the West Coast of the United States,” Corneil said.

“That will spread east, and you’re going to see that across both Canada and the U.S., I believe, within the next five to 10 years.” •