Redeeming the Vancouver Special


A block of Vancouver Specials. Photo by Jason Vanderhill

It usually takes a generation or two for maligned building styles to win new appreciation — or even any sort of appreciation at all. That’s certainly the case with the Vancouver Special, a ubiquitous type of house that has long been considered an eyesore for its bland features and repetitive nature. But its practicality has made it popular with generations of immigrants who have used them as stepping stones into homeownership. Now, finally, it seems to be earning a sort of grudging respect, if not outright admiration.

I like to think that the Special is a West Coast equivalent of Montreal’s plex; both emerged at a time when strict building codes tried to mitigate the impact of large population booms. In Montreal’s case, those codes were meant to improve living standards in a city where much of the population lived in dark, toilet-less apartments. In Vancouver, however, zoning laws were biased in favour of detached single-family homes in an attempt to maintain the city’s suburban character. The Special, with its shallow pitched roof and large front balcony, gave the appearance of being a single-family home, but its ground floor was designed to include an extra flat that could be rented out, a nice way for the upstairs owners to subsidize their mortgage.

Aesthetically, it’s hard to find many redeeming qualities in the Special—it is gangly and awkward, like a teenager after a growth spurt—but its simplicity, functionality and accessibility are earning it newfound respect. After all, cities need these kinds of houses. They’re residential workhorses, easy to build, easy to modify and well-suited to the diverse needs of a growing population.

In the most recent issue of Savfaire, a Vancouver-based zine, Keith Higgins writes about his obsession with photographing Vancouver Specials; he has shot at least 1,400. He’s at a loss as to why he started taking photos of them but he hints at their populist appeal and the way they reflect, like the famous Levittown houses, the people who have lived in them over the years. Each one of the Specials he photographs (in a style deliberately reminiscent of MLS listings and freebie real estate magazines) is fundamentally similar, but each reflects years of decades of occupancy in a way that more precious or more refined houses do not.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Thursday September 11 2008at 03:09 am , filed under Architecture, Canada, Heritage and Preservation, Society and Culture and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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