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In the land of the Vancouver Special, modernist houses begin to pop up in the most unexpected places

December 23rd, 2013 · 26 Comments

One of the things that is always startling about Vancouver is — in a place with spectacular natural beauty — it has some of the weirdest, tackiest, most awful single-family housing around.

And it’s not even one kind of awful. We have endless varieties these days. The modest World War 2 bungalow renovated with a river-rock facade. Pink nondescript boxes. Vancouver Specials, versions 1.0 through to 7.8. Fake heritage fronts glued on to the front of giant boxes. Gaudy palaces that look like someone went wild at the Home Depot frosted-glass sell-off.

But, in my peregrinations around town the last couple of years, I started to see something different: very modern houses — concrete, cedar, aluminum, glass, with flat rooves, clean geometric lines.

Recently, I got a chance to go door-knocking (that is almost literally how I found the people in this story, as it’s not something a marketing agency is involved in) and find out what’s going on.

My story here (and below). Hope many of you can get to the link, as the pictures on the site were even better than in the paper.


When Maria Grigoriadis’s new house started going up, her neighbours were intrigued. People driving by slowed down, stopped, got out of the car to ask about it.

It didn’t look like anything else on her block of east Vancouver, which is a jumble of century-old houses, post-war bungalows, and various iterations of the dreaded Vancouver Specials that are this city’s unique contribution to residential architecture.

Instead, it was a simple rectangle with a flat roof, charcoal-coloured panels, horizontal cedar slats and silvery bands of aluminum. A modernist house, the kind of thing that used to exist only in certain nosebleed seats of West Vancouver or, very occasionally, the west side of Vancouver.

But such a thing was unheard of for the rest of Vancouver, whose housing aesthetic for decades has been, in the words of Architectural Institute of B.C. president Scott Kemp, “haphazard suburbia, a mishmash of everything.”

The city has been particularly famous for Vancouver Specials, long, rectangular boxes that became popular with immigrants of the 1960s who wanted cheap, quick and lots of room. The city, the architectural institute, and various resident associations tried for years to stamp them out through changes to zoning bylaws, a design competition, and pure shaming.

Those had limited success and often resulted in ever-more-garish Specials – the wedding-cake house, the boxy Special disguised with fake gables, the out-and-out monster house. The only consolation-prize alternative seemed to be a plethora of imitation heritage houses.

Now, it appears, a 2.0 group of buyers and builders is changing all of that.

“We really liked the idea of having simple lines, something very organic. And we tried very hard to include the outdoors,” says Ms. Grigoriadis, the daughter and sister of contractors, who designed the new house from the shell of the 1956 bungalow that she and her husband, insurance broker Frederic Lajeunesse, had bought in 2008.

She had grown up in Kitsilano, living in everything from bungalows to Specials to older houses. None of those styles appealed to her as she planned a new house for her family of four.

The main floor is now one big space with walnut floors, white walls, a white Caesarstone island, and a minimalist fireplace with a slab of concrete built into the wall alongside for seating. The upstairs bedrooms are similarly spare and white, with large horizontal windows that provide expansive views of the city.

Ms. Grigoriadis and Mr. Lajeunesse are far from alone.

Modernist houses, duplexes and townhouses are popping up all over the city from west to east, sometimes in the unlikeliest places.

Clark Drive, a major truck route on the east side, has a cluster of modernist townhouses and duplexes around the SkyTrain line, as well as one striking duplex amid a row of bungalows and Specials near 33rd. And they’re not just being custom-built for specific clients, which has been typical of Vancouver modernism in the past. Companies are now also building them on spec.

It’s what some call the Dwell-ification of Vancouver – a homage to the magazine Dwell, which provides a monthly hagiography of modernist houses and interior design around North America.

“There’s a new generation out there that’s kind of tired of the old Craftsman look,” says Paul Albrighton, a Realtor who specializes in modernist apartments, townhomes, and single-family houses. They’re not the quickest sell on the block, he says, but there is a definite market of new buyers. “A lot of them have been in condominiums as younger people and they are trying to continue with that. They like the clean lines.”

Modernist interiors, which incorporate large, open spaces that aren’t dedicated to just one use, also suit buyers who are making do with less square footage as they try to cope with some of the highest housing prices on the continent.

Shannon Kelly just moved into her house near Fraser and Broadway three weeks ago after hunting desperately for months.

Although the exterior of her duplex looks vaguely Craftsman, the interior is pure modern.

“It feels like we’re in a full house,” says Ms. Kelly, who moved in with her husband and seven-year-old three weeks ago. “And I feel like you only get that from a more modernist design. You have a lot of light and a feeling of openness.”

And many people like the way modernist houses are designed better to blend with their environment.

