Heritage Retention: A New Approach to Densification of Vancouver’s Character Homes

Susan M Boyce
April 15, 2015


There’s been much ado recently about Vancouver’s dwindling number of heritage houses. As the wrecking ball takes out one after another of the city’s original homes – often in preparation for townhouse or condominium development – tempers are flaring.

But there are some builders who are pursuing a different vision: one that meets both the City of Vancouver’s criteria to preserve the best of our past and its desire to provide a much-needed increase in density.

Under the Heritage Retention Program, if the exterior structure of a qualifying heritage home is restored to its original condition, the developer may be granted the right to transform its interior into multiple residences. In most cases, there’s also an increase in the overall FSR (floor space ratio), meaning more buildable square footage – space that can take the form of an addition or even a secondary new building.

It’s a win-win solution. Since the increased density is virtually invisible from the street, the neighbourhood’s single-family character is retained – few people walking through Mount Pleasant between Main and Cambie realize just how many of the homes that appear to be single-family are, in fact, multi-unit conversions. Inside, the new homes offer completely contemporary design and features and are more affordable thanks to economy of scale. For the developer, it also means that rather than taking an “all eggs in one basket” approach, they’re able to mitigate their financial risk over multiple properties.

Not Without Challenges

However heritage retention is a niche market that’s not for the faint of heart.

“It’s difficult to find suitable properties, getting through the permitting process is usually very time consuming, and even sourcing materials can be challenging because they must be historically accurate,” says Shaun Sood, partner in Chorus Developments.

“Plus the technical side can be more complicated than a new-build because you never really know what you’re going to find when you start opening up an old building.”

Fitting an increased number of homes onto an existing property is yet another complication and typically entails moving the existing house forward on its lot. Jerry Rhakra, principle of Vandwell Homes, explains.

“We’re waiting approval on a project in the West End that will require stripping the house to the studs, jacking it up, breaking apart the existing foundation, building a new foundation 14 feet closer to the street, and finally moving the entire structure onto its new foundation.”

The existing house will be then transformed into three separate homes and a brand new fourplex will be added to the back section of the property.

Innovative Solutions

One particularly innovative part of Rhakra's plan is to also build a seven-car, underground parkade that owners access via a straightforward, no-frills vehicle elevator. “You’ll drive your car onto the lift, go down one level, then drive out and into your spot.”

Taresh Sachi, owner of Structure Developments, has completed six heritage retention projects including a 1930s post office/general store that was converted into a duplex. Like Sood and Rhakra, he’s passionate about the benefits of heritage retention and hopes it will become a new trend.

“From a developer’s point of view, heritage retention is expensive and time consuming to do, but the reward is watching people get excited by what they see. In a city where you can easily pay half a million dollars for a condominium, this is an attractive, cost-effective alternative. You own an actual piece of land, you’re part of a small community within your neighbourhood, and it’s possible to find these homes for under $1 million.”

Snapped Up

Clearly, buyers are impressed. At Sood’s recently completed project, The Bromley in Mount Pleasant, more than 200 people attended the first open house and all three homes were sold within seven days.

“We chose to make the existing house into two units rather three so we could make them larger and include a basement,” he says. The third home, a two-level coach house with massive upper deck, was snapped up almost immediately.

As Vancouver’s residential construction industry continues searching for creative ways to meet the growing need for housing, heritage retention is one part of the puzzle.

“I was raised in Vancouver,” Sachi says with pride. “I believe in retaining the character and beauty of our city. This is a way we can achieve that goal.”

Susan M Boyce
Susan M Boyce is a Vancouver-based freelance writer specializing in real estate and residential development. She has co-authored four books on writing and business and is a regular contributor to REW.ca and Real Estate Weekly newspaper.