If there’s a heaven for renovators, the pair behind this eastside jewel are going, thanks to their dedication to reclaiming original lumber, siding, and fittings.
Because it's widely acknowledged that renovating is hell, Graham Elvidge and Kathleen Stormont have received no shortage of accolades for their work at Vancouver's 844 Dunlevy Street. Over the past three-and-a-half years, the husband-and-wife team has turned a ready-for-the-wrecking-ball knockdown into one of the city's most beautifully restored homes. On a grassroots level, it made Elvidge and Stormont local celebrities in Strathcona, where Vancouverites they've never met before will stop by the house to congratulate them on a job well done. On a more formal level, this year's City of Vancouver Heritage Awards singled the couple out in February in the highest-level Honour category, which goes to "projects demonstrating an outstanding contribution to heritage conservation".
For all they've accomplished with a job that would have terrified anyone not named Mike Holmes, the couple is perhaps most proud of how they've gone about their never-ending undertaking. When they look around their Queen Anne abode, they see no shortage of materials that were once destined for Metro Vancouver landfills. There's Douglas-fir flooring salvaged from a Richmond farmhouse; old-growth siding rescued from West 10th Avenue's now-demolished Varsity Grill; and lighting fixtures from, among other places, the city's first courthouse. Head outside into the garden and you'll find bricks reclaimed from bulldozed buildings in the downtown core, screens made of lath stripped from the house during the reno process, and plants from homes that have been demolished around the city.
What Elvidge and Stormont have done with 844 Dunlevy Street is smart from an economic perspective, too. Assuming you can even find turn-of-last-century Douglas-fir siding, you'll have to dip into your overdraft to pay for it. Along with a couple of friends, Elvidge stripped the Varsity Grill of an estimated $10,000 worth of siding in six hours. But when you talk to the couple, it's immediately clear that their determination to work old materials into their Sisyphean project isn't totally about the money. At a period in history when going green has never seemed more important, they make a good argument that anyone undertaking a renovation is almost morally obliged to follow the three Rs: reduce, reuse, recycle.
"For me, salvage is more about the environmental impact that it has," Stormont says over tea in the still-under-construction kitchen of their 1899 home. "I feel really good about not chucking stuff out, and it breaks my heart when I see people hauling wood out to the dump. I used to work as a producer for a television show called Healthy Home. We did a shot at the city transfer station and I was appalled, watching truckload after truckload of wood get dumped into that pit."
The challenge is tracking down such materials before they go into the Dumpster. Elvidge, who is an architect, is the first to admit that it isn't easy, but he's not averse to sharing some of the tricks. "You can tell when a building is about to be torn down, and if you want to be really slick about it, you can go to the city and look up demolition permits. Then you can inquire about the name of the contractor, call them, and say, 'I understand the building is coming down, and I'd like to salvage some materials.' If you're organized, that's definitely a way to go."
Houses predating the 1920s will often contain a veritable treasure trove of materials, says Vancouver heritage advocate and author John Atkin. Often, those treasures are there for the taking.
"There's a thriving black market where, when it's obvious that a house is abandoned and about to come down, someone will whip in and strip it," Atkin says. "Original Victorian door hinges, for example, can go up to a $150 each on eBay. Look at wide-plank fir floors–you can't buy them for love or money today, so there's a sense of, 'Wow, this stuff is really neat,' partly because it's unattainable."
Sadly, he says, there's no shortage of houses to pick over. "We have a number of people out there who want to buy older, character homes," Atkin says. "But we have a building industry where small builders are running around, buying up houses, and then demolishing them to build these ill-proportioned, pseudo-craftsman-style things you see popping up across the city.
"Then you've got city hall," Atkin continues. "If you want to do a renovation, there are a pile of hurdles that they stick in front of you. But if you come in for a demolition permit and plans for a pseudo-craftsman house, they are, 'Okay, fine, boom.'"
As laudable a job as Elvidge and Stormont have done on 844 Dunlevy, saner people would have thought long and hard about a demolition permit. When the couple moved in, the house had been long occupied by a bachelor whose family owned the property for eight decades. For a good idea of the squalor, there are bullet holes in doors and mouldings on the main floor, the result of him shooting at rats with a .22. Ripping up and replacing much of the flooring was done out of necessity, because dogs had for years treated sections of the house as indoor fire hydrants. Uric-acid crystals trapped in the wood made those sections unusable; Elvidge and Stormont replaced them with flooring from a Richmond farmhouse that was being demolished. Again, sticking to their philosophy of recycling and reusing where possible, they wouldn't jettison what most people would have shipped off to the dump.
"I couldn't bring myself to throw it out," Elvidge admits. "It was like 800-year-old, first-growth Douglas fir. And the floors had never been sanded–aside from the piss, it was like they were right off the hardware-store shelf from 1898. We stacked it outside for a year, let the oxygen and rain get to it, and ended up doing the front porch out of it."
Make the effort to find when and where a house is being demolished, and there's definitely a payoff.
"Even if you're having to do things like de-nail lumber, when you start to crunch the numbers on the value of some of this material, that's when you realize you're working for $50 an hour," Elvidge says. "I don't know too many people who are working for $50 an hour. I'm certainly not. And it saves you in other ways as well–not having to pay a general contractor to sort out where you're going to get the material."
Atkin notes that keeping an eye on what's being demolished around town isn't the only way to work reclaimed materials into your home. He cites Jack's Used Building Materials (4912 Still Creek Avenue, Burnaby, 604-299-2967) as an option, even if scouring the massive–and usually picked-over–storage yard for decent finds can require the patience of Supernanny's Jo Frost. Perhaps more invaluable, he argues, is Litchfield & Co. (3046 Westwood Street, Port Coquitlam, 604-464-7525).
"If you take a wood-frame building prior to the 1920s, generally it's going to be built out of first-growth forest," Atkin says. "That means the wood–even the two-by-fours, will be tight-grain and, because they've had 80 years to dry out, will be rock solid. Litchfield has a flooring line where they remill old fir into new floors."
Having spent three years tracking down and recycling old materials for their home, Elvidge and Stormont have had moments when they've thought there had to be a better way. "I've said to Graham that maybe we should start our own salvage yard," Stormont says, but then adds with a laugh: "Then I thought about the reality of living life as a scavenger and, um, it didn't appeal."
What does appeal is the knowledge that she and her husband have gone as green as possible with their vintage home. "The most green building is an existing building," Elvidge says. "If you're going to build a new building, you're inherently ungreen, no matter what you have in mind."
Stormont adds: "Part of what we've done here is an environmentally friendly way of tackling a house. We've preserved things that are already there, instead of trashing them and getting something new in."
That alone makes the pair of them an inspiration for anyone entering the hell that is renovating.