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A row of tilting house on East 17th Avenue near Prince Edward Street in East Vancouver, British Columbia, Friday, December 27, 2013. (Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail)
A row of tilting house on East 17th Avenue near Prince Edward Street in East Vancouver, British Columbia, Friday, December 27, 2013. (Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail)

Mysteries of B.C.

Vancouver’s tilting homes are distinctive, but puzzling Add to ...

The roads are so buckled that it seems as though an earthquake must have hit recently. Fences don’t run straight, but roll along property perimeters in gentle waves.

And, on close inspection, many of the houses that line the lumpy roads and sit behind the wavy fences seem to be tilted to one side – some to the east, some to the west, some to the south.

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For people passing through this odd little area in the Mount Pleasant neighbourhood of Vancouver – between Main and Fraser, 15th and about 22nd – the hobbit-like feel to the place is distinctive but puzzling.

Even those who live in the district aren’t always sure what’s so different.

What they don’t realize is that the area was known from the early days of Vancouver’s existence as the Tea Swamp – a small, mucky lake that provided a rare open clearing in the densely forested city-to-be where a rich variety of plants could grow. It was the engineering work of the area’s beavers, who blocked some of the main streams that ran down the Mount Pleasant slope into False Creek.

Among the plants that flourished was a specific kind of rhododendron that produced something early settlers called Labrador tea, which First Nations groups (who passed by the area on an old route that is roughly where Kingsway runs now) gathered and used as a treatment for everything from whooping cough to arthritis to hair loss.

The bog also attracted birds of all kinds. Pioneers who lived in the area in the late 1800s and early 1900s bragged about the teal or grouse they caught there.

But, in a growing city, that land wasn’t left to the birds and the rhododendron bushes for long. Some long-ago genius put in drainage that turned the swampy bog into something that looked like solid ground. And people started building houses and roads, without doing anything in particular to anchor them. That was true until as recently as the 1960s, as the many off-kilter Vancouver Specials in the area demonstrate.

The result: heaved streets, wavy fences, tilting houses.

Dylan Cartier lives in one of them, on the top floor of a bungalow his father, Barry, owns. It tilts south. “When something falls on the floor, you know where it’s going to end up,” he says matter-of-factly.

Half a block away, David Nicolay built a new home in place of what had been one of the most tilted houses in the area, a two-storey structure that leaned out over the back lane.

“We’d lived in the area for 20 years. I wouldn’t say I particularly wanted to live in the bog, but it came with a very good price tag. And it’s a fantastic community,” said Mr. Nicolay, a designer who created several restaurants along Main Street, including the Cascade Room and El Camino, as well as working on the design of the Bel Cafe at the Hotel Georgia and Pixar’s head office here. His comments echo what has been a real-estate fact for the history of many bog areas in Vancouver – the land there always sold for lower prices, so a lot of social housing, schools, parks and lower-price homes ended up being built on or around them.

When Mr. Nicolay began building, he had to have geotechnical tests done to indicate how far down any pilings would have to go. They showed that the boggy peat went as deep as 16.5 metres in some sections. The shallowest was five metres. Mr. Nicolay ended up having to put 16 pilings under what has become a distinctive Modernist house, but which has only 800 square feet on the main floor.

He hired a company that used a helical screw to put them in, since pounding in pilings runs the risk of damaging the foundations of neighbouring houses and causing them to tilt. Although, he notes, his neighbours live in one of the oldest houses in the area and yet it doesn’t tilt.

“My suspicion is someone poured a massive amount of concrete,” he says.

The Tea Swamp, along with a few other peat areas in Vancouver, is a source of constant maintenance work for the engineering department. The city installed a rubber sidewalk on 17th Avenue, as one experiment in dealing with the wonky ground conditions.

“It is one of the unique areas of the city,” says senior engineer Taryn Scollard, who has gone out personally to look at sewer line replacements where workers tried to get to the bottom of the peat. “It was very infrequent that we could find the bottom.”

The city now puts pilings under its sewer lines in the area to keep them in place, so they don’t sink and twist like everything else. That’s why streets such as 16th Avenue have just a noticeable hump in the middle – that’s the sewer line, still in place, even though the boggy land on either side of it has settled. That results in as much as a 61-centimetre drop between the crown of the road and the sides.

Mr. Nicolay said people in the area have been promised the city will raise the sidewalks by 15 cm at some point, to create a slightly more level street.

But, for the moment, it still looks as if it is a slalom run. And, although new houses are going up all the time in the area, this time on pilings, the streets are still lined with the listing and the lopsided houses of previous decades.

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