Did you know much of Vancouver used to be swamp land? Perhaps that accounts for a couple of things: first, our city’s brutal rat problem which rivals New York City on a per capita basis and, second, the uneven streets, sidewalks and even homes that form part of our neighbourhoods. This week, expert builder and co-owner of JDL Homes Vancouver, Jeff Langford joins Adam and Matt to cover all things Vancouver peat bog. And sinking foundations, crowned sidewalks, and shifting rooflines may be the least of your worries if you do not listen up! What do buyers need to know about potentially purchasing on the peat bog? Are there steps existing homeowners can take to mitigate risk? And how – and at what cost – can you build your dream home in one of Vancouver’s best neighborhoods that doubles as a wetland? Stay dry out there folks!
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Tell us about yourself.
I’m partners with my brother, Doug, which is where the “JDL” (Jeff and Doug Langford) comes from. We started in Vancouver about 15 years ago building for ourselves. People started asking us to do work for them and we grew from there. It started as renovations and then moved into building new homes. We now build full custom homes and do renovations.
Is it stressful building new homes for people?
It was early on when we were eagre to get the work. But we’re good now at finding our people – the people who want to build a quality home. In the early days, you say yes to everyone you can to try and build your business. But if you don’t see eye to eye with your clients, it doesn’t work.
When should a client contact a home builder if they are considering building?
In a lot of cases, too late. The earlier the better when you’re bringing on a builder. We’ve had a lot of successful partnerships where we’ve helped people buy the lot and we go to open houses with them. We’re usually brought on after drawings are done and things can get negative because decisions have been made regardless of budget. If you bring us on early, we know how to achieve our clients’ goals and we know how much things cost. An architect or designer’s job is to create something beautiful. And sometimes it’s the job of the builder to ask how much it’s going to cost.
How did you and your brother get your start as builders out in BC?
We both grew up on the family farm and did some building there. We also have builders in our family back in Ontario. My first few jobs off the farm were with other builders, so it was always natural to me. It has always been a part of my life.
I followed my brother out to Vancouver. Doug worked his way across Canada in his 20s and landed in Vancouver. He dabbled in real estate here. I was working in Toronto in my own construction business at the time. We talked on the phone about how great it would be to work together out here. Eventually I came out and that was it!
On a side note, is Pinterest a good or a bad thing?
It’s excellent for helping us see what is in the client’s mind. They often can’t articulate it so Pinterest helps them do that. But 90% of the images they’re seeing are from other places in the world and we can’t build what they’re seeing. So there is some heartbreak when we tell them we can’t build exactly what they’re seeing on Pinterest, but we now know what they like. It’s a double-edged sword.
What is the peat bog in Vancouver?
Peat is slow-decomposing organic matter. It is moss that has built up over the years and is slowly decomposing. The environment it creates is highly acidic. Vancouver has quite a few peat bogs throughout the city. Everyone has seen it and driven through areas where masonry is cracked, none of the gates work and you can see the houses are unlevel. That’s par for the course for houses that are unsupported when they were built on peat.
The reality: parts of Vancouver were built on marsh and creek beds.
Why is it difficult to build a home on the peat bog in Vancouver?
Peat doesn’t have a lot of structure to it. Peat never stops breaking down and there is methane in the peat. It’s also not consistent. You need to know that when you’re choosing to build on a peat bog. For me, I can call engineers who have worked in those areas to give me a ballpark of what we might be dealing with, before we get into serious testing.
You could look at a dozen houses on a city block and everyone could be different. Peat is a sponge full of water, so things on top of it can sink and rise. The water table is what gives us trouble with peat. You will hit water right under the peat bog that can cause major issues.
In the mid 1900s, we tried to drain the wet areas of Vancouver. And then we built right on top. The science and the testing just weren’t there. We didn’t have the materials to support these homes that were built.
What are the extra steps for building a new home on the peat bog in Vancouver?
