Extra Special Housing

Our design proposal is a mash-up of the Vancouver Special, a low-cost house design prevalent in the region since the 1970s, with Brooklyn brownstones and Chinese courtyard houses.

We call it “the Extra Special.”

Exterior 3D rendering of the Extra Special Housing design proposal
In urban residential neighbourhoods, there is not much middle ground between the single-family house and the condo or apartment block. Middle-density dwellings could contribute to more affordable housing options.

In 2018, Workshop entered the Missing Middle Competition, run by Urbanarium, a Vancouver-based nonprofit. Our submission was awarded an Honourable Mention.

Photo of a typical Vancouver Special house

Drawing of a siheyuan, a traditional Chinese courtyard house
The “Vancouver Special” is large – usually about 2,400 square feet over two levels – with the main living areas on the second floor and often a secondary unit on the main floor.  Similarly, the Extra Special offers family-sized living spaces more generous than typical condominiums or even town homes.

From the Brooklyn brownstone, we borrowed the stoop – the tall front stairs that serve as a gathering place – tucking the front entrance to the garden level under the stairs.

Photo of a Brooklyn brownstone stoop and garden level entrance

Drawing on the design of siheyuan, a Chinese residential compound form, a garden-level pass through and courtyard brings more sunlight from the south into the homes and makes the garden-level units accessible.

Diagram comparing the Vancouver Special to the Extra Special housing proposal                      Section drawings comparing the Vancouver Special and the Extra Special housing proposal


Like the typologies that influenced it, the Extra Special unlocks multiple ownership combinations, and can support different cultural traditions and living arrangements.

Plan drawing of the garden level of the Extra Special design

Diagram of the Extra Special design's potential ownership and unit combinations

A range of possible unit combinations provides market choice and tenure options. It has the flexibility to meet the changing needs of a multigenerational or “found” family, or support co-living between seniors or single people. These arrangements can provide social and economic benefits: elder care and childcare are significant costs in urban areas, and sharing meal prep can help with busy schedules.

3D drawing of the Garden Level unit from the interior looking to the street
3D view of the courtyard of the Extra Special housing design

New zoning rules would be needed to bring the Extra Special to neighbourhoods.  We propose the creation of a new zoning category for corner sites called “Residential Extra.” It would apply when two lots adjacent to a street corner are combined to create a lot at least fifty feet wide.

On such a site, we propose an increase in the number of dwelling units allowed from two to nine, and permission for larger buildings that covered more of the lot.
The zoning changes could increase speculation and land costs, so we propose that they should be available only for co-operative or non-profit developments, to incentivize affordable housing and shared ownership models.

On its own, even an “extra special” design would not be enough to achieve lasting affordability; we also need to implement policies that break the cycle of land speculation in home ownership.

Text by Helena Grdadolnik
Images by Kellie Chin

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