Ah yes, the Vancouver Special. Say what you will about their seemingly bland designs and rental suite horror stories, but these oft-overlooked designs represent much more than the sum of their (dated) parts. While our city’s older heritage houses are defined by their unique period-specific craftsmanship and details—essentially the art of their architecture—the ubiquitous Vancouver Special reflects a more budget-friendly design that matched contemporary notions of what the “home” represented in the late mid-century.
It wasn’t just that larger families required more space and a smaller mortgage (see photos below of post-war subdivision housing); the homes catered to a sensibility that appreciated more efficient (read: easy to build) design and economical materials in a time when much of the growing population in Vancouver’s eastern and southern neighbourhoods were immigrants and working class. The structures took advantage of the zoning laws of the time, rejecting the spacing and proportions of older properties in favour of maximizing floor space, and creative competition in favour of cohesion.
In addition to a two-storey plan that often features a semi-separate ground-level suite, and some variation of a front-facing balcony, the absence of a basement is one of the many signatures of the utilitarian Special. Brick and stucco facades, interior carports, and those menacing guardian statues are a few of the other telltale features of the design that experienced its primary heyday from the mid-1960s into the mid-1980s. A second wave of updated models (tweaked to accommodate restrictions in zoning laws) continued to be built prior to a City-sanctioned backlash in the early 1990s. The boxy design and excavation-free plan made the Special perfect for mass-production in Vancouver and in the surrounding suburbs; it remains the most prevalent housing style in the city.
Within this niche architectural movement there is also another area-specific variation: “The Strathcona Special”. Following the failure of the proposed East End freeway initiative in the 1970s, architect Joe Wai began designing homes that would fill the void left by the project’s demolition efforts. While they feature many departures from the original design, the Strathcona Special stayed true to the concept of maximizing density and keeping costs low for the growing lower-income community. Unlike its predecessor, the Strathcona’s design is long and narrow, boasts a pitched roof, and — fortunately for its residents — includes a basement.
As part of their comprehensive local tours initiative, the Vancouver Heritage Foundation is again hosting a self-guided tour of a five select Vancouver Specials this Saturday, April 18th. Each space has interpreted the original design in a different way, from an energy-efficient overhaul to highlighting the mid-century character with some neat retro touches. Visit their website here to learn more about the tour and to purchase your tickets (it’s sure to sell out quick). You might be surprised what difference a little imagination can make.
Bonus: check out Ken Lum’s Vancouver Especially installation on Union Street.