“West Coast modernism created the idea that you can live within your environment, instead of turning your back to it,” says Piers Cunnington at Measured Architecture, which is seeing a growing interest from clients who want something different.

“So in a modernist house, the landscape plays more into the appeal. There’s an interplay between the interior and the exterior.”

The trend toward modernism is not just, as some might assume, a function of Caucasian gentrifiers moving east or buying houses for the first time, although there’s an element of that.

A new generation or ethnic builders and ethnic buyers – groups who were often seen as the main drivers of the Vancouver Special look – is also part of the new wave.

A couple of years ago, engineer, designer and builder Tony Jang tore down the nondescript older house that had straddled two lots on 18th between Clark and Commercial to construct two new striking contemporary concrete houses.

Mr. Jang had already built several modern-looking homes on the west side. With the two in the Cedar Cottage area, he wanted to show off that style on the east side. One was built with high-end finishes, the other more modest finishes, to demonstrate the range of price possibilities.

People driving by often stop to look and ask about having something similar like that built for them, says Mr. Jang, who lives and works out of one house. (A friend, Wei Do Chen and wife Hua Li, bought the one next door.)

Mr. Jang says his customers like modern because of “the uniqueness and the simplicity.” That includes clients he’s had from mainland China who want contemporary-style homes here.

“We build using feng shui principles and, with these houses, we interpret this feng shui to incorporate natural elements into the design.”

Perdip Moore, who built both Ms. Kelly’s duplex and the lone modernist duplex on Clark Drive, said he started building modernist just because he personally liked the look.

But, like others, he said there are special challenges to building modernist.

One is city regulations.

“I mostly do traditional homes because that is what the city likes. It’s easier to get approvals.”

Modernist homes are, inevitably, slightly more expensive to build than the standard Specials or neo-traditionals. Large open spaces mean no supporting walls, for example. That requires much larger beams for the house overall, in order to support the weight.

The extra cost cuts into the available pool of buyers.

“Often, people loved them, but they were not willing to pay the money,” said Mr. Moore.

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  • Dan Cooper

    Back in the day, everything in The Future was supposed to be made of chrome. Now “we” in all “our” hipsterdom sneer at such things. Now “we” know that the epitomy of everything is “modernism” (a.k.a. The Future being made of white plastic and brushed metal, designed in Sweden). And yes, fifty years from now people will be writing sneering stories about how ridiculous that is.

    To put it another way and with apologies to the New York Sun, “Yes, Virginia, ‘modernism’ is just as “awful, weird and tacky’ as anything else. Come to think of it, at least Vancouver Specials were functional…

  • While I live in a lovely 125-year-old home, I also appreciate the simpler aesthetic of modern homes (done well).

    What I can’t understand is why anyone would put a FLAT roof on ANY house in the Lower Mainland. You people do realize that it rains a lot there, right?

  • Come to think of it, at least Vancouver Specials were functional… Dan @ #1

    I haven’t seen the things illustrated, so no comment!

    But I have seen and indeed been invited into many of the homes that are Vancouver Specials. I have come to admire them in the same way I admire Mayan palapas or Tudor half-timbers!

    Practically speaking they were functional but they were more than that. They were designed, evolved may be the more appropriate word, to fit the ubiquitous 33′ lot with a basement, essentially above ground, to accommodate the inevitable mortgage helper.

    The spans fitted dimensional lumber right off the green chain with minimum waste.

    Uncomplicated, they were handy-man friendly.

    Some became icons of bad taste with their plaster ornaments regaling the front yards as we sophisticates over time came to recognize genuine folk art!

    In the manner of all indigenous building the Vancouver special fitted a purpose, availability of materials and ability of families to afford and build.

    May the Vancouver Special survive?

  • Michael Kluckner

    Interesting how people have moved back to the extreme open plan. We were in a house last week, a complete modernist redo of a 1950’s builder’s bungalow, that was very stylish but looked rather staged as for a magazine spread – no ‘personal’ pictures or knick-knacks or clutter that you might expect in a family home. Nowhere for the dust bunnies to hide.

    It was so open-plan I wondered about individual privacy, but maybe that’s old fashioned because individuals are now lost in the privacy of their personal screens and earbuds. And their children are still young, still tolerated. I wonder how a house like it will work when they become teenagers?

  • rph

    I would rather a street of lived-in Vancouver Specials, with gardens, quirky tenants, and off-kilter lions, than the New Vancouver monster houses that are sporadically inhabited, full of pretensions, and replaced gardens with landscapes.

  • Everyman

    These new houses just seem like another way to squeeze as much square footage onto a lot as possible. A box is a box is a box.

