Discover more from Vancouver Needs More Housing
Video: Uytae Lee on the Vancouver Special
A rapid way to build a top-and-bottom duplex, banned in the 1980s
A history of the Vancouver Special - it's basically two homes on top of each other, aided by a loophole that didn’t count the lower floor against the limit on total floor space.
With the Vancouver Special, it took a few days to get a permit, and then two months to build it. They were banned in the 1980s.
Easy to construct, more than 10,000 Vancouver Specials were produced by small-scale builders. The cookie-cutter plans could be purchased near City Hall for less than $100, and City staff could approve permits for the familiar design within three days. The house would then take two months to manufacture. Standardized dimensions and building methods meant that materials such as nails and carpets could be purchased in bulk, and workers with these standard construction skills were readily available. Over time, builders developed more cost-efficient erection methods, and replicated the houses around the city.
As this boxy design spread, each new house dramatically changed the streetscape of its neighbourhood. This “monster home” — some bigger than before — ultimately intruded on the traditional Victorian-era aesthetic of westside neighbourhoods. Growing citizen discontent with the Special’s bulky style eventually encouraged the City to act. At first, it tried to improve the demeanour of these homes with a new Vancouver Special Competition, but that proved ineffective. Ultimately, around the mid-1980s, the City enacted size limit amendments, marking an end to the Special construction era.
Some candidates for a new Vancouver Special:
The Kelowna four-plex.
A Montreal-style triplex on any lot.
A small three-storey eight-unit apartment building on any 50-foot lot (see #8).
Fee-simple rowhouses, by allowing a 50-foot lot to be divided into two 25-foot lots, or even a 33-foot lot into two 16.5-foot lots.
Why were Vancouver Specials banned? For the perspective of the opposition, see Vancouver Specials offering many lessons on housing, Elizabeth Murphy, August 2017. She’s not a fan.