The Vancouver Special used to be an architectural ugly duckling. A new generation sees it differently.
Right after the Second World War, the Lower Mainland experienced a huge influx of immigrants coming to Canada looking for a better life. The problem was, where to house these large extended families? Older Vancouver neighbourhoods were already built out, but South Vancouver was largely vacant tracts of land. To accommodate the newcomers, much of the land, especially in southeast Vancouver, was subdivided into 33-foot lots.
“The Vancouver Special (VS) was designed to maximize square footage on these relatively small lots,” says Vancouver Heritage Foundation’s executive director Diane Switzer. She says they were built by general contractors who purchased off-the-shelf, stock plans for under $100. “The homes could be built cheaply and quickly, for a burgeoning population. Between 1965 and 1985 it is estimated that about 10,000 Vancouver Specials were built.”
The boxy, utilitarian houses were designed to be quick, inexpensive knockoffs of Mid-Century Modern architecture, and as unpopular as they were with Vancouverites, the VS has become ingrained in the city’s architectural and social history. What they lacked in design, they more than made up in square footage—with more than 2,000 square feet of living space.
Over the last few years, this much-maligned humble abode of yesteryear has gained newfound popularity.
Thirtysomething couple Shaun and Devon St-Amour purchased their VS last June. As a general contractor, Shaun St-Amour saw great potential in the 2,400-square-foot iconic home, which he says “had great bones to work with, maximized space and wood ceilings.”
“The house didn’t need any structural upgrades; most of it was cosmetic renovation.” he adds.
Today, his 1982 home is airy, open, spacious and energy efficient.
The six-month renovations included taking out two walls to open up the main living space, upgrading to a metal roof, replacing the wood-burning fireplace with an energy-efficient gas one, and installing dual-flush toilets and insulating fiberglass windows throughout.
“We also took out the front balcony and put in a larger window, again to bring more natural light into the house,” he adds.
The cost for the sustainable upgrades came to about $90 a square foot, translating roughly into $225,000 in total.
“Most standard house renovations in Vancouver run at least $250 per square foot, so I see this as an affordable job,” adds St-Amour, whose house is one of the five on the upcoming Vancouver Heritage Foundation tour.
Like many young couples starting out, they were attracted by the large downstairs space, perfect for a rental suite. The renovation on the 950-square-foot lower floor included adding a small but functional kitchen and expanding both the living room and bathroom space by taking out walls.
“We also put in heated tiles on the floors,” he says, adding the renovations on the entire house took six months to complete.
“The house has great design elements, such as the low sloped offset roof, the vaulted ceilings and a good floor plan,” says Zwick. “Because I knew exactly what I wanted, it only took us seven weeks to renovate and make our house more modern.”
His 2,500-square-foot house has been transformed from small closed-in, shag-carpeted rooms into an open, airy home with solid bamboo floors and a brand new kitchen with all the modern amenities.
He says, “Perhaps the biggest draw was that these homes were built in an era when they were built really well and simply. We ended up gutting the entire house, and took two major walls out on the upper floor.”
Like the St-Amour family, the Zwicks also rent out the lower half of their home.
The Vancouver Heritage Foundation believes there are many more people who are fascinated by the VS.
“Our hope with all of our tours is to inspire Vancouverites to retain and reuse buildings rather then demolish them as a way to both respect our past and save our future by keeping tons of debris from the landfill,” says Switzer.
If you’re a fan of the VS, visit www.vancouverspecials.com where more than 1,000 Vancouver Specials have been catalogued.