The Vancouver Special is an architectural phenomenon that is unique to our city – and some would say the most unappealing housing style that Vancouver has ever seen. Built between the 1960s and 1980s, Vancouver Specials are characterized by enormity and boxiness with their characteristic brick and white stucco facades. Due to their low cost of construction and practical floor plans, they quickly became a dominant housing type in Vancouver, but with so many of them around, they were certainly anything but special.
Interestingly, the Vancouver Special is now experiencing a resurgence in popularity and interest in their ‘retro’ appeal, particularly among Architects, designers and young professionals with children. Why? It might be their spacious floor plans or their easy to renovate modernist post and beam construction. It is fascinating that something that was publicly spurned for decades can suddenly become trendy. These houses are so fashionable that the Vancouver Heritage Foundation will host its fourth annual Vancouver Special Tour this month. In past years, these tours have been a huge success. Skala Design’s very own “East Van Special” was featured on the 2011 tour.
But why are they so special? If you had asked me 10 years ago when looking for a house, I would have firmly announced that I would never be buying one of those eyesores – but I have now had to eat my words because when I see an interesting design challenge, I can rarely resist. My husband and I bought our Vancouver Special in 2008. We were looking for a new project and more space for our two active children. We got lots of space inside, but quickly observed that when you put a big house onto a 33′ x 122’ lot, there isn’t much room left for landscape. When we moved in there was only one Rhododendron on the entire property and the backyard was paved for parking. Although landscaping was likely not a priority for the typical 1970 builder of off the shelf homes, it was a priority for us…So how could we make our very small garden special?
Famous West Coast Modern homes designed by architects such as Arthur Erickson were almost always situated on larger lots and surrounded by a west coast style landscape. We had never seen this approach on a small urban lot like ours and thought it would be an interesting challenge. Our first move was garden demolition. We rented a small backhoe to dig out the parking lot in the back yard and removed the lawn in the front. About 30 yards of topsoil later, we were ready to plant and give our lonely rhododendron a new home. A predominantly native plant palette was introduced in the front garden with the feature being 24 Vine Maple trees. This brought down the scale of the house and made the garden look bigger. Planted in groupings, these trees are reminiscent of their natural forest habitat. Underneath, many native shrubs and groundcovers such as salal, ferns and bunchberry have found a home. The effect is lush – we have our very own West Coast Forest in the middle of the city and it complements the architecture of the house perfectly. With this bold garden transformation, our 1977 Vancouver Special is no longer abhorred; it might actually be special.