Reinventing the Vancouver Special as a playhouse

The ever-iconic Vancouver Special is being revamped once more: this time, as a playhouse.

Credit: Paula Grasdal

The iconic and much-maligned Vancouver Special is reborn on a miniature scale


Bob Kronbauer, executive editor of Vancouver is Awesome, collaborated with builder Jason Sokolowski to create a cheeky take on this unique-to-Vancouver architecture. Kronbauer describes the structure as, “…half art project and half playhouse.” The 4×8 foot building pays homage to this local landmark.


The idea to make a playhouse first surfaced when Kronbauer wanted to find a kit he could assemble for his son Arlo. Not finding what he wanted, he decided to come up with his own design.

A historic icon of Vancouver culture

“The Vancouver Special signifies Vancouver whether you love it loathe it—it’s entrenched in the culture” he explains.


Finishing touches such as interior wall paintings by artist Erin Marranca create an expressive space while details such as the kitten “guardian” statues are a witty take on the full-size lions flanking the gateways of the full-scale Specials.

Meow. Two kitten statues guard the
Vancouver Special Playhouse (Image: Paula Grasdal)


Characterized by their boxy shape, above ground basement and stucco and brick exterior, Vancouver Specials were built starting in the 1960s. The large, two-level design took advantage of the maximum amount of allowable square footage. Eventually, their popularity grew to the point where some Vancouverites felt the structure dominated the cityscape resulting in a 1980s by-law that prevented the construction of these homes.


Today, many builders and architects are updating the Vancouver Special, replacing the Italianate stucco with west coast materials such as cedar siding, and removing interior walls to create a “loft-like” space. Sokolowski explains that how the Special is “dressed” and landscaped dramatically alters its appearance.


Some local architects are inspired by the Vancouver Special’s modernist form.

Vancouver Specials actually have do have architectural potential

Steve McFarlane, principal architect at mgb, observes that these houses have tremendous potential and “are a neutral box waiting to be re-invented.” Since some Specials now exceed the current building limits, he questions why anyone would tear one down.


“We need to be more creative about the housing stock that we have. We’re talking about trying to densify our cities and that’s a good place to start”, he says. “With their large square-footage, these houses maximize the buyer’s investment to the greatest degree possible.”


McFarlane recalls from his days living on a Special-lined street that the classic ‘70s Vancouver Specials were popular with extended families as “[they could] replicate an 1800 square foot flat on each level.”


Not everyone is keen on the reinterpretation trend. Keith Higgins of the blog has a passion to preserve the historical place of these houses in the everyday life in Vancouver.


“The Special was designed, and built, by contractors and original owners, and provided affordable, spacious, safe housing to ordinary people. Now it appears that architects and designers want to remake them into palaces for members of urban elites, and ‘solve’ the problem created by ordinary working people and new immigrant families of modest means owning their own detached homes,” he asserts.


Playhouse stays true to the original design

Kronbauer’s and Sokolowski’s project embodies the best of both of these views on the Special—their playhouse design honors the history of these homes by staying true to the materials and aesthetic while playfully re-working the format for children.

Inside the kid-sized version of the Vancouver Special (Image: Paula Grasdal)


Sokolowski notes, “The Vancouver Special is a uniquely solid structure that can be opened up entirely on the inside to create an open living plan.”


This is echoed in the playhouse’s interior, which is essentially a space for creativity and imagination—its walls and ceiling are painted with blackboard paint for impromptu messages or artwork when the muse strikes.


Build your own customizable Vancouver Special

Like the builder-based home, this playhouse is modular and customizable, and is available in easily assembled pieces. Collaborating on this project has brought together the creative and practical skills of both Kronbauer and Sokolowski. More than just a miniature Vancouver Special, the playhouse also represents a community of children, artists, and builders.


Kits are available for $1500 with deluxe kits costing $3000. Please contact Jason Sokolowski at