Vancouver’s Heritage Houses – Emily Mittertreiner, Canada

I often hear people complain that my city, Vancouver, has “no culture, no history, and no heritage”. As of late, it has been getting more and more difficult to argue with this sentiment because Vancouver’s oldest and most important historical buildings are under attack. Hundreds of heritage houses, which are generally defined as houses built prior to 1940, have been demolished in the last few years and as these homes disappear, they take years of stories and history along with them. Compared to the centuries-old churches found in Europe and Asia, seventy-five years might seem laughable. However, in our city, which is just over one-hundred years old, heritage houses are integral to maintaining our rich history. These old homes act as time machines between the past and the present; not only do they let us see into the skilled craftsmanship of the early 1900s, but they are gateways to the trends and interests of times we’ll never truly get to experience ourselves.

To get a better understanding of these homes, I interviewed two enthusiastic heritage experts: Caroline Adderson and Richard Keate. Caroline Adderson is a local author who runs a Facebook page called Vancouver Vanishes, where she posts photos and stories of various heritage homes being torn down. Richard Keate is an active member of Vancouver’s heritage preservation community, and was highly involved in the move to protect First Shaughnessy, a Vancouver neighbourhood built during the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

Keate was extremely knowledgeable about the technical aspects of these old homes. “Designers brought the best of Anglo and American traditions to inform their housing designs,” he said. Around Vancouver,  there are about twenty distinct styles of heritage homes, each with their own unique features. A few notable styles include the Vancouver Craftsman, a bold house that developed in the early 20th century, and the Queen Anne Revival home, an architectural style that has a castle-esque feel, with tall turrets and huge windows.

“Our houses respond to our region; we’re a rainforest, unlike any other part of Canada,” said Keate, when asked why British Columbian homes are so unique. To ensure longevity, builders had to customize houses for Vancouver’s infamous weather, leading to window awnings and red cedar shingles.

In the last year, the City of Vancouver has given the go-ahead for over nine-hundred single-family dwellings to be demolished, many of which have heritage status. They are being replaced by hastily-constructed houses that are not meant to last, and that don’t have the same unique, defining features that make heritage homes stand out. “These houses all look the same; it’s really hard to remember one from another,” Keate said, while referring to today’s homes.

Adderson comes from a less architectural point of view. “I look at one of these [heritage] houses and I don’t really see the architecture,” said Adderson. “I see the lives lived in the house, and the people who made the house.” Adderson’s passion is infectious, and her interest in the history of her own home led her to uncover a number of fascinating stories, which ultimately led to her meeting the descendants of the first owner of her home. She laments the loss of culture that comes with replacing heritage homes, because heritage homes often showcase the trends and cultures that were prevalent during the time of their construction. Some houses in First Shaughnessy, owned in the past by wealthy families, had entrances that led directly into expansive, elaborate ballrooms, where the owners would host dances and socials for important guests. Mini elevators, called dumbwaiters, transported food and dishes between the bottom and top floors. Walls were decorated with ornate hand-stencilled flowers, and the windows depicted stained glass pictures of important figures.

From both a sustainability and a heritage point of view, it makes the most sense to leave these beautiful homes standing. Architects built these homes with the assumption that they would last for years and years; old-growth wood, which is a rare commodity nowadays, is too precious to waste on homes that weren’t meant to last. The thin particleboard and plywood used to frame today’s houses are no match for the high-quality local lumber used in the early 1900s. Tearing these houses down now, while many of them are still in amazing condition, is a waste of resources and energy. The discarded rare old-growth wood ends up being recycled as toilet paper or tomorrow’s newspaper, and the rest is thrown into the dump.

More importantly, though, demolishing these houses makes the statement that we don’t care about cultivating an appreciation for history and heritage. Says Adderson, “With every house that goes, so do the stories of all the people who lived in those houses.” Different styles of Vancouver homes mark different stages in the development of Vancouver as a city. For example, the Vancouver Special, admittedly unsightly but integral to Vancouver’s history, was an architectural style that acted as a symbol of affordability for poor and immigrant families in the 1970s.

Recognizable by the long, front balconies and the wood and stucco mix, this mass-produced housing design was made to cover as much square footage as possible on a small lot, and for many immigrant families it was the only affordable option in a city of rising housing prices.

