Nobody would have guessed that the humble Vancouver Special would one day be counted among the city’s chic, photo-ready, high-end housing stock.
Rampantly constructed throughout the Lower Mainland from the early 60s to mid-80s and once derided for their boxy style, the homes have held their value, and then some. Fuelled by the interest of midcentury-loving renovators, the boxy utilitarian house has become the template for posh living. And with the help of the Vancouver Heritage Foundation’s Vancouver Special Tour Saturday, the public can witness a few of the lovelier, top-drawer examples.
A couple of them are also on the market for top dollar, a dream scenario for the selling agents.
“Ten years ago, you could barely give them away,” says selling agent Rick Stonehouse. “People didn’t want them. Now the ones that are 40 years old, people are looking at those now. It’s the whole mid-century thing coming back, the ‘50s.”
On the east side, a stone’s throw from Trout Lake, friends and award-winning builders Jonathan Kerridge and Jason Hagemeister have listed their deluxe Vancouver Special makeover at 3544 Gladstone for $1.379 million, which must be a record for the quiet family area.
I’d bet it’s also the first house on the street with a yoga room.
“It seems like the Vancouver Special is finally going to be recognized as solid residential architecture with really good value,” says Mr. Hagemeister, who is co-owner of the YYoga chain. “We see this as a movement.”
If the house, with its cedar cladding, zinc downspouts, custom-made steel fascia, landscaped gardens and glassed-in balconies, was parked on the west side, it might fetch about $1 million more. This quiet part of Grandview is central, but definitely not trendy.
However, as I stand under the kitchen skylight, looking out to the sectional couch on the private deck flanked by bamboo, I feel like I’ve been transported from East Van to Los Angeles. The house has been transformed from shag carpet, popcorn ceiling interior and brick and stucco exterior, to the sort of place you’d see among the pages of Dwell. No wonder the staging includes a stack of Dwell magazines on top of a Bose speaker.
Mr. Kerridge and Mr. Hagemeister say this is just the start of their plan to continue switching Vancouver Specials into high-end homes. Because of the large square footage – more than 3,000 sq. ft. – and sound construction, renovation on a Van Special is just a matter of forking out the bucks on the finishing, says Mr. Kerridge, who owned restaurants like the Whip and Soma, before going into construction.
“We think there is a lot of opportunity to revitalize these homes,” says Mr. Kerridge. “Most of the time, they are in original condition. It’s almost like the demographic is such that they just bought them and didn’t do anything to them.”
Over on the west side, Melania and Brian Taylor’s updated Vancouver Special at 2425 West 13th Avenue, which sits on a 50-by-125-foot lot, just came on the market, listed at $2.6 million. Ms. Taylor’s grandfather built the 3,400 sq. ft. house between 1963 and 1965, and lived in it until he passed away.
Her grandfather, a residential builder, built a lot of Vancouver Specials.
Ms. Taylor inherited the house and she and her husband renovated it from top to bottom in 2007. It was on the heritage tour in 2009, and pulled in about 600 visitors.
Because Vancouver Specials are overbuilt compared to today’s zoning laws, they largely survive because of size alone. But everybody agrees that most of the houses, particularly the earlier ones, were also well constructed, which is why they should be saved from the landfill.
“We took it right down to the studs and it was so well built, we only had to change one 2 x 4,” says Ms. Taylor.
Those who work in the salvaging business will easily, and with open disgust, offer up sad tales of pristine old lumber routinely going into the dump. It’s flagrant waste, and the antithesis of building green.
“We would love to see more renos, rather than see these character houses knocked down and soulless square boxes put up,” Ms. Taylor’s husband, Brian, adds, with no small amount of disdain.
Heritage Foundation’s Rebecca Bishop, who chooses the houses for the tour, says there are about 10,000 Vancouver Specials standing, and she hopes it stays that way.
“You don’t find this building typology anywhere else,” she says.
It’s the fourth year of the tour, which began as a bit of a lark, but proved so hugely and immediately popular that the foundation made it an annual event.
They prefer to not put houses on the tour that are listed for sale, says Ms. Bishop, but it’s not always easy to find homeowners willing to open their houses to a stampede of people.
Ms. Bishop adds that it’s one thing to ask that homeowners preserve the homes.
It’s another to ask that they retain the mint green toilets and sinks, shag carpets and avocado refrigerators.
“Most people are removing all the fixtures, and doing a pretty radical brand-new renovation. But if that’s the cost of retention, that’s something that we have to agree to. We just don’t like things going to the landfill.”
As well, she has nothing but praise for Mr. Kerridge and Mr. Hagemeister, who certainly do seem to have a genuine passion for midcentury design and retention of Vancouver Special housing stock. They have even staged the home with their own collection of midcentury modern furnishings.
The Gladstone house, built in 1969, underwent a seven-month renovation involving painstaking details such as a built-in speaker system, Gaggenau wine fridge, Carrara marble countertops, new white oak flooring, radiant heat bathroom floors, zinc downspouts and custom-made steel fascia boards.
It isn’t the kind of home it once was, where you’d raise the standard two-kid family, with grandma living downstairs.
It’s better suited to the couple that entertains indoors and out, keeps the Ferrari safely parked in the lower level garage, and prefers to start the day with a mind-clearing yoga session.
And yes, there is that yoga room — a very spacious one. Move over media room, mudroom and kids’ playroom.
The yoga room has arrived, in a Vancouver Special, of all things.
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