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How Vancouver Specials make Vancouver special

Vancouverites should celebrate the ubiquitous 'architectural harlot' that helped make the city denser, more affordable and more cosmopolitan.

Jennifer Chutter is a master’s student at SFU who completed her thesis on the history of Vancouver Specials.

Jennifer Gauthier / Metro

Jennifer Chutter is a master’s student at SFU who completed her thesis on the history of Vancouver Specials.

You know what this house looks like. Everybody does.

It’s two storeys, rectangular and boxy. The classic’s got white stucco, red brick and a balcony with metal railing.

It’s the Vancouver Special, the only house designed in our city and one with a troubled past.

Since specials showed up in the mid-1960s, they’ve taken hate for their small gardens and being too big and not British enough. One urban planner called it an “architectural harlot.”

But an SFU student who recently researched Vancouver Specials for her MA history thesis uncovered their unsung role in the city. The form made Vancouver denser, more affordable and more cosmopolitan – all goals of city hall at the time.

This irony left Jennifer Chutter with one question: “Why do people hate this house so much?”

Holes in the special’s history revealed answers. One major piece of missing info is the identity of its designer.

We know it’s a builder. But because architects were considered to be the professionals spearheading home design at the time, the builder-designed Vancouver Special, and its history, was neglected.

The special also arrived in a time of privilege.

“People wanted their citizenship attachment to the nation to be reflected in the house that they lived in,” said Chutter.

In the special’s day, British architecture was in. Single-family dwellings in that style, complete with large cultivated gardens, were the ideal house. These kinds of homes were on the west side, the historic home of Vancouver’s elite.

The special didn’t fit this bill. Instead, it was the home of the working class and newcomers. Vancouver’s immigrants at the time included Chinese, Germans, Greeks, Italians and South Asians.

“It was a choose-your-own-adventure house,” said Chutter. “A lot of people bought them because they suited what their family was at the time. Other [existing] houses regulated what family was: you don’t live with in-laws, you don’t live with uncles, you don’t live with a revolving door of relatives that need a landing pad before moving into their own place.”

The special’s two storeys could easily be divided to suit diverse family arrangements or homeowners looking to rent out a floor for extra income.

Specials were also cheap to build – plans sold for less than $100 – and to buy.

Despite some dismissals of the special as a cheap house, it was thoughtfully designed with Vancouver in mind, said Chutter. Low-pitched roofs suit our un-snowy city. Stucco finishing, which doesn’t rot, suits our rainy weather. The brick is a nod to houses in Eastern Canada. To this day, the special is the only designed-in-Vancouver architectural form.

In 1984, city hall stopped approving specials. It’s not clear why from city planning documents, but Chutter blames prejudice.

The adoration of upper-middle class British aesthetic continued in the “monster house” debate of the 1980s and ‘90s, when rich Hongkongers developed large contemporary homes on the west side to the horror of homeowners there. Historically, wealthy Vancouverites have always feared the changing class and racial makeup of neighbourhoods.

Today, specials are appreciated for nostalgia, size and being easy to renovate. A Real Estate Weekly article reports that, with new touches, specials can be “very special,” “cool” “beautiful homes.”

This narrative is “dangerous,” said Chutter, because it co-opts the special’s history and their physical legacy.

“It’s not celebrating the special for what it was,” said Chutter. The special has a similar life to New York’s working-class brownstones; both are now upscaled and branded as historically-authentic homes for professionals.

“It’s always about renovation potential rather than what the design offered the city.”

There’s also no other form that can boast a resume of diversifying the city, densifying neighbourhoods and adding both affordable ownership and rental housing. And considering that immigration and home prices were on the rise at the time, the special showed up to the rescue.

“The special was a clever solution to the city itself,” said Chutter, “and I think that should be celebrated more.”

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