  • jenables

    Yep, greenest city in the world my ass. we really don’t need to pack and stack everyone who lives in the city into these ugly inefficient towers with no foliage after they’ve been brainwashed into thinking single family homes are unsustainable (by people who live in them!) so they can live close to work, so they don’t have to drive, (except when they do, of course) so there are less cars and less sprawl, and less carbon.. quite the leap of logic to take there when you could have just kept the gardens and not thrown the homes directly into the landfill. Rph, I am in total, complete agreement. I think those people all live in coquitlam etc now.

  • Terry M

    Right on!
    Nothing more to add,other than…
    Happy New Year!

  • rf

    The thing I’ve never understood is why it costs about $25ok to build a monster house in Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Nanaimo…(the house, not the land) but it costs $250k to build a laneway house in Vancouver?

  • Michael, #4.

    Your observation about the revival and reinterpretation of the open plan to your “extreme open plan” is interesting. It’s being done for more than just economies. People of all ages live, relax, entertain and are entertained differently today. An open plan facilitates that lifestyle.

    Your “And their children are still young,” [and are the focus of their parents lives]. “I wonder how a house like it will work when they become teenagers?”

    reminds me of a similar open plan, inside/outside integration house I did for a young family in the late 70’s. Their 2 kids were pre-school and the professional parents wanted them to be the centre of the home, partly to be able to keep an eye on them while they got on with professional and household duties.

    12 years later they came back and wanted an addition. The kids were now teenagers. We did a kids wing with their bedrooms and bath up and rec room below. Although smaller in square footage, with inflation the addition cost more than the original house.

    Another observation. There have also been a number of very creative redoes of Vancouver Specials in the same current genre that Frances describes. It’s quite amazing how Roger’s “uncomplicated, …handy-man friendly” homes can with care become a home that goes beyond the essentials, that enhances, delights, frees and inspires the lives of those who inhabit it.

    These trends are yet another evolution in Vancouver’s fascinating residential design history. And it’s generally very positive, and unfortunately expensive as others have noted.

  • rph

    Good point rf about the cost of the laneway houses. The westcoast price premium (rip off) in action yet again.

  • These new houses just seem like another way to squeeze as much square footage onto a lot as possible.

    Everyman 6

    Yes, it’s always been that way. However, it was dubbed “Form Follows Function”—with little public acknowledgement that it was ‘monetary function’ dominating the project. I have come across quotes from Mr. Woolworth and from his architect stating that their primary objective in erecting the Woolworth Building (NYC 1913) was to extract the maximum amount of rents possible from the single property. That trend is 100 years old and still going strong.

    I’m not so sure Vancouver Specials are really home grown. Daly City south of San Francisco is full of them. So are the So. California beach towns. But the town platting is different; lot sizes are not ours; so the houses don’t appear to be the same when in fact they are.

    I can make a good house in the Vancouver Special mode. There won’t be cheap windows; I may change the roof pitch; I’ll cut into the box shape with atria, skylights and bridges; the gardens will be meticulously programmed and designed; the brickwork—if it shows up at all—will have purpose; the stairs and the front door may be in unexpected places; and the cars will not be parked under a double-size deck tacked onto the rear of the building.

    But then, the commodification of architecture is old news. Craftsman, Moderne, Eclectic, whatever—as already mentioned—the issue is whether or not they are done well. Of course, the Spanish Tile specials are not.

    It is refreshing to see new designs in our streets. A bit worrisome when the quality of the work doesn’t live up to the exterior image. But quite often it does. We just don’t get to go inside to see the whole story.

    Now, as far as it costing more. Here again I don’t think it has to be that way, provided that the owners can leverage some sweat equity. One way to bring the project at a low price is to finish a minimum of the interior space, and leave it to the DIY crowd to put their skills to work. Careful design will pay for itself as passive solar strategies result in savings in heating costs over the years.

    Another cost saving measure is to work with an old structure as if it was something of a gem worth preserving, and use an incisive design methodology to create something fresh out of the charming old box. Lifting a bungalow and putting in a new floor or two underneath has gotten to be very, very economical.

  • rph

    But it does not matter how economical it may be to lift a house and add a floor, the resale value is increasingly dictated by how much square footage can be built on that lot. And the moneyed target demographic does not want a fresh take on a charming old box. They want new and big and ostentatious.

    Developers are attracted to maximum profit with minimum cost…and minimum time for the build and sale.

    We renovated and added space with attention to garden viewscapes and light. But I know when we sell, the value is in our land and the charming will be bulldozed to the ground. And that will be entirely driven by developer profit.

  • teririch

    We have a new version of the ‘Vancouver Special’ in just about every tower being resurected. They are all boxy and already dated looking.

    They have no character.

    I’ve just returned from Arizona and saw some stunning apartment/condo buildings and houses. And yes, I do realize that type of architecture would not work here for weather reasons, but it makes me wonder why everything being built here looks the same.

