Character Home Styles – Early Vernacular

The pace of development in Vancouver, spurred on by high demand and even higher real estate values has sparked intense debate regarding neighborhood character and density. Many critics fear that increased new construction and higher density may lead to a loss of neighborhood character, and the city has responded with measures intended to retain character homes in a way that will increase our housing supply. But what is a Character home? How do these buildings tie into the city’s history and heritage? One style of character home, in fact the earliest found in the city is the Early Vernacular.

The Early Vernacular style was one of the first unique types of architecture found in Vancouver, first appearing in the city’s infancy during the late 19th century. The evolution of this style was  influenced by the simple cottages found in rural British Columbia boomtowns like Barkerville, taking elements of popular builders plans that were in circulation and English Row Houses that were a fixture throughout the British Empire. Beginning in the early 20th Century, many of these homes were hand constructed from mail order kits shipped via rail. These kits allowed the young city’s large working class population to own a home for a relatively low price. Typical of their working class roots, the Early Vernacular home is more frequently found in East Vancouver, where inexpensive land was available, with many appearing in both Mount Pleasant and Strathcona.

Ad for a typical home kit – 1923

The kits could include just plans (with lumber purchased locally as a cost-saving measure) or with the shipping of pre-cut materials, in pre-cut kits, the materials for these homes containing up to 30,000 individual pieces of lumber were either hand-constructed by the homeowner themselves, or a carpenter was hired to construct it. These kits varied significantly in quality and ease of construction, from complex constructions requiring the intervention of a skilled carpenter, to simple summer homes and temporary buildings that could be bolted together by even a novice.

Design aspects of this style vary significantly by date. Early cottages were often single roomed front gabled houses with shallow front porches and simple double-hung windows, with later examples increasing from two story homes featuring bay windows. This style provides diverse examples of craftsmanship and decorative features, with the utilitarian kit houses taking on a modular, “boxy” appearance contrasted with more elaborate variations incorporating recessed sleeping porch balconies, hipped roofs and a third floor. Shaped windows incorporating stained glass were typically inserted into doors, paired with clear panes for light and visibility. Cedar drop siding was commonly used, although examples with shinges or board and batten siding were not unheard of.

Examples of the Early Vernacular Style in Vancouver
Credit: Vancouver Heritage Foundation 

Preserving character homes provides more than just a snapshot of the city’s architectural history, but a look back on our collective social and economic evolution. The diverse complexity, quality and styles of Early Vernacular homes give us a look at both sides of Vancouver’s early days. To some, Vancouver was a hardscrabble port and lumber town where workers built their homes by hand from mail order kits on inexpensive land. To others, it was a city where entrepreneurs commissioned stately residences that symbolized their achievements in seizing the opportunity the growing city had provided. These buildings provide a living memory of a time before Vancouver had grown into the metropolis it is today, worthy of preservation and renewal.


The talented restoration and renovation experts at Kitsilano Construction and Design are passionate about architectural history and building preservation, saving character homes from the wrecking ball and preserving the character of neighborhoods all over Vancouver. Have a look at our projects to see our work on a number of character homes!