In the 1960s, Vancouver was experiencing a boom in immigration. Housing in the city was running out and people needed homes, fast.
To meet that demand, a specific housing design became so popular that thousands of them were built over the following years.
And I think we can learn something from that design as we try to find solutions to the housing crisis in British Columbia — and cities across Canada — today.
How to hide a first floor
Larry Cudney, a local draftsman, created a design for a house that would eventually be known as the Vancouver Special.
Its key feature is a low-pitched roof, which, compared to steeper roofs, required fewer materials — and was therefore cheaper to build.
But the Vancouver Special wasn’t just cheap: its first floor also exploited a loophole, allowing it to be larger than other homes.
In the 1960s, if you wanted to construct a house, there were limitations to how much square footage the first floor could occupy.
But basements were not included in that calculation, and Cudney took advantage of this by building his first floor 18 inches below the ground — just enough for it to qualify as a ‘basement.’
This allowed people to build bigger houses, with the so-called basement becoming a whole new unit of housing and allowing two separate families to live under one roof.
Thus the Vancouver Special was perfect for many aspiring homeowners: immigrants could house extended family on the other floor, and working-class residents could rent out that floor and use the income to pay their mortgage.
As more and more Vancouver Specials were built, it became easier to build them. The materials became standard in the construction industry and city staff began to recognize the design and approve it for construction more quickly.
Around 10,000 Vancouver Specials were constructed between 1965 and 1985.
Today, many cities find themselves with a shortage of housing and zoning requirements that make it difficult to build new places to live.
Rezoning a neighbourhood to allow for multi-family housing, like apartments or townhouses, typically requires multiple applications, reports, consulting firms, council meetings, public hearings, an expertise of planning law, tons of money, and lots of time — and there’s no guarantee you’ll be successful.
When building new housing is this difficult, the usual result is that no new housing gets built.
But what if we had a new Vancouver Special — a type of building that is cheap to build, houses more people, and is quickly approved for construction?
There’s at least one place where that’s already happening: Kelowna.
The Kelowna Special
In 2018, the city of Kelowna held a competition for designs that could fit multiple units of housing on properties within single-family neighbourhoods. The winning designs for a quadplex were given fast-track approval process, from over a year to just two to three weeks.
In the past two years, over 200 of these quadplexes have been built, creating over 800 new units of housing.
However, the Kelowna quadplex is now meeting the same challenges the Vancouver Special once did.
As the Vancouver Special grew in popularity, so did the backlash. People began to describe its architecture as bland, ugly and far too common.
By 1988, the city officially made it illegal to build them.
Unfortunately, Kelowna has done the same: as of 2021, the quadplex designs were no longer being approved for construction over concern too many were being built.
Function over form
Public opinion seems to be turning around, however, under the housing crunch and as nostalgia grows for Vancouver Specials among people who grew up in them.
What if we were less concerned about the look of new housing? The Vancouver Special wasn’t about being the most beautiful house. It was about being as useful and affordable for the people who needed them.
Maybe it’s time for a new Special.
About this series
Stories About Here is an original series with the CBC Creator Network that explores the urban planning challenges that communities across Canada face today. In each episode we dig into the often overlooked issues in our own backyards — whether it’s the shortage of public bathrooms, sewage leaking into the water, or the bureaucratic roots of the housing crisis. Through it all, we hope to inspire people to become better informed and engaged members of their communities.
You can watch every episode of this series on CBC Gem.