    I guess it is just the cheap and easy route (for the developer, not the buyer)

    I was speaking with a gentleman from Minnesota and the cost of living in Vancouver came up (bad news travels fast) – I was telling him about the ‘new affordable’ microlofts being built….he thought I was joking; and then mentioned a Seinfeld episode where Kramer has Japanese visitors sleeping in an oversized chest of drawers…..

  • waltyss

    To come back to Mme. Bula’s article, it is pleasant to see some modern building sprouting around town. I for one like the clean spare lines. Partly I think I like them because they are not the ubiquitous craftsman style houses.
    The “Vancouver special” looks okay if, as others have noted, they get away from the lions and the Spanish tiles and if they have a decent garden. Actually most any architecture becomes acceptable with decent landscaping.
    As for highrises, be they office or residential, compared to most other cities, Vancouver has depended on the surrounding natural beauty and geography and has built boring usually glass curtain wall clad buildings. Just compare Seattle’s city scape to Vancouver’s.
    As for developers trying to maximize their profits, isn’t that what they are supposed to do? Last I heard, we live in a free enterprise system.

  • Keith

    @Waltyss … You cannot characterise an economy rife with government business subsidies as a free enterprise system. If you take public handouts, the public through its elected representatives can regulate your business. Nothing wrong with profit, but with public subsidy comes a public say.

  • waltyss

    Keith, they regulate your business whether you take public handouts or not. The CoV planning department has a say as does council if you want something the property is not zoned for. I know of few places where business is totally unregulated and personally I doubt I would want to live in such a place.
    However, if standards were relaxed in exchange for cheaper building or more square footage, that is more akin to a business exchange than a developer reducing its profits; in that case, the developer is maximizing its profits while the city can say it has helped to provide more affordable housing.

  • Jay

    @Keith 16

    Developers are soulless automatons focusing squarely on profit margins, but we do have an Urban Design Panel that is suppose to regulate or recommend what gets built in our city. Now we’re starting to see low rise residential buildings clad in fiber cement panels and glass spandrel, so I wonder what the UDP actually does.

  • jenables

    Yes, until you look at who is on the udp.

  • waltyss

    So, Jenables, guru of design, who is on the UDP that so seems to offend you.
    And Jay, while you may dislike low rise residential buildings clad in fibre cement anele and glass spandrel, what are the criteria that make it self evidently so?

  • Everyman

    @Lewis N. Villegas 12
    True, but I often wonder why up tothe Edwardian era Vancouver homes seem to have been built with room for interesting shapes and quirks. Eg:

    As to Vancouver specials I dislike them, having been unlucky enough to live beside one once. They run too far back on the lot, blocking light for neighbours. They eliminate the backyard in favour of a paved drived and retain a (usually) unused front yard.

  • Jay

    “And Jay, while you may dislike low rise residential buildings clad in fibre cement panel and glass spandrel, what are the criteria that make it self evidently so?”

    Uh, what? Could you rephrase that.

  • rph

    @Everyman #21. Laneway houses will accomplish the same thing – situated far back on the lot, blocking light, and eliminating a backyard.

    If you are now lucky and don’t live beside a VS, then you may soon be unlucky and have a laneway house accomplishing the same thing. Or perhaps the next wave of housing, the coach house or granny flat for those backyards without a lane.

    I suspect in the future of infill and overbuild, we will be looking back with fondness at the VS and it’s comparatively small imprint on a city lot.

  • rph @ #23 +3

  • brilliant

    Vision Vancouver doesn’t care about green space public or private. If (god.forbid).they win the next election you can kiss Langara golf course goodbye.

  • @Everyman #21. What a great photo!

    I see frosted windows in the car out front (drape a towel over the windshield ‘night before, like they do up north, and forget scraping); morning light beam waking up the house on the right, but not yet the one on the left; teaser view of a ‘flat’ roof structure on the very left edge; young street tree with what looks like early spring blooms strutting its stuff; perfect use of hedges and gates; porches look inviting but are they really being used in summer or just eye candy?

    Of course, these Mole Hill houses were ‘specials’ in their day. But the problems you cite with the ‘1950s+ specials’ are particularly offensive since they can detract value and enjoyment from the neighbouring properties. That is a line we should not cross.

    So, we need both things. We need the spice of life that allows a headline about ‘fresh new ideas are cropping up here and there’; and we need to build in a manner that is respectful of existing values of community and value of place. All this in a political and economic system that appears to reward only those that make the biggest profits come what may.

    I’m happy to contemplate a Rip Van Winkle gap lasting a century—rom the Edwardian period until now—because like many others I’m taunted by the possibility of supporting social functioning at the scale of both the home and the neighbourhood proffered by those ‘interesting shapes and quirks’.