Call it the Betty White of housing styles: once a maligned sidekick to the stars of the show, the Vancouver Special is now enjoying a wave of new popularity. Credit it to nostalgia mixed with appreciation for its versatility, cheek and - despite or perhaps because of its age - its quirky sexiness.
The Special - that homely, boxy housing type of the 1970s that characterizes Vancouver even more than fake-Tuscan monster homes - is enjoying a surprisingly strong second coming. Basking in the success of last year's inaugural tour of selected Specials, the Vancouver Heritage Foundation has unfurled its second annual celebration, with a special lecture on Tuesday Sept. 21 and a package tour of four noteworthy Vancouver Specials the following Saturday.
"It is a growing phenomenon," says Elana Zysblat, coordinator of the four-home tour and pre-tour public lecture. "I already have 12 confirmed houses for next year's tour." The Specials' versatile plan allows creative homeowners to renovate it with fairly easily and with great flair, notes Ms. Zysblat. "There are just so many examples where this ugly, hated house style becomes cool. It's a no-brainer housing solution."
The Vancouver Special was born in the late 1960s from a need to accommodate an influx of newcomers in an affordable, efficient manner. With its reductively simple materials and massing and its lack of basement excavation, the Special didn't cost a lot to build. And because of the strategic layout of its floor plan - usually a primary living area on top with a self-contained secondary suite below - it became a financial tool to help the struggling home-owners carry their mortgages by renting out the bottom unit.
But in the architectural ethos of the Special, aesthetics and view lines were a low priority. Characterized by a boxy volume, labyrinthine interior and shallow-pitched roof, typically clad in fake brick or pallid stucco, the Special is the perfect candidate for an architectural makeover.
Architect Stephanie Robb set the gold standard with the overhaul of her own eastside 1972 Vancouver Special. Her full-throttle renovation transformed a stocky double-suite stucco box into a sleek and open single-family home, with exposed wood rafters, polished concrete floors and copious windows drawing natural light into the space. In 2005, it received a Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Architecture.
"It's a surprising group of people who are interested" in the Specials, notes Ms. Robb. Many are the offspring of affluent long-established west side families, who have found themselves priced out of their ancestral homelands in Shaughnessy or Kerrisdale. The demographics have reversed themselves: these days it's more often the immigrants who have the money to buy the character homes, or the offspring of those very immigrants who, 30-odd years ago, were settling in the Specials in order to save money and give their own progeny a bright future.
Once the Vancouver Special took root in the region, builders found it easier each year to replicate the simple, economical form. And permits for subsequent Specials were usually fast-tracked by City Hall since it was now a proven housing type, notes Ms. Zysblat. By the mid-1970s, the Special had proliferated over the city like the fittest Darwinian weed.
But even during times of derision, the Special always had its champions. In his 2005 Dream City, urban-design consultant Lance Berelowitz called the Special "refreshingly honest" in comparison to the pseudo-heritage kitsch being designed and marketed by many establishment architectural firms. Mr. Berelowitz now says he feels vindicated by the Special's widespread public redemption. "In retrospect, it's a poor man's modernist home," he says, noting that not everyone can afford the kind of high-end detailing embodied in contemporary modernist paradigm.
The Special still remains true to its original purpose: allowing homeowners to either subsidize their mortgage or house their extended family. One of the four houses on the tour is owned by Tara Stoll and Dana Dansereau, who live with their eight-year-old daughter and six-month-old son on the upper floor, while Ms. Stoll's mother lives in the lower floor. The mother and daughter also share a home office downstairs for their respective counselling practices. Because of its original 1973 configuration as a multi-family house, it's been easy to finetune the various functions into separate private sections.
The odd thing, recalls Ms. Stoll, is that when they were house hunting, they specifically told their realtor that they didn't want to buy a Vancouver Special. What happened? "He just showed us how right it was for us," recalls Ms. Stoll.
The other two houses on the Vancouver Heritage Foundation tour are a restored 1973 Special tucked into a verdant Strathcona hillside, and a community-housing project renovated by Ms. Robb.
Ms. Robb's client for the latter project was the Hawthorne Foundation, which helps provide refugees with affordable housing and other support services. It sponsors a cache of small transitional-living units within a large craftsman-style house in Vancouver's eastside neighbourhood. When a dilapidated 1968 Vancouver Special next door came on the market a few years ago, the Foundation snapped it up as the perfect site for community-building space - once they could figure out what to do with it. The house "was considered the eyesore of the block, being the only Vancouver Special in a row of character homes" recalls Loren Balisky, program coordinator at Salsbury Community Society, which manages the two houses. "Everyone thought it was a teardown."
But Ms. Robb found a way to reinvent it. She removed much of the interior wall and expanded the back quarters, creating a generously large and open space for weekly group dinners, complemented by a sleek but efficiently compact new kitchen. "We're able to get together in a way that's gracious, where we aren't always clambering over one another," says Ms. Balisky.
Among other gestures, the addition's sophisticated corrugated-aluminum walls and the façade's sharp new colours - fuchsia, cream and gunmetal grey - imbue the once-frumpy Special with contemporary cool.
And she knows it's probably not the last Special she'll be called on to transform. Now, the danger is being disproportionately branded as a "Vancouver Specialist" despite her richly varied practice. "I'm starting to appreciate how William Shatner must feel as a Shakespearean actor who's been drawn into a cult interest," jokes Ms. Robb. "I'm absolutely flabbergasted by it all."
The Vancouver Special pre-tour lecture will take place at the Unitarian Church on Tues., Sept. 21, at 7 p.m.; the tour itself takes place from noon to 5 p.m. on Sat., Sept. 25. For ticket information or to register, call 604-264-9642 or see vancouverheritagefoundation.org.