How much does it cost to remove 1.7 million tons of fill?

By Bruce Firestone | Architecture

Dec 15

This is the wrong questions to ask. Why? Because every entrepreneur knows how to pull endless rabbits out of his or her hat.

So, what is the right question to ask?

How do we turn a cost center into a profit center?

This is what we did at Dunrobin Lake. We got permission from MNR (Ministry of Natural Resources) to go down instead of out in our sandpit there. This meant two things:

  1. We would uncover a pristine water source that had been filled in by sand at the end of the last ice age (about 10,000-years ago)
  2. We would protect at least 85% of the lands so they could be used as a low-intensity residential subdivision after the pit was deemed exhausted by MNR licensing folks
Dunrobin Lake today

Note the “cost” of removing this amount of sand was negative. A negative cost is just another way of saying it was a revenue generator. We sold washed sand for backfill, footings and foundations, cable laying, and, later on, for golf course topdressing (of greens) and sand trap sand.

Dunrobin Lake and Windward Island (unexcavated portion) near completion

Golfers tend to be fussy about the color and texture of sand used so the Dunrobin product had to be chemically tested and approved by the appropriate authority…

If you’re counting, we also generated revenues via the pit’s after-use by selling lots to homeowners.

Old flyer touting lots available at Dunrobin Lake

In any event, here’s the detailed history of Dunrobin Lake I wrote a number of years ago…

Background and History of Dunrobin Lake

The original purchase of this property by the Firestone family dates to 1956. The property purchased included frontage on Dunrobin Road and to the east on an unopened road allowance.

The owners of the property offered to gift the adjacent wetlands area to the Province of Ontario for safekeeping by the responsible authority. The proposed gift mandated that there would be no change in land use, no hunting allowed, and the Province would not change the water level thereon.

The Firestone family retained the lands fronting on Thomas A. Dolan Parkway and now known as Dunrobin Lake. Dunrobin Lake is a natural wonder – fresh water with beautiful sandy beaches.

An artesian well was discovered in the adjacent wetland in 1984. The elevated water table there led to another conclusion; given the elevation difference between the elevated water table to the west and Constance Creek to the east together with the sand layer (20 to 30 feet deep) in between, it seemed likely that an underground lake dating from the last ice age (some 10,000 to 11,000 years ago) existed there.

In 1989, the Karson firm brought in a shovel to test this hypothesis and within minutes the test hole filled with wonderful spring water. The Ministry of Natural Resources then permitted the Karson firm to remove the sand overburden and uncover the ancient lake.

Water and well tests over the years show that the water deriving from the artesian well is filtered through over one thousand feet of sand before entering the lake. The lake water is comparable to Evian water and the experience of swimming in the water is marvelous. Water can be drunk directly from sand point wells or casement wells and does not require any filtering or treatment. The water is soft and can be used for washing clothes or for showers without treatment. The latest water tests confirm this view.

The level of the lake remains largely unaffected by the amount of precipitation during the summer. Over the last decade, the water level does not change by more than a few inches from spring to fall.

The water quality remains excellent throughout the swimming season; the volume of water in the lake turns over frequently and one can actually feel the current by swimming to the bottom of the lake which, even in July, is cool; the water moves west to east and as stated above it flows freely through the sand layer and the lake is constantly recharged.

The family has asked local hunters to not use the property and as a result, wildlife has returned to the property.

Wildlife on the property include ducks, geese, seagulls, all manner of other fishing birds, porcupines, deer, bears and wolves have been seen from time to time. Beavers have not settled in the lake.

The lake contains minnows, catfish, Cray fish, turtles, frogs and toads as well as largemouth bass.

The owners introduced, with MNR approval, largemouth bass in the Spring of 1997. In fact, it was a sad day the day that the largemouth bass were transported to the Lake—it was the day that Princess Diana died. Largemouth bass have prospered in this environment – the lake now holds up to 300 mature fish. There is a catch and release policy for fishing by residents. However, about 10% of the stock is fished out every year to keep a healthy and balanced demographic.

