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Moving House? Why Not Actually Move Your House?

The process can save trees, money and memories. We rode along with the Nickel Bros to see how it’s done.

Michelle Gamage 24 Feb

Michelle Gamage is a journalist and photographer based in Vancouver with an environmental beat. You can find her on Twitter here.

At 10 p.m. on a stormy February night, the house starts to move. Awash in flashing yellow and wrapped in a cheerful strand of patio lights, the squat Abbotsford bungalow kicks off its three-day journey to a new home on Vancouver Island.

The house is resting on steel beams as thick as truck tires and hitched to a rumbling semi-truck. The hulking load is delicately manoeuvred out of the driveway as three men in high-visibility coveralls duck and weave, barking instructions into walkie-talkies as they monitor a soft shoulder, overhanging branches and a snow-covered basketball hoop.

A neighbour, standing in the icy rain for the spectacle, waves it off. “There it goes!” he calls.

At the first intersection, the crew members smoothly hoist one sign out of the ground and cut another down to clear the way for the truck’s wide turn. Tonight’s move should be straightforward — but it’s best not to jinx anything, says foreman Cody Robertson. Robertson works for Nickel Bros, a family-run company that’s hauled homes all over B.C. since 1956.

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Small obstacles, like a wire or a tree branch, can completely stop a move. Photo by Michelle Gamage.

House moving, as in picking up a building and taking it to a new location, is a centuries-old tradition that offers a solution to a lot of modern problems, says Jim Connelly, Nickel Bros’ southern Vancouver Island sales manager. Connelly has been with the company for 30 years and works to transport buildings over land and sea throughout the Pacific Northwest.

House moving tackles the housing crisis, preserves character homes, slashes one of the province’s largest waste streams and preserves natural resources, Connelly says.

When a developer wants to clear land, they can move, deconstruct or demolish a building. What those options cost depends on where you live in the province, but moving a home is the cheapest option by $15,000 to $25,000, says Cassidy vander Ros, Nickel Bros’ manager of communications and marketing.

But the real savings happen when that home is relocated. A house that is slated for demolition becomes technically worthless, so all of the homes listed on Nickel Bros’ website are free — the buyers pay for the move. Listed costs are estimations.

This can generate considerable savings for people with property on islands or in remote locations, because the cost of construction gets steeper the further you ship crews and materials.

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Foreman Cody Robertson (left) says you should never expect a move to be easy because then you get complacent, and that can be dangerous. Photo by Michelle Gamage.

It costs between $75 to $120 per square foot to move a home, but $200 to $500 per square foot to build in B.C., vander Ros says.

People also move homes to be green.

Reusing a home saves around 200 trees — 80 trees in the pre-existing structure, and 120 that would be used to build new, vander Ros says.

“The problem is we’re spoiled rotten,” Connelly says. “There are not a lot of countries that have the materials we do. There are not a lot of places that throw out entire buildings.”

According to an emailed statement from the city, in 2019, the City of Vancouver issued 663 demolition permits, 90 per cent of them for “family dwellings.” In 2020, the city issued 551 permits, 87 per cent of which were homes.

Nickel Bros moves around 150 to 300 houses each year throughout B.C., vander Ros says, diverting 21,000 tonnes of waste from landfills. In Connelly’s three decades with the company, he estimates he’s moved close to 1,000 homes. The number changes year by year based on how well the economy’s doing, he adds.

In Abbotsford, for example, house moving has been on the rise. Foreman Robertson says Nickel Bros has moved more homes in the last six months than over the last four years.

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The Abbotsford bungalow rests on steel beams as thick as truck tires. The rear wheels can move independently, helping the wide load manoeuvre tricky corners. Photo by Michelle Gamage.

In Vancouver, 40 per cent of all waste is generated by construction and demolition, according to a city report.

Vancouver’s Green Demolition bylaw requires pre-1950s homes to be 75 per cent reused or recycled when demolished. That bylaw only applied to 45 per cent of the homes demolished in 2019, and 64 per cent of the homes in 2020, according to information provided by the City of Vancouver.

Connelly is baffled by the misconception that reused homes aren’t valuable.

“The best period of construction was at the turn of the century, then the ’30s right up to mid-’70s,” he says. “That’s when you’re getting the edge-grained firs, and these buildings are all hand-nailed so they’re built like furniture.”

