03/24/2014 05:09 EDT | Updated 03/25/2014 02:59 EDT

Vancouver Special Renovations Transform Reviled Design

Sebastian Albrecht

Vancouver Specials used to be the ugly stepsister of the city’s housing stock, snubbed because of its working class roots and boxy utilitarian design. But the distinctive houses have blossomed into a hot Cinderella with plenty of potential.

A Vancouver Special typically features a low-pitched roof, metal railing balcony across the front, brick or stone finish on the ground floor, and stucco on the second level. Despite its name, the style is found not only in Vancouver, but also all over the suburbs. An estimated 10,000 Vancouver Specials were built from roughly 1965 to 1984.

“They’re identifiably Vancouver. It’s the only structure, the only building style that we developed locally and it’s ours,” explained realtor Sebastian Albrecht. He not only specializes in selling these homes — he also lives in one.

Albrecht has spent countless hours walking around taking photos and cataloging all of the Vancouver Specials that he sees into a database.

“It’s not just about business, it’s a personal interest,” Albrecht told The Huffington Post B.C. “ Mainly because no one else is doing it. As with many things, if you don’t make note of them they disappear.”

Thousands of Vancouver Specials were mass produced because they didn’t cost much to build and maximized the 33-foot lot. Most of them offer about 2,000 to 2,800 sq. ft. of living area — an unbelievable amount of adaptable space for today’s families and investors.

Realtor Rob Zwick and his wife, Sharon, spent just seven weeks modernizing their 2,500-sq. ft. Vancouver Special. He blogged about the renovations, documenting their home's transformation from a dated, shag-carpeted eyesore into a stunning, bright, open space.

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Photo gallery Vancouver Special Renovations See Gallery

“Perhaps the biggest draw was that these homes were built in an era when they were built really well and simply," Zwick told "We ended up gutting the entire house, and took two major walls out on the upper floor."

The couple also embraced another Vancouver Special advantage: the lower half of their home is a secondary suite that they rent out.

The open design, which was popular with the large extended families of immigrants, makes it easy to section off.

In fact, the Vancouver Special is almost too adaptable. Albrecht has been working with a designer to renovate his own home and they have found there to be an overload of possibilities.

“[The designer] has been talking about how hard it is because they are so many options," Albrecht said. "They’re essentially an open box; whereas say, an old Victorian home or something, you’re much more limited by what you can do in that space, so it’s almost easier to plan.”

Albrecht is sponsoring next month’s Vancouver Special House Tour, organized by the Vancouver Heritage Foundation. Participants get to step into five stunning Vancouver Specials in which “their adaptable floor plan" has been taken "to new heights.”

The tour has exploded in popularity, especially since it featured the Lakewood Residence, a renovated Vancouver Special that won the 2005 Lieutenant-Governor of B.C. Innovation Award for Architecture.

In the ‘80s, the City of Vancouver changed single-family zoning rules to curb the creation of Vancouver Specials. To get that kind of square footage today would require a basement which isn't as attractive or flexible, Albrecht said.

In 2012, a Vancouver Special that took seven months to upgrade, including the addition of a yoga room, went on the market for $1.379 million.

Another updated 3,400 sq. ft. Special in Vancouver’s Kitsilano neighbourhood sold in 2013 after being listed at $2.36 million.

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