However, from an economical standpoint, most house-buyers are in favour of tearing down heritage homes in order to build modern living areas with higher efficiency and more practicality. Increasingly, while walking along a busy Vancouver residential street, one might notice that five to ten houses in a row will display ‘Sold’ signs. This is because condominium companies offer large sums of money to the owners so they can knock down the entire row of houses. Condos boast affordability and density, two factors that are becoming more and more important as Vancouver’s population increases. In addition, heritage homes can be expensive and time-consuming to maintain, and many rules surround what one can and cannot do to their home.

Heritage homes, especially in areas like First Shaughnessy, are often on huge lots, and by tearing one down, the developer can invest in new features like laneway homes and basement suites to rent out. With Vancouver’s cost of living still on the rise, the idea of extra income can often be too good to pass up. It’s true that with a new home the owner could install heating and cooling systems, washing machines, and water systems with a higher efficiency; however, all of this still does not compensate for the emissions and wasted energy that comes with demolishing and rebuilding, nor does it do anything to save the history and culture of the heritage home. Sometimes these homes are destroyed, rebuilt, and then sold for double what they were initially bought for, and this results in homes that few Vancouverites can buy. This leads to foreign investors and developers buying these houses, thus resulting in neighborhoods full of brand-new but empty homes.

Currently, the city is attempting to curb this rush to demolish pre-1940s houses, but there is little that can be done without facing extreme backlash from the public. The Heritage Revitalization Agreement is a program created by the City of Vancouver intended to add density, lower housing costs, and preserve houses. The first step in the program is for the owner to apply for heritage status for their property. This makes it so the house can no longer be demolished, but this in turn lowers the value of the house. To compensate the owner for this, the city changes the zoning bylaws for them, by letting the owner infill with a second, smaller house on the back of their lot. Unfortunately, this process sometimes takes up to five years and large sums of money, and the city has shut down infill projects numerous times with little explanation. A recent bylaw states that at least 90% of a heritage home must be recycled, but for many owners this is just yet another fee added onto the $16,000 cost of tearing down a home, rather than a true disincentive to demolish. In addition, to encourage owners to maintain their heritage homes, the city granted them permission to extend the length of their homes, as long as most of the house was kept in original condition.

There have been a few notable successes. Two years ago, Vancouver’s beloved “Hobbit House” was saved from demolition after an architecture company applied to restore the home and give it heritage status.

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Heritage homes, especially in areas like First Shaughnessy, are often on huge lots, and by tearing one down, the developer can invest in new features like laneway homes and basement suites to rent out. With Vancouver’s cost of living still on the rise, the idea of extra income can often be too good to pass up. It’s true that with a new home the owner could install heating and cooling systems, washing machines, and water systems with a higher efficiency; however, all of this still does not compensate for the emissions and wasted energy that comes with demolishing and rebuilding, nor does it do anything to save the history and culture of the heritage home. Sometimes these homes are destroyed, rebuilt, and then sold for double what they were initially bought for, and this results in homes that few Vancouverites can buy. This leads to foreign investors and developers buying these houses, thus resulting in neighborhoods full of brand-new but empty homes.

Currently, the city is attempting to curb this rush to demolish pre-1940s houses, but there is little that can be done without facing extreme backlash from the public. The Heritage Revitalization Agreement is a program created by the City of Vancouver intended to add density, lower housing costs, and preserve houses. The first step in the program is for the owner to apply for heritage status for their property. This makes it so the house can no longer be demolished, but this in turn lowers the value of the house. To compensate the owner for this, the city changes the zoning bylaws for them, by letting the owner infill with a second, smaller house on the back of their lot. Unfortunately, this process sometimes takes up to five years and large sums of money, and the city has shut down infill projects numerous times with little explanation. A recent bylaw states that at least 90% of a heritage home must be recycled, but for many owners this is just yet another fee added onto the $16,000 cost of tearing down a home, rather than a true disincentive to demolish. In addition, to encourage owners to maintain their heritage homes, the city granted them permission to extend the length of their homes, as long as most of the house was kept in original condition.

There have been a few notable successes. Two years ago, Vancouver’s beloved “Hobbit House” was saved from demolition after an architecture company applied to restore the home and give it heritage status.

 

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