Vancouver Home Styles – Vancouver Special


For better or worse, no building style is more emblematic of Vancouver than the infamous “Vancouver Special”. Often derided for its lack of aesthetics, ubiquity and size, the Special’s focus on function over form has made it a polarizing topic when discussing the city’s architecture.

Homes similar to the Vancouver Special had begun cropping up in the late 1940’s, large buildings intended to house growing multigenerational families, constructed inexpensively and making use as much of the building’s lot as regulations would allow. This style of building became more popular in the aftermath of World War II, as immigration from Europe combined with postwar population growth to create a huge amount of demand for spacious, inexpensive homes.

The “Vancouver Special” as we know it was developed by drafter Larry Cudney of the Prana Group in the 1960’s as an adaptation of the California Rancher style of home. Cudney’s design philosophy was one of simplicity, maximization of floor space, and quick, inexpensive construction. Cudney was able to mass-produce these plans and sell them at the low cost of $50, far below the standard price of its day. Beyond the lack of expense, building a Vancouver Special was a way to avoid problems with permits or city regulations. City Planners were familiar with the design and the fact that it conformed to building codes to the letter, resulting in nearly instant project approval.

Vancouver Special via Richard Eriksson (Creative Commons)


The most drastic change brought about by council’s decision is the mass rezoning of nearly all RS-zoned (single family) neighborhoods in Vancouver. Only areas of Shaughnessy will continue to have restrictions on duplex construction.

The new rules will allow duplexes to be built (or existing buildings to be converted) on any lot in the affected areas. Each duplex will be allowed a secondary suite, making a maximum of 4 units on a single lot. Laneway homes will not be permitted on lots that contain a duplex, however.

Duplex developments will be restricted to a Floor Space ratio of 0.7 with the construction of a new building. If current rules state that your lot’s FSR is 0.6 (meaning you can have a floor space equal to 60% of your lot), this will mean a significantly larger home to make room for the duplex.

Duplexes will be allowed to be stratified and sold as two separate properties, which can provide both more affordable units to first time buyers, and provide a larger profit to sellers.


The backlash against the Vancouver Special began in the 1980’s. The popularity of the Special led to the demolition of a large number of Craftsman and Vernacular homes, replacing them with boxy, uniform and arguably ugly buildings. Kitsilano in particular felt the effects the most heavily, with British-inspired, turn-of-the-century streetscapes being uprooted. The idea of “Neighborhood Character” was not nearly as important to City Planners as it is today, but outcry from residents led the city to act.

In the mid-1980’s, after failed city-sponsored attempts to come up with a new design for the Special that would strike a compromise between character and function, a raft of building code changes were put in place targeted at preventing the design from being built. New limits on floor space ratio and the removal of some of the exclusion tricks used by the design to maximize size were put in place. This marked an effective end to the home’s dominance of new building projects.

A Row of Vancouver Specials. Demolition of Character Homes resulted in a fierce backlash against the building style, leading to an effective ban in 1985


Over time, the hostility towards the Vancouver Special faded. While most would still call the stock design unattractive, if not hideous, many are coming to understand the important role they played in the city’s growth. Like the now-revered Vernacular kit homes before them, the Special allowed working class Vancouverites and newcomers to the country to own a piece of the city and have enough space to raise their families.

In the last decade or so, the Vancouver Special has begun to see a resurgence. Although the design is effectively banned from being built, existing buildings are being seen as a wise investment owing to their large floor space, potential for secondary suites and ease of renovation. Notable remodeling projects such as Architect’s Stephanie Robb’s award-winning Lakewood Residence have shown that the design is more than capable of being rehabilitated.

The Special lends itself to creative redesigns, essentially serving as a blank slate for designers to get creative. The relatively featureless rectangular nature that detractors of the style condemn it for offers more possibilities than Victorian-inspired designs common to many styles of character home.


Elements common in renovated Vancouver Specials include large windows added to the front of the building and the repainting or replacement of stucco with attractive siding. Aluminium railings are replaced by glass barriers on the front of the house. All of this, combined with attractive landscaping have allowed renovated Vancouver Specials to become a net positive to a neighborhood’s streetscape, turning an eyesore into an asset.

Homeowners considering a Vancouver Special should strongly consider the renovation potential it provides. Current building code regulations will not allow a new construction to come even close to matching the Special’s average floor space ratio of 0.76, a number that today would only be possible through a fully renovated character home taking advantage of the full suite of city retention benefits.

If you’re considering a building project or looking to buy and remodel a home, including Vancouver Special renovations, Contact Us any time for a no-pressure consultation on your project’s feasability and full estimate.

Renovated Vancouver Special via Pinterest