Vancouver Special

March 1, 2009

Take a developer with a fondness for contemporary design. Add a pair of architects schooled by a local legend. Turn them loose on a dowdy, 1960s house on a West Side street, and what do you get? A clever, soothing, contemporary 2,500-square-foot rebuild that's waking up the Dunbar neighbours.

The developer, Alan Askew, 47, worked in the music business with Sam Feldman before turning to construction and development. He met architects Chris Doray and Arno Matis a few years back when they all worked together on the ambitious reno of a high-end Bing Thom-designed residence in Southlands. That project got Askew thinking about how to apply contemporary architecture to the makeover of that most decidedly uncontemporary of houses, the Vancouver Special.

In the 1950s, '60s, and '70s, Vancouver Specials-practically designed but aesthetically dreary two-storey structures that maximized square footage, used the most inexpensive cuts of lumber, and allowed for easy conversion of the downstairs to a self-contained suite-sprouted like toadstools in East Van and elsewhere. Askew kept an eye out for one on a tree-lined street in a higher-end neighbourhood where the land was more valuable, the mix of homes more invigorating, and potential buyers more inclined to warm to the reinvention of a West Coast architectural cliché. He found what he was looking for on West 18th Avenue, near Lord Byng Secondary, and purchased it in early 2008. He engaged the architects (who by then had left Thom's firm to set out on their own); nine months (civic strike included) and a hefty $300 per square foot later, they unveiled the redone house.

The transformation is dramatic. From the street, you'd be hard-pressed to envision the prior structure, though the footprint and square footage are identical. The second-storey balcony typical of Vancouver Specials has been reimagined, with wing walls and elegant cedar facings. The old east-west peak roof, effectively rotated, now rises and falls (and rises again) south-north. The awkward boxiness of the original house has morphed into a pleasing, more deliberately geometric arrangement: a vertical rectangle and a rough square balanced atop a horizontally grounded rectangle. The stucco exterior, painted grey, reads as concrete, a material used extensively inside the home and out. The banal front door has given way to a massive oak portal, and the miserly windows have been replaced by much larger anodized-aluminum units, including a wall-sized configuration that, from the master bedroom's sitting area, frames the cherry tree out front and the sky above.

"From an environmental point of view, it's important to work with existing stock," says Askew, who grew up in Kamloops. "Huge amounts of energy are used in tearing down an old house to build a new one, and tonnes of debris ends up in the landfill, so we wanted to preserve as much of the original as we could." Wherever possible, local materials were used, to reduce the environmental impact of transportation. The original hardwood was reclaimed, denailed, and used on another project. Other green elements include in-slab, quick-response electric heating for the floors, with controls in each room to heat only those areas in use.

"The idea," says Askew, "was to take advantage of the mid-century modern starting place-the house was built in 1966-and work with that modernist language in a contemporary way." Matis speaks of their desire to "keep the DNA of the original" while moving the bedrooms upstairs and living areas downstairs, as in a traditional two-storey house.

Perhaps the home's most striking feature is its beautifully realized relationship to the outdoors. Vancouver Specials tend to enclose dark, inward-turned rooms that accentuate the gloom of short, damp winter days. "A connection to the outside has always been part of the experience of living on the West Coast," says Matis, "but you wouldn't know it from most Vancouver Specials. We got rid of a lot of partitions, to create sight lines through the house. We wanted to bring in as much natural light as possible while remaining sensitive to issues of privacy." The designers inventively positioned a single skylight to borrow south light and use it in the north-facing rooms; even on a heavily overcast January afternoon the home felt open and bright.

Local response has been mixed. "It's not that people feel the character of the street has been harmed," says Askew. "But some of the neighbours wonder if this is the ideal spot for architecture of this sort." Adds Matis: "Vancouver Specials have always been the object of a love-hate relationship in this city, so of course you get varied reactions to what we've done. The interesting thing is that we're now getting a lot of calls from other people who own Vancouver Specials, asking, ‘What would you do with my house?' "

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