by Emily Dobby
After watching house after house get torn down and sent to the landfill, Adam Corneil decided he’d had enough.
A builder and entrepreneur with an extensive background in Passive House construction, he saw the need for major change in the demolition industry in 2014 when he was rebuilding a heritage home in the Westside of Vancouver. He had a reclaimed wood shop and was making custom reclaimed furniture, flooring and installations for clients, so he understood the beauty and value of the old growth lumber locked behind the walls of many buildings.
It was during the first housing craze in Vancouver when hundreds of houses were being torn down and all the beautiful lumber (amongst other good building materials) was going right into the landfill.
“I knew this had to change and was both disgusted at the rate and method of demolition and excited by the opportunity to have a massive impact,” he says.
Adam saw that if he could lead the industry to shift to deconstruction, he could effect greater change than merely building a few custom high performance Passive homes.
His insight led to the formation of Unbuilders, a team of self proclaimed salvage experts: former carpenters, roofers, framers, and tradespeople who unbuild; they disassemble and deconstruct buildings layer by layer across the Lower Mainland and the South Island, reclaiming and upcycling everything from windows and doors, to fixtures and cabinets into the supply chain.
CEO Adam Corneil’s vision encompasses a construction industry where deconstruction and remanufacturing replace demolition and disposal. His is a long term goal of disrupting an industry built on waste.
The entire construction industry is built on the antiquated linear economy: even though high performance homes are being built, the standards are to build single-use homes with single-use products that are installed in a single-use manner which is not sustainable. Companies are discarding usable, renewable resources and charging their clients in the process.
Unbuilder’s ultimate goal is to prevent demolition waste from being deposited in landfills, since more than 27% of all landfill waste is from demolition.
They say they have a 99% salvage and recycle rate on a single-family home. On each project, they divert 50 tonnes of waste and salvage 10 tonnes of lumber, in stark contrast to the demolition industry which generates millions of tonnes of waste, 37% of which is valuable lumber.
The most in demand material the team upcycles is the old growth wood and lumber that was used in construction in the early part of the 20th century; wood that can command top prices when resold.
Adam believes homes should be built for disassembly with low impact products and materials that can be removed or changed. In order to build this way, there needs to be a steady and large supply of green building material. Reclaimed wood is the most sustainable building material on the market so the demolition industry needs to shift to create an abundant supply to then create reclaimed wood building products.
The most rewarding project for the team was a house on Elm Street in Vancouver this past September (2020) where they took a gamble and hired a crane to do their first project with heavy machinery, reducing deconstruction time from three weeks to two days.
From that point on, their business was instantly changed. Fast forward six months, and they are now deconstructing a 30,000 square foot distillery from 1929 in the same fashion. That structure will be down in four days (with a week of prep). The crane is allowing Unbuilders to scale up their service while reducing their timelines and cost – getting them closer to competing directly with demolition.
The Unbuilding process can be broken down into five phases, adapted to each building according to their unique situations.
A residential project generally breaks down as follows:
1 Initial salvage, 1-5 days – removing the fixtures, finished, cabinets, appliances, etc. This is typically donated to Habitat for Humanity.
2 Abatement, 2-10 days – remove asbestos containing materials.
3 Strip-out, 7-10 days – remove clean drywall, insulation, utilities, tile, carpet and any non-wood interior surface.
4 Deconstruction, 5-10 days – remove the windows, doors, roofing. Dismantle the frame (either with a crane, excavator or by hand) down to the foundation. If done with machine assistance, usually the building is taken apart in large panels and shipped off-site to our receiving yard for further dismantling.
5- Foundation, 2-4 days – remove the wood scraps and the foundation and hardscape.
In its way, “Unbuilders can be seen as the start of a new supply chain”, Adam says; one that will foster a circular, regenerative economy.