It is one of the most ubiquitous, and the most reviled, forms of Vancouver architecture – but thanks to a handful of highly inventive renovators, the lowly Vancouver Special is undergoing a major renaissance.
Known for its boxy shape, low-pitched roofs, raised basements, flat fronts and unsightly mix of stucco and brick exteriors, Vancouver Specials were designed in the 1960s, seventies and eighties to be built quickly and cheaply, and to maximize the space allowed on a 33-foot lot.
More than 10,000 of them went up, and they became so painfully unpopular that homeowners took a financial hit when trying to sell them. But more recently, the demand for Specials has spiked, in large part because of builders and designers who have transformed the large and highly adaptable homes into modern masterpieces – and five top examples are going on show for the Vancouver Heritage Foundation’s Vancouver Special Tour.
“It’s been 10 or 15 years since the first Vancouver Specials were taken on in this way by one or two architects and designers who saw this opportunity. And definitely that has made an impression,” says Judith Mosley, executive director of the foundation, which has been offering the annual tour for six years. “We’ve had many people on tour who have seen what they can do and are then keen to go and find themselves a Special. So there are the beginnings of a real shift in how people look at these houses.”
Among the homes on the self-guided tour are three typical Specials that have been transformed both inside and out, with new bathrooms, kitchens, windows, flooring and more, as well as occasional nods to their original mid-century modern design.
Of the two more offbeat offerings, one is a Vancouver Special made entirely out of concrete cinder blocks; the other is a home originally designed by renowned architect Joe Wai, whose unique approach to the homes proliferated throughout Strathcona.
“We hope people will see that, with a bit of imagination and some good design, you can take a Vancouver Special and turn it into a modern, up-to-date home,” says Ms. Mosley. “There are so many of them across the city, and it’s a concern that many will end up in the landfill if people can’t see that potential. There are a lot of them and it would be great to see people take them on and love them.”
The Vancouver Special Tour is Saturday from 1 to 5 p.m. Tickets are available in advance, or on Saturday at 5295 Sherbrooke St. from 12 to 3 p.m. (vancouverheritagefoundation.org).