Vancouver Specials: Complete Illustrated Guide & Database

History of the Vancouver Special

Vancouver Specials first started popping up throughout the Lower Mainland in the mid ‘60s and they didn’t stop being built until the mid-’80s (in their original form). Although there are certain types of houses in the Lower Mainland dating back to the late ’40s that look almost identical to the Vancouver Special style, real Specials tend to come from a specific era from 1965 to 1984 (although a second generation continued to be built until 1993). The original housing design ideas for Specials date earlier than the 60s, but it was really only in the mid ’60s that the mass popularization and mass production of this kind of housing kicked in. Very quickly, many of them were built: literally numbering in the thousands. To this day, Vancouver is the only major city (they did spread to other areas of BC) to accommodate these unique yet uncannily uniform buildings, hence the namesake design title. The Vancouver Special is the most widespread single style of residential building in the city, outnumbering the combined numbers of Edwardian boxes, Victorian cottages and craftsmen homes.

Vancouver Special  Street Scene  200 Block E  19th
Vancouver Special Street Scene

Elana Zysblat, program coordinator for the Vancouver Heritage Foundation, gave a little insight about what intrigued builders about the Vancouver Special Footprint:

Builders wanted to know how far up it could go, how close to the neighbour it could go and how close to the sidewalk it could go, and up popped the Vancouver Special. Once the city approved one or two, it was easy for a builder to get the design fast-tracked at City Hall. They’d say, ‘We know that building, go ahead.’

Vancouver Specials have always been very popular with immigrant families because of their size and flexibility. In the ’60s and ’70s, Portuguese, Italian, and Greek families bought or built many of the split-level homes on the East Side of Vancouver. Elderly parents would usually occupy the lower level, while young parents with their children enjoyed spacious quasi-independence upstairs. In it's later years, they became popular with a new wave of immigrants from South Asia and China, primarily due to their spacious dimensions and have had a resurgence in popularity with young, growing families who are looking for a modern aesthetic and space for a mortgage helper.

Inverness St 5468
Inverness Street: popularity with young growing families

Vancouver Specials were designed specifically to maximize the city’s building codes from the 1960s through to 1985. However the ubiquity and size of the Vancouver Special garnered a degree of unpopularity from some neighbours and resident groups. One of the chief complaints issued was often that the size of the massive structures obstructed the sunlight of neighbouring properties. Therefore, quite a few citizens and home owners who lived next to Vancouver Specials lodged complaints with the City of Vancouver in the early ’80s. Eventually, the City of Vancouver put an end to the construction of Vancouver Specials by changing zoning laws in 1986. These zoning changes resulted in designers and builders adapting the original design to work within the new restrictions, resulting in a second generation of Vancouver Special.

At the same time, the Architectural Institute of B.C. and Vancouver League for Studies in Architecture also tried to come up with an alternative to the boxy design of the Specials, but the design was far too popular not to spread beyond city limits. Surrey, Richmond, and the rest of Lower Mainland had already adopted the design, keeping the Vancouver Specials production going strong. A winning Special design by Stuart Howard, characterized by the “same density in a more attractive package,” fits into the neighbourhood a little less conspicuously at 4360 West 11th in Point Grey. It’s apparently the only one to do so that’s ever been built.

It’s understandable why it was so hard to up-root the popularity and appeal Vancouver Specials. They were extremely spacious, easy to maintain, and according to research done by CanWest MediaWorks Publications in the ‘70s, they’d only cost you about $35 per square foot (a price worth dreaming about – now forty years later, if you plan to buy a Special be prepared for a price that reflects current market value). 

Vancouver Specials have certainly remained a relevant part of the Vancouver architectural landscape and public consciousness. In 2000, a Vancouver Special CD was released. The cover of the CD featured several images of examples of the house design. In 2005 a renovated Vancouver Special (Lakewood Residence), won the Lieutenant-Governor of British Columbia’s Innovation Award for Architecture. A hip home design store on Main Street even bears the name Vancouver Special. And finally, Arsenal Pulp Press of Vancouver published Vancouver Special, a book of essays about the city by Charles Demers, in November 2009.

Vancouver Special Streetscape 5500 Dumfries
Vancouver Special Streetscape at Dumfries

Vancouver specials have a solid history in our city, and given their resurgent popularity it looks as though their history continues to be written. A new surge of interest in Specials is increasing as large numbers of them are attracting young families and many are being renovated in a sleek modernist style. Diane Switzer was right in her interview for the CBC about the relevance of the Vancouver Special:

It’s very important, because there are more Vancouver specials than any other house style in the City of Vancouver. With over 10,000 Specials in Vancouver, the new modernist redesigns could bring the Specials back as a main attraction of the Vancouver Real Estate Market.