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There are houses in the Lower Mainland dating back to the late 1940s that look almost identical to the Vancouver Special-so the housing design ideas predate the 1960s mass popularization and mass production of this kind of housing.
Vancouver Specials are characterized by their typical "box-like" structure, low-pitched roofs, and balconies across the front of the house. Brick or stone finishes on the ground floor are characteristic of the ground level facades, with stucco on the 2nd or 3rd floors.
From a builder's point of view, it is a very sturdy—yet cheap in material and time—design to build.
In response to public reaction to the proliferation of this design, the City of Vancouver made changes to the single-family zoning regulations in the 1980s with the intent to stop additional Vancouver Specials from being built. However, other Lower Mainland cities have not substantially changed their housing codes over the past 25 years with respect to this kind of housing design. Thus it is still possible to build (and buy) new houses (of very similar design to the classic Vancouver Specials) in the Lower Mainland.
It is somewhat of a misnomer that this kind of housing architecture is called the Vancouver Special when its geographical distribution is most common in the southern coastal region of British Columbia. However, the design is most common in Vancouver and Burnaby—so the name has stuck.
Today one can find Vancouver Specials all over Greater Vancouver and notably in the suburb cities of
This architectural housing design can also be seen elsewhere in the outer regions of the Lower Mainland and other parts of southern British Columbia where the climate is moderate, as this housing design is not optimal for coping with large quantities of snow.
This housing architecture also can be found substantially in Victoria, Comox, Duncan and Nanaimo (on Vancouver Island) but is less common due to the different economic conditions and constraints there.
As the greater Vancouver area has not experienced a substantial earthquake (M ~6.5+) in the past 100 years, it is unclear how durable the Vancouver Special is to Seattle- or San Francisco-like earthquake land and soil movements. As there is a lot of built in modularity in this kind of housing design, it is assumed that relatively inexpensive earthquake remediation measures could be taken to increase this kind of housing architecture's ability to withstand earth movement without disintegration.
Vancouver Specials evolved into what were frequently derided as "monster homes" in the 1990s that many critics claimed were ruining the aesthetic character of their neighborhoods. However, the change in house size in the Greater Vancouver area is more closely bound to the rising house prices—and property speculation. Vancouver house prices had increased year-on-year more than many other similarly sized Canadian cities (and regions) for the past 25 years.
In contrast to the earlier Vancouver Specials, monster homes were appearing in wealthier areas of the city, and critics were sometimes charged with being concerned as much about immigrants invading their exclusive neighborhoods as they were about the aesthetics of those neighbourhoods.
The much maligned Vancouver Special, however, may yet see its bad reputation improve. Some indications include a locally produced music compilation compact disc in 2000, "Vancouver Special," which features several examples of the house design on the cover, and a renovated Vancouver Special that won the Lieutenant-Governor of British Columbia's Innovation Award for Architecture in 2005. A home design store on Main Street bears the name "Vancouver Special" and Arsenal Pulp Press of Vancouver published "Vancouver Special," a book of essays about the city by Charles Demers, in November 2009, showing that the reputation of the homes may have now gained a certain vintage glamour. In 2016, R&B Brewing began brewing Vancouver Special IPA.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Houses in Vancouver.|
- Home Improvements, by David Carrigg, Vancouver Courier (5 November 2004)
- Vancouver Special Redux, by Christopher MacDonald, Canadian Architect (July 2004)
- Vancouverspecial.com, a gallery and location-map of Vancouver Special houses
- Vancouver Special by Arsenal Pulp Press (November, 2009)
- Flickr set of examples
- Heritage Foundation of Vancouver