Say what you will, people either love or hate Vancouver Specials. Your perspective is likely dependent on whether or not you were a home owner in the 70’s and 80’s. Massively reproduced in that era, Vancouver Specials were without question the most successful mass-market housing model Vancouver has ever experienced, which made them either hugely popular… or widely unpopular, depending on the side of the fence you were living on. At the time, the Vancouver Special model was the ideal combination of massive floor area, adaptability and affordability; all the reasons they are becoming widely popular again today.
Starting from the bottom, the majority of Vancouver Specials don’t have a below-grade basement. This not only saved a lot of building expense, but allowed resources to be diverted into other areas, like extending the square footage of the living space. Typically, the ground floor housed the laundry facilities, the water tank, the furnace, the garage and storage rooms. However, rather quickly owners started making modifications to accommodate large families, hence the beginnings of the typical Vancouver Special “granny suite”. The main living area for the nuclear family was almost always on the second floor.
The designs for Vancouver Specials began to take their shape under ’60s zoning regulations. Firstly, builders realized that it made more economic sense to omit expensive front stairs that often lead up to the main floor and porch of a home. Since the main goal of the house was square footage, builders let the paths to the homes lead down and created internal staircases to the main living area within the homes themselves, creating a larger footprint and often more than 1,300 square feet of living space on each floor of the house.
Above, you can see a fairly typical floorplan of a Vancouver Special. The difference between this one and the most typical ones is that this is a corner lot, so the garage faces to the side, while the majority of Vancouver Specials have the garages pointing straight back (but attached to the house). The main level can have a lot of variations of layout. This area was often to the discretion of the buyer. Sometimes they'd leave it unfinished but by now I'm pretty sure that every VS has a finished main floor. In this case, it's unusual that it only has one bedroom. Vancouver Specials typically have two bedrooms on the main floor and often even three.
To reduce roofing costs a flat roof was favored and stretched to its very limits. Traditional piqued Vancouver rooftops became a thing of the past with the arrival of the Special. As the Specials spread, a feeling of uniformity increased rapidly. Traditional Vancouver Specials originally used tar and gravel on their rooftops, the same materials commonly used for commercial buildings.
Vancouver Specials were mostly finished with stucco, a very practical and low cost exterior finishing. Its non-combustible nature adhered to the ’60s fire regulations. Aiming for affordability, most of the Specials were fitted with aluminium frameless sliding windows.
The front elevation usually wasn’t overly decorated, but was simply ornamented by a brick veneer applied to the lower part of the façade. A dominant aluminium railing was fitted all across the shallow balcony that provided fresh air into the living room, via a sliding glass door.
Over time, Specials eliminated a backyard almost completely in favour of carports with decks built overhead. The area behind the house was frequently completely paved over, leaving little space for a garden.
The Evolution of the Look and Where to Find It
The Vancouver Special design did not remain uniform over it's production life. There were shifts and changes that occurred over the years as designers and builders reacted to market demand, or found ways to improve the design through experience.
The first design plans of the Vancouver Special were the simplest, and were introduced in 1966. They featured a box-like design, a full-width balcony and a one-piece symmetrical roof. Examples of a Special like this can be found at 2552 Pandora Street.
The next set of major modifications of the original Vancouver Special design featured a half-width balcony and a recessed entryway on the lower floor. Recessed sliding doors on the balcony upstairs were typical for the models built in the late 1960s such as this one at 2085 Graveley Street.. Examples of the more developed duplex concepts can be found on 1758 William Street.
The third major modification of Vancouver Special design featured steeper roof pitches which created a clerestory allowing more light and air into the main floor. This split roof design was popular until about 1984. To see one of these Specials from the early ’80s, check out this duplex at 2431 Pandora Street.
In that same period (early 80s), another popular modification of the original design such as at 2834 Pandora Street, was a more luxurious-looking, asymmetrical-pitched–roof Special. This type also took on a double front door and a gabled front window, creating a cathedral-ceiling effect.
This was the last iteration of the original Vancouver Special design. The City effectively stopped allowing them to be built in 1984 when they changed the building code (a second generation continued to be built into the early 1990s). But that’s not to say that there’s any real shortage of them around Vancouver and even the Lower Mainland. The number of Specials in Vancouver alone is estimated to be more than 10,000.