Something Special: affordable homes seen in a new light

Saturday, October 30th, 2004

Kim Pemberton


CREDIT: Mark van Manen, Vancouver Sun

Stephanie Robb in her refurbished Vancouver Special home.

The “Vancouver Special” may be ridiculed by many in a housing market that favours heritage homes, but graduate architect Stephanie Robb may get the last laugh when the tide shifts and design-savvy Generation Xers start viewing these homes in a new light.

Robb, who transformed her own small Vancouver Special into a home reminiscent of a Yaletown loft, says these type of buildings are ideal if one is looking for a modern, contemporary living space. The post Baby-Boom generation, now in their late 20s to late 30s, often can’t afford to live in one of the city’s heritage-style homes, which not uncommonly are priced at $500,000 on the East Side. (A heritage home this month in East Vancouver went for the a whopping $750,000 – a price typically associated with the bottom end of the scale for West side homes). Facing these kinds of prices no wonder Robb feels the answer may be in the vastly more affordable rectangular-box house. Commonly know as a “Vancouver Special” these homes were built by the thousands in the 1960s and 1970s, and are dotted throughout the city – most particularly in East Vancouver.

“For someone wanting to live in a modern space they [Vancouver Specials] lend themselves to that really easily. There are not that many modern homes in Vancouver,” she says.

Robb and her husband paid $204,000 in 1999 for her 1,000 square foot house, located just four blocks from Commercial Drive. The couple then invested another $150,000 to create an open concept home suitable for their young family, two daughters now ages 12 and 10. The house transformation was completed two years ago.

Besides the obvious price advantage and central location, Robb says the greatest benefit is the fact the house is built directly on the ground.

“That simple characteristic can create wonderful indoor/outdoor relationships…It’s pure gold, especially in our climate.”

The formerly cramped, two-unit house, built in 1974, is now an open concept home with wall to wall glass doors, opening onto concrete garden patios, in both the front and rear of the home. Interior walls were removed and the original wood-frame structure was revealed, creating a feeling of a “cabin in the middle of the city.”

On the main floor, the two central bearing walls were replaced with steel beams mounted into the plane of the ceiling. A step Robb understandably worried would go well.

“It was interesting to watch. They did it like it was surgery,” she says. “That part was the one I was most fretting about, but it was the easiest.”

This structural manipulation allowed the entire main floor to be free of structural supports. On the upper floor steel tie rods were installed to allow the rafters there to be exposed as well – a move that created a vaulted ceiling, again adding to a greater sense of spaciousness in the home.

The family also added 200 square feet to the house, while seemingly small, made for a dramatic impact in the master bedroom and created additional space for a piano on the first floor.

Robb says when she first saw the home she could immediately see its potential as a modern living space. Yet, others did not share her view at the time. The house, located on a small 25 by 100 foot lot, had been languishing on the market for months despite it having an expansive view of the city’s downtown core from the upstairs floor.

CREDIT: Mark van Manen, Vancouver Sun

The renovated first floor seen from outside the patio doors.

“My husband was thrilled it had a view,” she says. “I literally walked past the front gate and fell in love with the house instantly. I loved the proportions and knew it would work.”

However, Robb’s plan to convert the house hit a snag when she went to city hall for work permits. She says it took 13 months before the city would issue a development permit and staff there tried to persuade her to build a traditional heritage home instead.

“The city requested I tear it down. I was shocked. How could it be a reasonable stance to determine a perfectly good building should be torn down? These houses are worth retaining.”

Robb’s partner in the design firm Pechet + Robb agrees.

Bill Pechet says he views “Vancouver Specials” as “an untapped resource.”

“When Generations Xers have money or children and want to get into the housing market they will look at these with fresh eyes,” says Pechet.

“Generally, right now they’re seen as an embarrassment. People equate them with cheap housing and don’t see them as having value. Even the city doesn’t regard them as having a heritage value, but it does represent a time in the city. In our view they will be seen as a heritage building [in the future].”

However, the assistant director for city planning Rob Jenkins says the city is open to a Vancouver Special conversion provided this is also something neighbourhoods accept.

“From a broad policy perspective we are looking at all kinds of alternative options for affordability in housing throughout the city, but it’s a balance. It has to respect the community it is in and it [a Vancouver Special conversion] would need to be assessed,” he said.

Jenkins says he is personally aware of another architect who moved from a small heritage home to a larger Vancouver Special because she too could see the “creative architectural” potential these homes represent. (While Robb’s home is small many Vancouver Special have as much as 2,500 square feet.)

Converting them and reusing as much as the existing house as possible as well as making more efficient use of land by building townhomes both make sense from a sustainability perspective, said Jenkins.

Robb’s “modest” project did support “sustainable precepts of material reuse,” UBC director of the School of Architecture Chris Macdonald wrote in a recent edition of Canadian Architect

“Traditional expectations of home ownership are in Vancouver increasingly challenged by a housing market confined by geography and exacerbated by a continuing influx of external investment,” writes Macdonald.

“In the face of this challenge, the creative reassessment of the circumstances surrounding the project of the single family house should become obligatory, including a thoughtful consideration of how our persisting aspiration for freestanding individual houses impacts pressing collective interests in “green” and ultimately sustainable development patterns.”

CREDIT: Mark van Manen, Vancouver Sun

An eating area and bar-style counter.

CREDIT: Mark van Manen, Vancouver Sun

Stephanie Robb outside her renovated Vancouver Special.

The Robb home, he concludes does attempt to deal with the pressing local issue of sustainability but “regrettably” it is outside Vancouver‘s current housing practice.

Jenkins adds that while most builders today have “tended to go towards the older architectural style the [city] guidelines do permit more modern interpretation but not much take-up of that has occurred.”

Still, Robb says while the community at large are not yet beating a path to her firm’s door to redesign other Vancouver Specials she has heard from many builders who say the change “makes sense.”

“Builders know buildings inside and out, so it’s good to know they also see the potential for them being renovated instead of torn down,” says Robb, adding she hopes the day will come when Vancouver Specials are also regarded as having heritage value.

[email protected]


If you live in a Vancouver Special you might just find your home photographed and detailed on an Internet site dedicated to this particular residential architecture —

According to this intriguing web site (which does not provide a link to its creator, 45-year-old Keith Higgins) there are 1143 Vancouver Specials in the city photographed so far. But, Higgins notes, there are thousands more still to do, estimating Vancouver Specials represent 10 per cent of the detached residential stock in Vancouver.

Among his findings of the homes he’s documented so far:

* There are 757 specials with full balconies and 247 with half balconies.

* Forty-five homes have Lions as decorative statues on the fence while another 16 have some other form of statue.

* Stucco is the exterior finish for 988 homes; 815 used brick, 121 used stone or faux stone, horizontal siding was used on 142 homes and 173 homes used vertical siding.

* A symmetrical roof type was used for 778 homes, double roof for 173, a split roof for 68 and 13 homes have an asymmetrical roof.

Higgins, a fine arts graduate, who lives in an Edwardian style house, began photographing Vancouver Specials with a Polaroid camera years ago before they stopped making them around 1985.

“What I’m trying to do is document every Vancouver Special. Number one because I think they’re an under-discussed, under- documented part of Vancouver‘s environment. They’ve had a huge economic impact on the city and people who probably wouldn’t have been able to afford big new houses suddenly could. They continue to have an impact because they hold their value.”

© The Vancouver Sun 2004

No Responses to “Something Special: affordable homes seen in a new light”

  1. For more information on lofts check out our Vancouver Lofts website.

  2. For more information on Yaletown’s lofts check out our Yaletown Lofts website.