Ian Robertson on Vancouver Character Homes

Ian Robertson

How ____ is your Character?

The City of Vancouver’s Character House Zoning Review proposes changes to policy which, under guise of Character Retention, will force homeowners to build in a way that is out of synch with the neighbourhood, the goals of density, affordability, inclusiveness, accessibility, life-safety, sustainability and energy conservation, and should be reconsidered before creating yet another barrier to needed new construction in Vancouver.

How Dense is your Character?

The changes would allow a Character House (defined as constructed prior to 1940 with most historic features remaining) to grow a modest 7% larger than now allowed, but would shrink the size of any new houses by 29%. The reasons given for this change are to stop the demolition of older houses, to stop the construction of ‘Monster’ houses, and to address the disparity between an un-renovated Character House and current construction. There are better ways to do this than enforce that all buildings in Character zones wear the same character’s kabuki mask.

Giving an incentive to keep existing construction is a worthy goal, as there are many ways in which the greenest building is the one that already exists. However, the proposed rules mean that a renovated existing house could soon be 1.5 times larger than a new house, which would in itself create a large disparity between existing and new construction. A recent tour by the group Abundant Housing Vancouver, visited at several buildings that are up to 3 times the currently allowed size, more than 4 times larger than the new house limit, precisely the sort of difference being highlighted as a problem.

Zoning bylaws have been updated to allow both secondary suites and laneway houses. However, the new rules mean that new houses will no longer support both 3/4 bedrooms and a basement suite. This will lead to many basement suites going unbuilt, causing an overall loss of density over much of the city, at a time when affordable and family-appropriate housing demands are greater than ever. The city’s goals to increase affordability and density are thus held hostage by the weight of ‘fitting in’ to the neighbourhood.

How Safe is your Character?

New houses have to be constructed to current seismic and fire codes, whereas a renovated house can often skip these requirements. Also, new houses must allow ‘ageing in place’, yet many Character Houses have front doors a whole flight of stairs above grade. This makes future accessibility extremely difficult to achieve, especially without degrading precious Character merit.

How Real is your Character?

A survey of the most restrictive type of Character Retention in Vancouver - those which are done through a Heritage Revitalization Agreement (HRA) and become Listed Historic Houses - shows that many get stripped down to their core and rebuilt almost totally. This brings up the question - what Character is being preserved anyway?

Historic Places Canada has a manual called ‘The Standards and Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places in Canada,’ which makes clear that while the goal of a sensitive historic conservation is to preserve – to keep existing elements, not to replace with something that looks plausibly old. The Guidelines state that when material must be replaced, it should be clearly distinguishable from existing material. The Zoning Review promotes neither of these principles, as it favours the retention of a look, without requiring the retention of substance, further encouraged is new construction which looks old - even if this look is inevitably achieved with vinyl and painted foam.

How Green is your Character?

In 2010, Vancouver declared itself to be the ‘Greenest City’, and just this year released the Zero Emissions Building Plan. Prioritizing existing inefficient buildings over new ones fights emissions reduction capability and the city’s stated sustainable goals.

Vancouver’s properties generally align North-South. Since a Character House’s roof peak generally follows the longest axis of the house, most roofs in Vancouver face East and West. For most of the day, the sun is generally to the South, so if one were to install solar panels on a Character House half or more would tend to face the wrong direction.

When considering cars, it makes more of a difference to make a Hummer twice as efficient, as it does to do so for a Civic. Similarly, for housing, by not substantially upgrading existing buildings, we bake in large inefficiencies for another lifetime. One could require every new building in the city to cut their power use by 80% (as would be the case if each was a Passive House) but this would not create a Zero Emissions City, if most of the city is locked into playing by Character rules.

Character buildings tend to be poorly insulated even after renovation, as by very definition, they must have retained at least 50% of their original windows. Often, Character Houses also have non-conforming grandfathered projections into required yards. The only way to upgrade insulation is to add it to the interior, which means spaces shrink, further penalizing a poor existing layout, and even a heavily renovated older house will use far more than new, and far-far more than ‘good’ new.

The retention of Character Merit is placed in direct opposition to the creation of sustainable construction. There have been projects explicitly discouraged from seeking Passive House status in favour of keeping Character. There have been projects where, once the house was deemed to have Character Merit, a planned Passive Houses retrofit has been cancelled, since the existing houses could not be altered to admit sufficient light/heat. There will undoubtedly be more of both.

How 'Great' is your Character?

Having to choose between preserving the past and ensuring the future puts homeowners between a rock and a hard place. If we are going to propose keeping existing buildings, there need to be real standards for conservation, otherwise we end up living in a Potemkin village, built to deceive the eye rather than retain history. There are innumerable examples worldwide of new construction fitting in and even enhancing old, but without some acknowledgement of this fact, we forever cast neighbourhoods in amber fixing flaws alongside gems. There has to be some room in the argument for intelligence and outstanding design merit, especially if those traits are vital to the creation of the energy efficient buildings that the future demands of us. The Character House discussion currently seems to begin and end with the statement “Make Vancouver [look] Great Again”, which is a poor argument no matter the subject.


Ian Robertson MArch
Senior Designer, ABBARCH Architecture Inc.


(Thanks to Jens von Bergmann of MountainMath; Marcel Studer Dipl. Arch., ETH, Principal of Econ Group Ltd.; D. Lucio Picciano Architect AIBC, LEED ap, dlp Architecture Inc.; Peter Winstanley, Project Manager and LEED Green Associate, ABBARCH Architecture Inc.; and Bryn Davidson, B.Eng. M.Arch. LEED-AP,  Lanefab for their contributions.)

A longer version of the above article located here includes a more in-depth mathematical analysis.