July 1, 2001
by Adele Weder
Where aesthetes see a stuccoed shoebox, Stephanie Robb sees a universal design template in the much-maligned Vancouver Special housing type. “I like the simple, emblematic quality of the Special,” says Robb, a graduate architect and lecturer at the University of British Columbia School of Architecture. “It looks like a really big dog house.” It may seem like a backhanded compliment, but she is sincere: the simple volumetrics of the boxy, mass-market Vancouver Special are, to Robb, unpretentiously beautiful.
In the early 1970s, Vancouver Specials began sprouting like dandelions in the city’s residential quarters. Designed for maximum floor space on a long and narrow footprint, its affordability and build-by-numbers construction made the Special the house of choice for legions of newcomers to Vancouver. But with its low-sloped roof, boring faade and cheap materials, it was soon considered an architectural eyesore.
Not according to Robb. Not only is she renovating her very own recently purchased Special, she also led a UBC studio workshop on the subject. Along with architect Scott Romses, Robb led 14 students into myriad re-interpretations of the subject, from flamboyantly trapezoidal rooms to grandiose open-air upper floors.
Not since 1982, when the Architectural Institute of B.C. hosted a design competition for its overhaul, has the Special enjoyed such a makeover. But Robb is the first designer to put her own money where her mouth is, buying and gutting her very own vintage 1974 Special in the heart of east side Vancouver. Like many Specials, hers was constructed partly from salvage timber to save money: the sandblasted rafters and shiplap sheathing now look as smart as a restored TriBeCa loft ceiling. Light filters in through sleek new diffused-glass skylights and generous front and rear windows.
Robb removed the interior walls on both levels to generate more open, spacious living areas; a Special is a tight fit for a family of four. Still, because the form is so straightforward, she’s been able to punch a new room out on each floor at the back of the house, pushing the total floor area up to 1,400 square feet. “A boxy volume,” says Robb, “is actually a good starting point for architecture.”
Adele Weder is a Vancouver journalist.
At left, Stephanie Robb’s vintage 1974 Vancouver Special before the alterations. The Vancouver Special evolved as a response to a particular development envelope in the city. The Special is a study in squeezing the most out of the envelope: maximum allowable floor area, maximum permitted roof slope that still allows for the use of tar and gravel roofing, minimum setbacks.
Robb’s Vancouver Special under renovation. Maligned for resulting in a banal and repetitive housing stock, the Special is being revisited by Robb and her students at UBC’s School of Architecture.