A forward-thinking family has figured out a way to glean maximum value from their solidly built, but not so special, Vancouver Special.
Maya and Derrick Yue – and Maya's parents, Eriko and Aki Taguchi – converted the 1966 split-level house where Maya grew up into what looks and feels like a side-by-side duplex – even though it is technically a single-family house with basement suite. Maya and Derrick, who both work in the tech industry and used to rent an apartment in Richmond, B.C., now live upstairs and her parents live in the lower unit.
"We had to have several conversations around, 'are you sure you want this?' " Maya says, seated in the living room with views of the mountains. "Eventually, we got there, but it was a joint decision. I knew that they were going through certain emotions about downsizing and getting old."
The house sits on a 45-by-105 foot lot, on a hilltop street lined with Vancouver Specials, a couple of blocks away from Grandview Highway. The 2,800-square-foot space now has an extra half-floor, three bedrooms and two bathrooms in the upper unit, and two bedrooms and two bathrooms in the lower. Both units get the mountain views.
Vancouver Specials, built from the 1960s to 1980s, were a highly functional design because they always operated like an up-down duplex, with stairs in the foyer that go up to one level and down to another. But with the help of an architect, the family transformed each level into something unique – the lower level, where Maya's parents live, has a living area with a 12-foot-high ceiling and a huge gourmet kitchen. The upper level, where Maya and Derrick live, also has a modern open-concept design, with a floating staircase and Japanese inspired wood-screen feature over the dining area. There are built-in cabinets along the walls of the clean, contemporary space, which has vaulted ceilings throughout.
In a city in which it is difficult for a couple earning a decent income to afford a single-family house, the arrangement allows Maya and Derrick to stay central and live in a beautiful home. For Maya's parents, it allows them to help their daughter, and age in place in style, without having to relocate. Eriko is 65 and Aki is 71, and they are fit and able – Aki still works as a landscaper – but down the road, Maya will be able to care for her parents. In the meantime, when the young couple starts a family of their own, Maya's parents will be able to help with child rearing. They see the cycle playing out for next-generation family members, too.
It's also an example of sustainable living because the house wasn't bulldozed and rebuilt. Clever updates to the Vancouver Special – at one time reviled because of its cookie-cutter ubiquity – have earned the house style its own heritage tour. The Yue-Taguchi house at 3112 E. 15th Ave. is one of five Vancouver Specials on the Vancouver Special House Tour next Saturday, April 22, from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Tickets for the self-guided tour are available at the Vancouver Heritage Foundation.
To make it work, however, there was a year of major upheaval, when Maya's parents had to move into a basement rental. The rental had low ceilings, small windows, and a noisy two-year-old living upstairs, so it was tough on them.
Maya has a brother, but it made more sense for her to live with their parents since she will be the caregiver one day. It also made more sense for her parents to live in the lower level, only a few steps below grade. It will be easy enough to install a small ramp at the rear when they are older.
"I think part of it is cultural, too," Derrick says. "As Maya's parents were getting older – and certainly I feel about my parents this way, too – we feel an obligation to take care of them, as a repayment of taking care of us as kids. We want to return the favour.
"Maya's parents recognized they were going to give us the house eventually, but it made sense for us to live together now and enjoy it together while everyone is still alive and very capable of being independent."
Maya's parents gifted the house to their daughter and husband, and in exchange, the younger couple obtained financing to pay for the near-$700,000 renovation. It's a hefty price tag, and several friends asked them why they didn't just tear the house down and rebuild. However, the family did not want a cookie-cutter house like so many new houses in the city. They wanted an architect-designed home with special features that honoured the original house. Maya's parents were also keen on an original design and had a lot of input.
"For us, you could never buy a house custom built like this at that price," Maya says. "I like the Vancouver Special lines and architecture, so I wanted to preserve some of that. And my dad, who graduated in Japan with an architectural background and immigrated here and became a landscaper, he has strong opinions about design.
"We knew we were never going to be able to buy a home in East Van, custom-built this way, for the mortgage we have. And also, [my parents] won't have as much income in the coming years, so it made sense for all of us."
The house is also testament to the fact that, with some ingenuity and creativity, a single-family house can be transformed into a spacious two-unit home without having to go the conventional route of big space upstairs, dark basement suite down. Single-family zoning doesn't allow for two front doors on the front of the house, so the two families share the front entrance. If someone wants to rent out one of the units, it's a simple matter of locking off the lower unit. The lower unit has an entrance at the back of the house.
Architect Allison Holden-Pope made the design work by removing one of the upstairs bedrooms and giving the lower living area the 12-foot ceiling height. The removal of an attached carport gave them extra floor space. She added a half-floor to the upstairs, which is now a spacious bedroom with large bathroom and office nook.
"We were still capped by [floor space ratio] limits, but we did play with it cleverly when we removed the bedroom and raised the ceiling to 12 feet," Ms. Holden-Pope says. "That meant the basement didn't count as two stories, because 12 feet is the limit for the city. And we got to add that bedroom elsewhere on the house."
The lower unit is also open concept, with an area for Maya's mother to hang her kimonos, and a naturally lit bamboo worktable to do her calligraphy. The design allowed a customized approach to living within the space.
"The classic development right now is giving the crappiest part of your house to the renters, the smallest suite possible, and that is your mortgage helper, which is the opposite of what we believe in," says Ms. Holden-Pope, of One SEED Architecture. "The big puzzle to figure out was a way to let both families live together in a democratic manner."
Ms. Holden-Pope says a solid part of her business is helping intergenerational living arrangements.
"We're seeing this more and more in all our project types right now; that it's so expensive to buy land in Vancouver, the baby-boomer generation is trying to help their kids out by finding a way they can either subdivide their lots, or build laneway houses to help house them on-site.
"We've seen this [arrangement] as well, allowing the older generation to age in place, and the younger generation acquire a property which was obviously more affordable than purchasing one. They had to deal with construction costs, but without land costs, they had the full budget to gut the home."
Derrick says he has friends who are considering buying a house together and dividing it. But most expect to inherit from family instead of collaborating on housing.
"I think we are a bit ahead compared to the rest of our friends," Maya says. "But I'm a planner. I say, 'do it now before something does happen and then you can't do it.' "