The Firestone family has planted 3,250 seedlings from the Kemptville Forestry Nursery (now closed). Red pine, white pine, white spruce and cedar seedlings have been planted and are thriving.

Mature coniferous trees exist on the property.

The total area of the lands is 162 acres.

To fully appreciate the natural beauty of the property it is necessary to walk the property. To the north the lands are at a higher elevation and the geology changes from sandy soil with a 12-inch overburden to a slate at surface. From the north, a beautiful view of the Gatineau hills is afforded.

The current plan has 28 lots gently setting down around the lake and along Constance Creek. All lots have access to the lake and island for swimming, canoeing, sailing, wind surfing, beach volleyball and so on. No motorboats are permitted not even electric motors are used. Their propellers can damage fish and wildlife as well as damage healthy plant life that provide oxygen to the lake ecosystem.

Original sketch by planner Lloyd Philips

The subdivision is designed first and foremost to protect the natural areas; on a gross area basis, each of the 28 lots represents 5.8 acres. The smallest lot in terms of net land area is 2.0 acres and the largest is over 5 acres. Home sizes will start from 2000 square feet. Materials include brick, stucco and siding. Wood exteriors are not permitted.

The lake and Windward Island will be used as a commons by the residents of Dunrobin Lake. It can be used for swimming, sail boats, wind surfers, row boats, canoes, kayaks and rafts. Public access is prohibited. The lake is open to residents and their guests only.

The design of the subdivision is sensitive to the lands as they exist. No landowner will be permitted to use fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides, insecticides or pesticides. Natural ground covers will be used in the beach area. Spot hand spraying of ‘Round Up’ is permitted for noxious weeds only such as poison ivy.

Windward Island remains as an amenity for Residents only. It is approximately three quarters of an acre. A peninsula to the island has been constructed and it will be used for recreation, entertainment, picnics, swimming, volleyball, croquet and so on.

To fully understand how the ancient lake was formed, it is necessary to go back to the end of the last ice age, approximately 10,000 years ago. Glaciers melt from the bottom up as the earth is warmed and heat is radiated upwards into the glacier. Hence, under-the-ice rivers form and gravel, then sand then silt settle out in deposits starting in the north (gravel) followed by sand and ultimately as you approach downtown Ottawa to the south-east, silt.

Thus, Dunrobin Lake filled in with sand deposits at the end of the last ice age. The removal of 1.7 million tons of sand over 17 years[1] uncovered this wonderful resource for all residents to share. Interestingly, over that time period, some large boulders were uncovered surrounded by 30 or more feet of sand. The excavators wondered how these huge boulders came to be buried in an otherwise homogeneous material. The answer is that they literally fell from the sky—glaciers move, and boulders get scooped up in the ice. As the ice melts from the bottom up (the ice could have been as thick as one kilometer in this area), the boulders are suddenly loosened and fall from a great height driving themselves deep into the sand deposit below only to be dug up 10,000 years later.

Some of these boulders remain at Dunrobin Lake as evidence of Nature’s power and form part of the natural environment.

Great place to grow up…

Dunrobin Lake today:

  sweat lodge location 😊

So, put on your thinking cap: Ask yourself (about everything), “How do I turn a cost-center into a profit center?”


Bruce M Firestone, B Eng (civil), M Eng-Sci, PhD

Real Estate Investment and Business coach

Century 21 Explorer Realty Inc broker

Ottawa Senators founder







[1] Note the “cost” of removing this amount of sand was negative. A negative cost is just another way of saying it was a revenue generator. We sold washed sand for backfill, footings and foundations, cable laying, and, later on, for golf course topdressing (of greens) and sand trap sand. Golfers tend to be fussy about the color and texture of sand used so the Dunrobin product had to be chemically tested and approved by the appropriate authority…

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About the Author

Bruce is an entrepreneur/real estate broker/developer/coach/urban guru/keynote speaker/Sens founder/novelist/columnist/peerless husband/dad.