April 7, 2021

1987: Front Page News! Dunbar Homeowner Defies City, Uses Attic

In the 1960’s Jim Wilson bought a house in Dunbar at 3253 West 24th Avenue. Twenty years later in the mid 1980’s Mr. Wilson razed the house, and built a new house faced with stone, with an elevator, and an attic. The attic, as shown in the drawings approved at city hall was not to be accessed, but was just to be “there” to ensure that  Mr. Wilson’s new house was within the calculation of liveable square feet.

Like many homeowners of the time who were also required to have half height basements (full basements counted as floor space), Mr. Wilson  made his own decision to open up the attic of his new house, and use it as a spare bedroom for his aged parents and as a games room. All was good with this unapproved use until he installed large dormer type of windows in the attic, which alerted the neighbours that Mr. Wilson was using unauthorized attic space. Even worse, he had built a correct stairway and an elevator instead of a  ladder to access that attic. The neighbours called the city.

The evening edition of the Vancouver Sun on January 14 1987 screamed “Attic Builder Defies City” and had a photo of Mr. Wilson wearing what really looks like a vintage housecoat. In that article by Ben Parfitt Mr. Wilson stated he had spent $40,000 to jazz up the new attic with “wall to wall carpeting, a pool table, a guest room, a bathroom, and a window providing a spectacular view of downtown Vancouver. He also had installed an elevator to service the three floors of his house.

Even though the bulk of the house was acceptable and approved by the City, the floor space ratio, the amount of built floor space compared to the size of the lot was a swollen  .81 from the accepted standard of .6, or 39 percent more than allowable. Mr. Wilson had gone to the Board of Variance to plead for keeping the extra floor space  as usable in the attic, but the Board of Variance can only rule on an unreasonable regulation or hardship. Using the attic as a bedroom, billiards room, and a bathroom was denied.

But Mr. Wilson was undeterred. He called up journalist Jack Webster and had him tour his house. At the time builders were also building what were referred to as “monster” houses, houses with undefinable features and posts and pillars covering up the fact that they were designed to be as big as practicable under the City’s regulation. They did their job. They just were not pretty.

The interview below shows Jack Webster touring Mr. Wilson’s house, and then sitting down to a brash by-law brawl with Carole Taylor who was a city alderman. Ms. Taylor went on to become a Member of the Provincial Legislative Assembly (MLA) and the Minister of Finance. She was known for doing her research, was very well regarded, and would have made a great Premier or Mayor.

In the interview below Ms. Taylor quickly retorts to  Mr. Webster’s attempts to argue for Mr. Wilson’s attic.

When Mr. Wilson’s house was eventually sold in 2007 thirty years later, it was reported as having three bedrooms and one bathroom, which strongly suggests that the City was triumphant in reclaiming the  attic space as void space.

We are giving homeowner  Mr. Wilson has the last word:

I’m within the height restrictions and my front and back setbacks comply. So I’m within the cubic restrictions. Where I ran into trouble was opening up the attic staircase and using the elevator. The bylaw is quite explicit and I contravened the bylaw”.


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