I've spent a lot of time talking about the history of the Vancouver Special. There's an article on the evolution of the special here, and a whole section of my website devoted to the history of the special, here. Today, I'm going to talk about the decline of the Special, and specifically, the findings and details in the 1981 Vancouver Special Report; the results of a study done by the City. Next time, I'll go into the competition that came as a result of the report.
"Over the last few years, concerns about the quality of new single family houses have been raised in community planning discussions in several Vancouver Areas." So begins the introduction of the 1981 Vancouver Special Report, prepared by the Vancouver City Planning Department. Those concerns largely surrounded the proliferation of Specials - and the density resulting from their constant building. The city decided to take on a study; both analyzing the history of the Special, and also surveying residents in neighbourhoods populated with specials.
While all areas in Vancouver had specials, the City focused on two areas: Hastings Sunrise, and Marpole. The reasons they gave were as follows: 1) Residents were complaining, and 2) the areas represented both east and west and varied social and physical settings. Both areas had large tracts of single family zoned land (the type of lot specials were being built on).
One of the first steps was to find the number of Specials in each area.
Both areas had very different distributions of Specials. While Marpole had large numbers of blocks with no specials whatsoever, Hastings had 30% of their blocks with 3 to 4 Specials.
The report then goes on to discuss the characteristics of specials - how they skirted the zoning laws, how they become so huge, but still allowable (covering the maximum amount of the lot possible), and how they remain so popular because they're so cheap (this is one of my favorite graphics - it used to be so cheap to build a house!)
The report details why consumers and builders are so in love with the specials, but residents are less pleased (I can't give it all away, look up the report in your local library!). Ultimately, though, it comes down to cost. Cheap to build, builders already know how to use a template, AND the owners have an (albeit illegal) suite built in to the bottom.
The hatred of specials, though, comes through when we start looking at the second half of the report - the results of the resident surveys. 4,715 homes received questionnaires, and 25% of these were returned. Here are some results:
What surprises me most is that 59% of respondents found the stucco and brick work attractive! #yikes! 90%, though, believed that all specials looked the same. I also find it surprising that 55% of people didn't like the basement suites - given the mortgage helping qualities! Perhaps that's just me looking at history with the knowledge of these houses going for $1,000,000 today....
At any rate, when all was done and dusted, 88% of respondents thought that the City should improve new housing design. How they should do that was a little less unified - 43% wanted the city to increase variety in design, 17% wanted limited regulation, 14% thought new housing should fit in with its surroundings, and 12% wanted to reduce uniformity. If you can tell me what the difference between increasing variety and reducing uniformity is, drop a comment below.
In the end, the City had the following recommendations at the end of the study and the report:
"1) Reevaluate the approval processes for single family dwellings with a view towards increased design control, especially where a small lot situation facilitates such control.
2) Reassess the required information needed for a development permit application.
3) Evaluate potential changes to the RS-1 Schedule, that would reduce mass and bulk of Vancouver Specials.
4) Educate the public as to alternative designs to the Vancouver Special.
5)The city sponsor a design competition for small lot (33' x 120') single family house types."
The city would do just that in 1984. And that's what I'll talk about, next time I blog about the Vancouver Special.