“Vancouver Special” Home Exhibit Reflects on City’s Real Estate Boom

Photo sourced from yourvancouverrealestate.ca

Photo sourced from yourvancouverrealestate.ca

The term “Vancouver Special” refers to a style of home design in the city popular from the ’60s through the ’80s.  These two-storey houses, often with brick and stucco facades, aren’t much to look at, architecturally speaking.  But they were designed to be affordable and to maximize square footage on small lots, important features for the influx of immigrants and other buyers who snatched them up.

Now, a new exhibit by artist Ken Lum – best known locally for designing the iconic East Van cross – is looking back at the heyday of the Vancouver Special, with a bit of nostalgia for a bygone era of affordability in the city.  Titled Vancouver Especially, the exhibit consists of a scale model of a Vancouver Special-style home, built on a vacant plot of land on the edge of Vancouver’s Chinatown.  

Photo from @nlamontagne | Twitter

Photo from @nlamontagne | Twitter

Lum was given $45,000 to produce the exhibit, roughly the price of an actual Vancouver Special in the 1970s.  He originally intended to show what $45,000 would buy in Vancouver today, but the resulting model was smaller than a dollhouse.  So he multiplied those dimensions eight times to get the current exhibit (about 1/3rd the size of a real home), which sits on a small, empty patch of concrete between two other buildings. (That tiny lot itself is valued at $1.7 million, by the way.)

Though he now resides in Philadelphia, Lum actually grew up in a Vancouver Special in the Strathcona neighbourhood, near Chinatown. He notes that his mother was able to afford that home back in the day, despite the fact that she worked in a sweatshop. Currently, prices for Vancouver Specials in some parts of the city easily exceed $1 million – out of reach for all but the wealthiest of buyers.

Lum cautions that the Vancouver Specials themselves weren’t, well, anything special. They were made of cheap materials and often poorly constructed.  “I think the more important question is what it stood for in terms of affordability, especially in the context of today,” Lum said to the CBC.

Vancouver Especially is located in at 271 Union Street in Chinatown, between Main and Gore streets.  It will be on display through February 2016.

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