THE ROOF OVER YOUR HEAD | “Vancouver Specials” – What Makes Them So Unique?

July 29, 2013.


Vancouver’s architecture is often difficult to distinguish as many of its homes are adaptations or amalgamations of more recognized styles. By cataloguing them, we gain an understanding of our homes and neighbourhoods, which gives us all a sense of pride in our city. With this is mind, the Vancouver Heritage Foundation is providing Scout with an exclusive new series that we call The Roof Over Your Head.



Unique to Vancouver, the Special was created in the 1960s in response to strict set-back and envelope laws enforced by the City. Favoured by engineers for easily accessible service areas, and by multi-generational families for their adaptable main floor, the Vancouver Special sprouted all over the Lower Mainland during the 1960s through 1980s. Built quickly and relatively inexpensively, there are variations to the style but a few defining features making them easy to spot on the street.

Always two stories, the exterior features an upper balcony that spans the entire front width of the house. The balcony is often made of simply patterned wrought-iron, with a stucco finished upper floor, and brick or stone cladding on the main floor. Their low pitched roof-lines, large front windows, and upper floor patio sliders are staples of the design. A lucky few will include a pair of stone lions positioned on pillars at either side of the entry path.

The windows were nearly all aluminum – mainly sliders in configuration although awning windows were also used for small windows or with a series of fixed windows immediately above or below them. Front doors were carved double doors or a paneled door flanked by sidelights – often amber plexiglass. The first floor often consisted of a family room off the entry with its staircase. Behind the family room usually with an alcove for a “summer” kitchen, were a number of bedrooms, a full bathroom, a utility room and a rear exit to the carport. The upper floor (like the Italian Piano Nobile) contained a front living room with a den area on the front, a small dining area with the kitchen and breakfast space behind opening out to the sundeck, while on the other side behind the den, the staircase came up to the centre of the house with the bedroom wing behind.

Location: Van Specials are found all over the Lower Mainland, however there is a predominance of both restored and original examples in East Vancouver (wandering Hastings-Sunrise and Commercial-Broadway are good bets)


Vancouver Heritage Foundation is a registered charity supporting the conservation of heritage buildings and structures in recognition of their contribution to the city’s economy, sustainability and culture. VHF supports Vancouver’s built history by offering educational tours, talks and lectures, courses, and special events. Launched early in 2013, the Vancouver House Styles Architectural Web Tool is a free online reference cataloguing Vancouver’s common architectural styles.

  • Kristi Holz

    Vancouver Specials are pretty great for reno’s too. Many have exposed wood beams, high ceilings and space for a good kitchen and living area. Check out all Vancouver Specials for sale at I can’t wait to see how this city changes with people putting their own spin on the Vancouver Specials around town.

  • Pete Shpak

    Great Post! I find it interesting how many of my clients as a Vancouver real estate agent don’t want to buy a “Vancouver Special”. I don’t
    think their bad rep is warranted. There are some beauties that have updated nicely and provide easy configuration for a suite – which lots of buyers are after to help them get in to the single family home market.

  • spiceman

    I was one who claimed I would not consider buying one, but purchased one last month and am in the middle of renovating currently. There are far more positives in this reno than negatives, and the floorplan is very easy to work with. I drew massive inspiration and ideas from the Vancouver Heritage Society’s annual Tour of Vancouver Specials which I would highly recommend to current or prospective owners.

  • Cellarmaster
  • Kristi Holz

    $1-million for a completely renovated Vancouver Special is pretty normal. The one you posted was a flip – it was bought in 2012 and was renovated to sell. It’s getting a little close to Boundary Road for me, but that same house could easily go for $1.4 to 1.5-million around Main St. The one you posted does have the Mortgage Helper basement suite to help with the financial cost.

    Vancouver Specials typically have great bones and goof floor plans to renovate with, and they’re unique to Vancouver so a lot of people are embracing them.

  • Cellarmaster


    I’m in the wrong business.

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