B.C. used such high-quality materials and workmanship that there’s no reason a house that has stood for the last 100 years won’t stand for the next 100, he claims. B.C. no longer logs old growth to build homes, but Metro Vancouver estimates many older homes are built with trees up to 2,000 years old.

These days Connelly says developers build “magazine homes”: flashy but not made to last. Developers and municipalities push for density because it pays better, and that combination prices middle- to lower-income families out of the market, he says.

People hire Nickel Bros to save their homes from the landfill, too.

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The company often moves homes around the Pacific Northwest using barges. The company will assess, free of charge, whether a home can be moved or not. Photo submitted.

“I absolutely do not believe in wasting a perfectly good house,” Donna Peerless explains over the phone from her new Salt Spring Island home.

In 2018, Peerless was living in Kerrisdale in a home she’d lived in for 41 years. She had recently retired by selling her business and was ready for the next stage of her life. Fiercely practical and in her early 70s, she knew her three-storey home and all of its stairs shouldn’t be part of her long-term plan.

But when she talked to a realtor and developer, she was dismayed that all they saw was an opportunity to tear down her home and build new.

“I had a deep connection to the house. I didn’t want to see it become garbage because it wasn’t garbage,” she says.

Peerless first hired Nickel Bros with the hopes of moving the home to a quieter township along the coast, which she would then rent out. But the COVID-19 pandemic and personal health emergencies derailed those plans.

In the end, Peerless had Nickel Bros list her home. On a rainy November night last year, it was hauled away to its new home on Malcolm Island, off the northeast shore of Vancouver Island.

“That house had a soul. It had seen me though a lot, as well as my family,” Peerless says.

She says the sale was cathartic, and she thinks it’s wonderful the house “gets a new chapter with different people.”

Nickel Bros can only move 50 per cent of the homes it’s asked to, Connelly says.

It’s rarely the house that’s the problem — though the company will strongly discourage moving a poor-quality home, he says.

Overpasses, telephone poles, bike paths and roundabouts are all added obstacles for crews trying to extract a load as big as, well, a house.

Time is also important. The company needs at least three months to organize permits, work with utility companies and prep the structure for transport.

There are three ways municipalities could support moving homes, vander Ros says:

Metro Vancouver encourages developers to move homes first, deconstruct second and demolish third, but does not have the authority to create demolition rules, Metro Vancouver spokesperson Greg Valou says.

According to the City of Vancouver, its Zero Waste plan does not include house moving because it focuses on reducing the waste generated during construction, deconstruction and demolition of buildings — not their reuse.

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Splintered wood and scattered material that used to make up the Abbotsford bungalow's basement. Photo by Michelle Gamage.

Vander Ros argues that strategy shows how zero-waste planners think about what to do with waste once it’s created, but not how to prevent it in the first place.

But the city maintains the Green Demolition bylaw incentivizes reducing waste during demolition through a $14,650 safety deposit. If companies don’t meet the reuse and recycling quotas, they lose half of the deposit. Moving a house would meet the reuse requirements and minimize waste, therefore fulfilling the bylaw’s intent.

Aside from the character homes saved and materials recycled, Connelly says he remembers the people Nickel Bros have helped more than the houses they’ve hauled.

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Nickel Bros is a family-run company led by three generations of Nickels. Photo submitted.

Henry Nickel, one of the brothers who founded Nickel Bros, loved telling the story of the time a barge sank — with two houses on board, Connelly says. Henry’s punchline for the story was always, “You’d be surprised how long a building will float.”

In 65 years of moving houses, some mistakes are bound to happen, Connelly says, but accidents are extremely rare, and all houses are insured during the move.

Speaking of moves, back in Abbotsford the bungalow is travelling glacially around another corner as foreman Robertson helps direct the driver via walkie-talkie and flashlight. At a “high speed,” the caravan might hit 20 kilometres an hour, making the short jaunt to Langley a three- to five-hour journey.

At 5 a.m. the house will be loaded onto a barge. By 10 a.m. the barge, carrying three houses in total, will set off for Vancouver Island.

That’s roughly 180 tonnes of material diverted from the landfill, Robertson says.

Above the rumble of trucks, you can almost hear 360 trees quietly sighing in relief.  [Tyee]

Read more: Housing, Environment

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