December 17, 2019

Larry Cudney’s Revenge – The Story of the Vancouver Special

A big shout-out to author Jesse Donaldson:

“Land of Destiny: A History of Vancouver Real Estate” is a fun, fascinating book … that more than delivers on its title. His publisher Anvil Press will host a Vancouver launch Dec. 19 at 6 p.m at Resurrection Spirits, free to the public.

Here’s an excerpt from The Tyee: 

Larry Cudney hated architects. In fact, he hated the entire architectural profession. For a time, years earlier, while still a young intern with a local firm, he had harboured dreams of becoming one himself, until a falling-out with the company prevented him from obtaining the certification he needed. …

Working as a draftsman from his cramped office on Main Street and 33rd Avenue, he designed single-family homes (the only buildings a draftsman could legally design), and his work was known for being simple and practical …

… sometime in the mid/late-1960s, Cudney sat down and drafted the plans that would become his legacy. It came to be known as the “Vancouver Special,” and for the next 20 years, it would be the most widely-discussed — and hated — type of housing in town. …

“Those brash new houses with slightly pitched roofs and aluminum balconies (known in the trade as Vancouver Specials), which are now squeezed into lots where once a single house stood in a magnificent garden are here not just to stay, but to increase,” complained the Sun, in 1978.  …Between 1965 and 1985, an estimated 10,000 Vancouver Specials were built, and by 1980, according to a Young Canada Works survey, eleven per cent of Hastings-Sunrise, and five per cent of Marpole were made up of Vancouver Specials. And as more and more were built, the backlash only grew. …

“Right now, to buy a house in the city’s east side, you have to have $20,000 in assets and a $20,000 income,” wrote the Sun’s Mary McAlpine in 1978. “Most young people with children don’t have that sort of money. The people who do are developers who tear down the house and put up Vancouver Specials …

But in the years that followed, attitudes — including city council, and the Sun’s McMartin — began to change. For many lower-income and immigrant families, council later recognized, the Vancouver Special was their only chance for home ownership. In 1987, City Councillor Gordon Price even praised the architectural style as “a tradition of our cultural diversity,” and “worthy of heritage preservation.* …

In 2005, a renovated Vancouver Special was awarded the Lieutenant-Governor’s Award for Innovation in Architecture. …

Privately, Larry Cudney was said to have been proud of the disgust his brainchild had engendered. “Creating a completely tasteless form of housing,” stepdaughter Elizabeth Murphy later opined, “was his revenge on the architect profession with which he was in conflict.”


*It’s true!  I remember saying that.  Still do.  But with respect to heritage preservation, I meant only that we should designate an intact original and perhaps try to save a complete block like the one above.  Let the rest evolve or eventually be replaced by higher density ‘missing-middle’ alternatives.  

Vancouver has always been in need of some kind of Vancouver Special.  The two-storey carpenter-built single-family houses along streetcar lines in the 1890s and 1900s were the originals.  Even West End one-bedroom apartments in West End highrises in the 1960s were a form of simple, affordable, mass-produced housing.  So in a different way was the illegal basement suite.  Now it’s the modular house for the otherwise homeless.  But with the high land costs, design controls, heritage preservation, and inflexible zoning, we aren’t likely to see another version anytime soon.


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  1. Were these ever marketed in hotel seminars overseas? Do they have spinning chandeliers?

    Of course not, they were homes for the people, by the people.

    Surely we can find a way to do this again. The “way” won’t be the same of course.

  2. The great irony is that Cudney’s stepdaughter is Bette Murphy, who has been such a passionate advocate for retention of character buildings and neighbourhoods, proving once again that children rebel against their parents. And the great truth about the Special is that it was adaptable and came on the market at the same time as the big wave of non-European immigration – new Vancouverites who wanted to live with their extended families under one roof. Most of them converted easily into duplexes and back into open-plan multi-use spaces. And so what if they were “ugly” – the previous generation’s great contribution was the mutt called a 3-storey walk-up aka the “Ten Suiter” – affordable small apartment buildings on 2 33-foot lots that are still, despite some people saying they “need” to be replaced, one of our biggest sources of rental housing. I can almost hear Ian Gillespie calling them “shit buildings,” but they’ve supported a diverse and interesting city.

  3. A greater irony might be that whole blocks of Vancouver Specials become designated heritage making it difficult for the owners to do what the houses were originally designed to do, to adapt.

  4. Architecture is not artifice or facadism. The Specials of the 60s and 70s were deeply simple and usually well-built using good quality Douglas fir studs, joists and plywood sheathing. There were a number of builders all over the country constructing the hipped roof bungalow and gable roof split levels by the tens of thousands in the 60s ring of subdivisions in every city. I grew up in two of them, both with beautiful narrow strip T&G Canadian maple floors. Ironically, these homes are now referred to as rightfully-deserved heritage. Their character and quality should be preserved even when infill inevitably occur around them.

    Then came the 80s and cheapness. Builders adopted the philosophy from the Home Depot School of Architecture, and purposefully sought to emulate the symbols of wealth as cheaply as possible while cutting back quality. The inferior oriented strand board (wood chips glued together) replaced plywood sheathing, spruce and pine replaced fir framing, bright red concrete tile replaced slightly more expensive grey sheet metal. Asphalt roofing was seen as inferior as a demonstration of wealth. Carpeting over subfloors replaced hardwood. Aluminum wiring replaced copper. Cheap architectural references to anything but the region and over-ornamentation with peel-n-stick materials (rock, brick), soaring fake Corinthian columns, plop lions and so forth appeared. And the houses bloated in size to the maximum allowable limits, not necessarily housing more people.

    The criticism is misplaced when it’s directed to the practical simplicity and stock production of the 60s and 70s Specials and bungalows. It’s the precepts that predicated the era of ‘housing for the people’ that should be emulated in rowhouses, townhouses and low rises for today where the standard 33-footer and large open lot is finally declared obsolete because gawd ain’t making more land. A reasonably good architect can adapt the Special into new developments. But please, let’s not let builders cheapen them even more, and somehow misconstrue the inferior results as architecture.

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