Depending on the type of peat and depth of peat (which you will know by bringing in a geo-technical engineer for testing), there are a few options. Option 1: They will drill a helical pile and screw it into the ground. A grid is then designed to support the entire weight of the house. The geo-tech will tell you how many piles are needed and how deep they need to be. Each pile must be able to hold a certain amount of weight to support the house. It can get complex, but if you have a builder who is familiar with peat bogs, they can help.
The first way is the helical pile and the second way is you can dig it out. This works if you only have a few feet of peat. They will dig it out until you find something strong enough to bear the weight of the house. The only caveat here is the water table. If you dig down a couple feet and find water and start pumping it out, you’ll find the neighbouring houses start to sink. That’s why the helical piles are the most economical and safest way to build on peat.
We haven’t been using helical piles for that long in Vancouver. We now have several different manufacturers; not all of them are the same. The metal needs to be treated and coated when you’re working with an acidic product like peat. An experienced builder will know what to use.
How much does it cost to build a new home on the peat bog in Vancouver? How much longer does it take to build a house on the peat bog in Vancouver?
Geo-techs are not a cheap alternative but they are taking on a horrendous amount of risk. Their cost is warranted as a lot can go wrong.
The simplest peat build is a $40,000-50,000 uptick but we’ve gone up to $500,000. But the majority of builds are on the lower end though. Once you buy your home and have your builder, you get your geo-tech. You then do your testing and see how deep you need to go. Then you design your house. The slab of your house is almost a separate entity. It is fully structural and engineered, which then allows you to design the house you want from there. All of that work is done up front. It does add a bit of time, but it’s mostly organizing the drilling materials.
Can you have a basement in a house on the peat bog in Vancouver?
We have done full basements in peat where the basement is submerged in wintertime. The basements are fully waterproofed. And that is very costly and complex. Usually there are not basements in peat builds which works out cheaper but you lose the square footage.
So there’s the added cost of finding solid ground and you lose square footage when you build on bog land, right?
Right. And losing possible square footage is a big deal, especially in Vancouver. Plus you also have the lower lot value, which never really goes away. Even if it’s brought up to code, it will still be lower value than a house on solid ground. But if it’s a long term investment, why not? You’ve got to hold it to make it worth it.
A friend of mine lives on Trout Lake with a view of the park and we renovated their home a few years ago. The house has a huge footprint so we were able to jack up a few corners and remove the fireplace, which weighs down on the bog. But before then, the house was quite crooked. And that’s just part of that community.
Why do you build new homes on the peat bog in Vancouver?
We’re suckers for punishment is what it is! I don’t like to shy away from a challenge because it sets us apart. I enjoy these challenging builds that force you to do your research, think and learn. I like to educate myself and other builders. That’s how we got into these types of build. Early on we were lucky to meet the right people with our peat projects – the right engineers and sub-contractors. That’s a reason why we’ve done so many projects on peat. It’s really no different than building any other home – there’s just a couple more phone calls and a couple more steps.
Do most people know they’re buying or have bought on the bog?
Most real estate agents have done their job and notified their clients. The trouble is then the misinformation around what it takes to live there safely, which is very lot specific. The helical piles are charged by the foot, so the costs can vary widely depending on the depth of the bog. So people are aware of the bog but have the wrong numbers in mind. It’s just a lack of understanding.
What has 2020 looked like as a homebuilder in Vancouver?
We were busy at the start of the year and had the initial drawback when covid hit. It really depends on the type of construction you’re in. Colleagues who work exclusively in condos and townhomes were really hurt. But now the phones are ringing off the hook. Our architects are super busy. For builders who are struggling, I think it’s going to be short-lived. Busy architects is great news for us.
Peat doesn’t have to be scary. There are costs involved but it is possible and easy to build on. If you get it at the right price, there is nothing wrong with it. You will have a perfectly sound house in the end. And some of the best micro-neighbourhoods in Vancouver are on peat.
Find out more: http://www.jdlhomesvancouver.com/
Access the peat bog map