Making Vancouver Specials something special

Post by Mike Klassen in

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Citywide Vancouver Special tour draws big crowds
The Vancouver Heritage Foundation's citywide tour of updated home designs draws big crowds

I did a quick tour of four of the five re-designed Vancouver Specials on Saturday afternoon. The event, sponsored by the Vancouver Heritage Foundation, was a surprising hit, with sell out crowds moving across town for the tour (the five homes went from Dunbar all the way to Renfrew-Collingwood).

Why are these homes considered "special"? Well, as a native East Vancouverite, I've never found them particularly special. Here's how they're described on the VHF website:

What is a Vancouver Special anyway?
Some say it derives from the “rancher” turned sideways, to adapt to Vancouver’s narrow lots. Popular and quick to build, thousands of “Vancouver Specials” were constructed in the 1960s and 70s in bluecollar neighbourhoods all over the lower mainland, and they remain today the dominant house type in Vancouver. The sheer quantity of Specials and their adaptability to a two family dwelling is making them more and more attractive to first time buyers.

Today, Vancouver house prices are so outrageously expensive that more and more families are fleeing to the suburbs, but those who wish to remain here are finding inventive ways to afford housing here. The Vancouver Special might seem like a complete abandonment of all good design principles to some, but to others it's an opportunity!

I have to tip my hat to the folks at the Heritage Foundation for conducting this event. Who would have thought it would be so popular?

During my term on the Vancouver City Planning Commission, we developed a theme called A City Built for Change. We promoted the idea that the most sustainable structures and public spaces are the ones you adapt over time, not the ones you knock down and take to the landfill. From our work plan, which included talks by Metro Portland Councilor Robert Liberty, and flexible Architecture guru Robert Kronenburg from the University of Liverpool School of Architecture, we created a Change Charter, a statement of principles to help cities to adapt to change.

The reconsideration of what has been once deemed as junk architecture - the Vancouver Special - into something home buyers covet is the very embodiment of the principle of adaptability.

I've cited the very enlightening speech by new urbanist Andrés Duany, who derided Vancouver's suburbs for their blandness. With some rare exceptions, it's hard to disagree with him. The renovated Vancouver Specials are an important step toward creating sustainable neighbourhoods.

Coincidentally, one of the most beautiful (and no doubt costly) home retrofits on the tour was by current Planning Commissioner Arno Matis of iConstrux Architecture. Matis, who also worked with Bing Thom in designing the iconic Sunset Community Centre in south Vancouver, shows what a little passion for the city you live in can create. That Vancouver Special that was once a dull and functional domicile, is now the envy of the block.

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