Vancouver Specials: Complete Illustrated Guide & Database

Vancouver Special Renovation Guide and Examples

Who would have guessed the Vancouver Special, once a synonym for pedestrian design massed produced by the thousands would become one of Vancouver’s trendiest housing types? Until rather recently, you wouldn’t find a lot of buyers lining up for Vancouver Specials since they had a reputation of being to esthetically unappealing, but oh, how the times have changed.

Windsor St 4596 renovated
Windsor St 4596 renovated

The Vancouver Special has become re-popularized thanks in part to the increasing number of visionary designers and Special home owners who have invested in dynamic and modern renovations of their properties. The trend has gained more and more momentum in the city’s architectural landscape, resulting in The Vancouver Heritage Foundation’s Vancouver Special Tour which capitalized and showcased the interest Vancouver Specials are currently occupying in the City. The potential for these types of properties to undergo high quality modern renovations are appealing to more and more home owners in Vancouver.

There are all kinds of exciting rebuilds happening on Specials around the City.

It seems like the Vancouver Special is finally going to be recognized as solid residential architecture with really good value. We see this as a movement.

said Jason Hagemeister, who is co-owner of the YYoga chain. He and Jonathan Kerridge are Award-winning builders who listed their deluxe Vancouver Special makeover at 3544 Gladstone for $1.379 million this fall. The Special made huge waves not only due to its fabulous location, but because of it’s trendy use of space that included a home yoga studio. Google Streetview captured 3544 Gladstone before it’s renovation… you can see how amazing the changes were.

We think there is a lot of opportunity to revitalize these homes. Most of the time, they are in original condition. It’s almost like the demographic is such that they just bought them and didn’t do anything to them.

said Mr. Kerridge to The Globe and Mail.

Getting Started

Once you’ve chosen and purchased a Vancouver Special for renovation there are some initial steps that will get your planning off to the right start. When you are in the buying process, you might want to save yourself some future growing pains at the inspection by thoroughly checking out the attic. The 18-foot crawlspace you’ll find in Vancouver Specials isn’t known for excellent ventilation, something you would definitely want to repair and plan for in order to decrease the likelihood of mold. Some new owners decide to paint the attic, seal everything up, and not worry about it anymore. If you’re not planning on installing skylights or doing anything a bit fancier with the roof, this is also an option. You can also adjust the insulation so that the soffits are fully exposed.

check the attic
Thoroughly check out the attic. Photo by Jamie Beverly

To get a better idea of what you’re dealing withfter your purchase closes, we highly recommend that buy any plans of your house that are available for $65 at City Hall. Depending on your level of builder savviness, you will likely want to get some help dreaming and then drawing up your plans. There are several architectural firms and private contractors that are specializing in these types of renovations with a wide array of experience and expertize. The best thing to do is to decide what design elements are important to you and to seek out professionals who cater to your interests.

After your plans are paid for and complete, you will then need to undergo the process of acquiring all the permits necessary for the reconstruction you planned with your architect and contractor. It’s worth mentioning that this can be a long and laborious process that realistically can take months to complete (so make sure to work that into your timelines). Also, if you’re planning to re-work any structural elements of the building, you’ll need an engineer to sign off on the new plans (B1 & B2). From there, you might have some demolition to do, after which, building can begin.

Typical renovations usually involve subcontractors such as drywallers, an electrician, a plumber, finishers and painters to execute your plans. Space is one of the defining selling points of these types of properties, and you will often see examples of owners taking down many of the non-structural walls in order to maximize an open feel in the home. One of the things that’s so appealing about the Vancouver Specials is that when you have a lot of open space to experiment with, lighting and windows, allowing the relationship with and presentation of light to define your personal style. With one of the best selections of specialized lighting shops in Canada, you’ll have an easy job finding lighting pieces to suite your taste in Vancouver.

Typical renovations usually involve subcontractors. Photo by Travis Swicegood

When thinking about the kitchen, focus realistically on your own functionality needs and what would be ideal for your lifestyle. While larger high end appliances and storage will be important to some, others might find more use for seating capacity and embedded modern features. Generally, it’s a good idea to asses how much cooking you actually do, how many people you usually need to feed and go from there. Once you have a clear picture of your needs, you can design your kitchen and storage to take either a large or small portion up in the home.

If you’ve got enough cash to invest, we would definitely recommend taking thought and care when planning and choosing the floors. Currently, there’s nothing more appealing for re-saleability than a Vancouver Special with gorgeous hardwood floors. The trend of installing of all types of exotic and traditional hardwood floors is nearly universal, although it’s worth mentioning that those beastly carpets from the ’70s had a purpose. They helped to insulate the living space from the rooms downstairs ~ so make sure to factor in how much noise isolation you want with your flooring specialist. You might also want to think about installing heated floors.

hardwood floors
We recommend taking thought when choosing the floors. Photo by Michael Underwood

Exteriors that are the talk of the Neighbourhood

One of the most successful types of renovation for exterior façades of Specials is the wood and stucco combination, or even the more adventurous wood and metal combination.

King Edward Ave E 480 wood stucco exterior
Vancouver Specials Wood and Stucco Combination

We really like some of the metal-wood siding we’ve seen. It’s a great modernizing option for Specials that have brick siding covering the bottom part of the house. It’s quite easy to cover your siding with the metal plates once it’s been waterproofed by Tyvek or similar synthetic materials. This panelling might take some extra time to install, but it looks really great, is easy to maintain, and if you decide on a renovation, is fast to deconstruct and put together again.

Beyond esthetic, what you want to focus on is really the rain-screening. Your builder or specialized engineer will likely help you to come up with an ideal plan for your property. Also, you will want to get your balcony checked for rot. Specials have been around for some time,and many water damage issues typically involve either balconies or decks.

Exterior lighting is another nut you have to crack on you way to the reno finish line. You might want to consider LED lights since these are not only very efficient and environmentally friendly, but also, easy on circuits — a Vancouver Specials weak spot.

Another finishing touch is railing installation. We really like the idea of a glass-wood combination, with a simple wooden bar as the top of the railing and glass filling as used on one of these fantastic reconstruction projects in the Dunbar neighbourhood.

Exterior painting usually depends on how many different materials you’ve used while creating the final image of your home. If you’ve decided to use wood only, hats off to you — firstly because it takes a considerable amount of effort to figure out the best way to preserve the wooden panelling, and secondly because you’ve chose a fantastic looking option, as seen in the The Delta Residence in Burnaby,one of the most successful(and totally radical) renovation projects of a Vancouver Special.

Another great concept is the Joe Wai Special reconstructed on Union Street in the Strathcona neighbourhood, and also the Yew Residence. These two very successful renovations prove that one colour of darker paint for the façade of the Special is a very good idea — especially when you know how to cast the right light on it.

If you want to follow Vancouver Special renovations step by step you can either follow the Mathews Special in Kerrisdale or backtrack to an already finished Special renovation just a block from Main Street.