Lillies to Gild: Rethinking the Vancouver Special

Big boxes on the mountainside–For the better part of a century, Vancouver Specials have been mocked for their lack of panache. This week, Heritage Homes makes a case for reassessing the potential of these modernist monstrosities.


If you like mid-century modernism, chances are pretty good that you like Vancouver.

The city is home to some of the best examples of the West Coast Vernacular style inspired by the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. The look is immediately identifiable for its use of generous south-facing overhangs, wide glass windows and structural wood and iron beams. The exterior of West Coast Vernacular buildings frequently defy convention by leaving wood, iron and concrete visible.


Right– A Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home made famous in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 thriller North By Northwest. Left, a prime example of the true West Coast Vernacular style as conceived by celebrated architect Arthur Erickson, 1924-2009. Wright’s influence on West Coast Vernacular style is clear–less clear is his influence on the design of the much maligned Vancouver Special.


The popularity of this look in Canada’s westernmost metropolis has made the city rich in impressive and original examples of home architecture. In the same breath, however, it must be acknowledged that the style has also been responsible for the the city’s enormous supply uninspiring home designs as well.

For anyone who live there during the city’s expansion during the 1940s-1980s, just hearing the words “Vancouver Special” will send a shiver up the spine. Inspired by West Coast Vernacular, Vancouver Specials are large two-storey family homes with gently sloped roofs and front gabling. Constructed, as they were, en masse, the look must also be assessed in its full context for its downsides to be understood. To put it bluntly, Vancouver Special homes look like they are part of clonal colonies. It is not difficult to understand why their name became synonymous with the worst aspects of suburban sprawl.

For those who didn’t witness the mass construction of these homes, it might be best to simply swap out the name Vancouver Special with McMansion.

Originally built with rain resistance earthquake-preparedness in mind, the styles popularity always owed more to its practical use of space than to its curb appeal. This was not helped by the fact that most examples can be easily dated by the then-trendy material used on the walls of the bottom floor–stucco, ceramic tiling, cement brick or concrete.

With the oldest examples now well past the age of retirement, it may be time for Heritage Home readers to reassess the style. In fact, fresh eyes would recognize that the style is not without its charms. On most Vancouver Special homes, the top floor features a back-facing wall leading out to a large, wood-pillared balcony that hangs over the garden. This feature, unlike stucco, has survived the test of time–and fits the Vancouver Specials into a broader west coast style alongside true West Coast Vernacular homes.

While Vancouver Specials may forever be associated with suburban conformity, their ubiquity, earthquake resistant construction and practical use of space means that they are unlikely to disappear. While these homes may be lilies in need of some serious gilding, little work needs to be done to turn them from mid-century monstrosities into modernist masterpieces.

Cunning home buyers should not overlook the fact that much more can be done to amplify the best aspects of Vancouver Special homes than of West Coast Style ones. For one thing, the cost of grinding down bottom floor stucco with wood siding is negligible. For another, the presence of the large, second floor balcony’s gives home owners the opportunity to install a Wright-style wrought iron cantilever in place of wooden support columns.

Then, of course, there are the opportunities to put an even more modern spin on modernism. Vancouver Special’s sloping roofs–which lack the steepness required of roofs in snowier parts of the country–offer an excellent place for solar panels. In some neighbourhoods with more relaxed building codes, the roofs can also be replaced with a half-sized third storey.



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