Sask. the company found a new use for the province's old grain elevator

ABMT Wood Solutions dismantles the grain elevator, then reuses the wood for an eco-friendly project

Entering one of the three grain elevators that stand gigantic above Kenaston, Sask., is like entering a museum.

Old wooden machine houses from another era and a rickety elevator with dusty ropes leading to the top of the 30-meter tower.

Rural landmarks like this one are on a path that has almost been erased from the map of Saskatchewan. They become damaged - and then fall victim to a fire - or become more expensive to maintain than they are worth, leading owners to drop them.

However, Alvin Herman views every weathered plank as having potential outside the TPA.

"I just found myself allergic to crushing and burning and polluting the environment," says a 75-year-old retired farmer who admits to being a workaholic.

His first project was to dismantle his own 111 year old elevator in Milden, Sask., a village about 90 kilometers southwest of Saskatoon.

Herman said the lift was "past its best date" and had become the responsibility of the city and its children, due to its potential safety issues and as a breeding ground for pests.

But Herman, 75, isn't willing to give up the thousands of wooden feet that make up the elevator.

That idea ballooned into ABMT's Wood Solutions: a team on a mission to deconstruct grain elevators and reuse their wood into affordable construction and housing materials.

"We offer them non-flammable safety," Herman said.

The team is now dismantling two of the three elevators at Kenaston, 85 kilometers east of Milden.

Herman said ABMT Wood Solutions had about 10 more people on their docket who wanted their elevator taken down.

Eco-friendly housing at affordable prices

ABMT says most of the wood salvaged from deconstructed towers is reusable and can be turned into anything from dance floors to decorative furniture to a whole new home.

The old wood used to make the elevators is hard to come by. British Columbia, for example, suspended the cutting of old plantations in about 1.7 million hectares of forest.

By reusing wood, companies can maintain a low-carbon footprint, says Ian Loughran, an ABMT consultant who works for Vereco Smart Green Homes, a home design firm that promotes energy-efficient buildings.

"If this elevator is just destroyed, part of it will be landfilled and burned," he said. It will emit carbon.

The AMBT approach has the potential to produce net-zero energy homes—a goal the federal government hopes provinces will adopt for their building codes by 2030.

That includes using mechanically laminated wood panels inside which, the team says, is structurally stronger than conventional wood-frame construction.

ABMT is working on a residential three bedroom show house using these panels.

Standing in the Kenaston lift, Loughran pointed at the massive wall behind him of spiked timber. He says such sections can be covered with insulation, which can also be made from recycled wood, and assembled "like a Lego set." He said the framework of a house can be assembled in a few weeks.

Loughran said this is one way to create affordable housing across the country at a time when the country is facing a housing shortage, especially in First Nation communities.

Missing landmarks

The three giants guarding the several hundred residents of Kenaston could be seen from afar. The city's mayor, Dallas Lowdermilk, called them a major landmark and said it was a shame they were going down.

"Depending on your age, you've basically seen them your whole life," he says. "If I win the lottery tomorrow, I'll buy it and they'll live there."

Ali Piwowar, an Ottawa-based architect originally from Regina, wrote his master's thesis on the tangible and intangible cultural heritage of wood grain elevators in Saskatchewan. He notes how in flat prairie, high lifts act as map pins on the horizon.

"Historically there was one in every city - these vertical structures - and it's become an icon that there are people, there's community," he said.

But as farmers moved to concrete terminals outback, then to steel silos, the on-ground wooden lifts leased from the railroad became obsolete and expensive to maintain.

Oli Remmen, co-owner of the elevator currently being demolished in Kenaston, says it costs about $5,000 to $6,000 per year if not used.

The National Trust for Canada, a national charity with the goal of saving historic sites, has listed wood grain elevators as endangered nationally. Piwowar estimates that around 20 elevators are lost each year due to demolition, fire or natural disasters. 

Preserving landmarks

There are 11 grain elevators listed as heritage properties in Saskatchewan, although one caught fire in 2010, according to the provincial Ministry of Parks, Culture, and Sports. Piwowar said it was difficult to register it as a heritage site if farmers did not want it to be designated.

Brent Guy, owner of the second lift at Kenaston to be deconstructed, said he considered the option but never heard back from his MLA about it. He reminisces about holding a family reunion in town and letting the kids ride the elevator to see the sights of the surrounding area.

"It's one of the few communities in Saskatchewan with this kind of background. Unfortunately, this is due to financial problems," he said.

Piwowar seeks to preserve elevators by adapting them to community spaces, something that has been tried in several Saskatchewan and Alberta communities. But he also appreciated ABMT's goal of giving people the opportunity to defend a piece of Saskatchewan's history in a different way.

As Herman walked past the elevator, he rubbed a piece of wood, indicating it was the foot of a bucket bucket. Over decades of use, friction from the grain has sculpted and polished the wood into its unique waves.

"This is heirloom wood. It will never happen again; you will not find this wood anywhere else in the world. If people want to preserve some history, this is a last-ditch effort to preserve the old guard." that dotted Saskatchewan," Herman said.

"I hope our process actually allows people to buy a piece or own a piece of Saskatchewan heritage."

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