A "special" renovation

The Vancouver design partnership of Bill Pechet and Stephanie Robb has a knack for retrieving beauty from the banal. Drawing on a cross-disciplinary background that spans architecture, fine art, and even geography, their work is often a refined form of recycling, taking objects or sites that have been faded by familiarity and transforming them into components of the future.

This gift brought them national attention in early October, when a jury picked Pechet and Robb's proposed SweaterLodge to represent Canada at next fall's prestigious Venice Biennale in Architecture. As Robb explains while showing the Straight around the partnership's West Broadway studio, the duo's Venice exhibit will be swathed in a vast replica of an orange polarfleece jacket, scaled to some 20 times normal size and made out of materials culled from recycled plastic bottles. This billowing icon of practical West Coast fashion is, she says, a kind of "local or a national pun", one that she and Pechet hope will offer an international audience something more than the usual drawings, photographs, and models found at an architecture show. It will be, she says, something "generous" that "is part of the Canadian spirit or characteristic that we want to bring over there.”¦We would like them to think that Canadians are clever and witty and resourceful."

One of the best examples of such resourcefulness, however, is Robb's own East Side home, a fully renovated Vancouver Special known as Lakewood Residence, winner of this year's Lieutenant-Governor of British Columbia Innovation Award for Architecture. Robb bought the modest property for lot value in 1999, after a long, exasperating search through the Grandview Woodlands neighbourhood where she had her heart set on living. But it was the existing 1,100-square-foot house-a miniature version of the boxy, two-storey homes mass-produced throughout the city in the 1960s and '70s, and much maligned ever since-that caught her imagination.

"There's an allure to working on a Vancouver Special," she explains, recalling how "fl abbergasted" her real-estate agent was when she took the place without so much as an inspection. "Five or six years ago, when I was actually designing it, it was a no-go zone for professional design.

It was considered the absolute joke out there-and not just by professional designers.

A big chunk of the community, as well, fi nds them very distasteful. The planning department and the City of Vancouver has gone through years and years of writing design guidelines and zoning bylaws that would inhibit the development of Vancouver Specials because they were considered so abhorrent. And so you might as well set yourself up for a challenge: to actually take it on and boost it."

The toughest part of the challenge, it turned out, lay in that thicket of bylaws. Robb spent all of 2000 negotiating with city-hall planners, who thought the original building would be best off as a heap of rubble. But once she convinced them that it was possible to revive a Special, actually doing so was relatively easy. "It was more a process of taking stuff away," Robb explains. The original ceilings on both levels were pulled out, exposing the wooden joists and allowing a large skylight to be installed upstairs, where there are now three bedrooms, a fl exible common area, and a bathroom. "I think it reveals the real beauty that's inherent in the building," Robb notes. "All those houses have a lot of wood in them, though you'd never know because it's covered in drywall."

Downstairs, on the ground level, partition walls that had formed six cramped rooms were knocked down to create a single, loftlike, 500-square-foot space that includes kitchen, living area, and, most impressive, large glass doors in front and back that open onto garden courts, or what Robb calls "outdoor rooms", which act as extensions of the fl oor space. (Check out www.pechetandrobb.ca/ for images.) According to the architect, this last feature-made possible by the fact that the house, like many of its contemporaries, was built slab-on-grade, with the main fl oor hugging the ground-is what separates a renovated Special from the lofts and so-called character houses now sought by hordes of buyers, making the discredited old design "the absolute house of choice" for anyone wishing to renovate.

Indeed, Robb claims she "wouldn't even look twice" at a character house because of the limited architectural options they offer. "I think Specials win hands down," she says. "Character houses are so prescribed; there's not a lot you can do with them from an architectural point of view. You can maybe open them up a little if the rooms are really pokey, and you can remove some of the partitions, but that's about it.”¦You're going to be boosted up out of your landscape by around six feet, because you walk up porch stairs to get into it. So at most you're going to get a deck-and then you have to walk down into the garden. You know, it's more of a taste issue. Many people really feel more comfortable in an older, traditional space. But if you like more modern, contemporary space, then a Special really holds potential." That will come as good news to many frustrated house hunters in a city where prices have gone berserk but is well stocked with these underrated homes. It's also a reminder that beauty is not always where you expect to find it. Like SweaterLodge, Lakewood Residence embodies Robb's view that the line between the sophisticated and the mundane is an illusion. "I really find that sort of divide interesting-taking an area where you have something that's considered high culture and something considered low culture, and just wondering why," she observes. "What does it take for something that's 'low culture' to be considered 'high culture', or vice versa? So I think the remarkable thing about the Lakewood house is that it has really touched people. It's something everyone feels they can talk about or have an opinion on. "When it was first built, there would be people lined up out front, looking in. It caused a lot of dialogue.

People would drive by and stop.”¦Many would think 'Wow, what a lot of work and it still looks like a Vancouver Special.' And I thought that was a great comment, because that was the intention. It was never to say that the Vancouver Special is worthless and that it would be transformed into something else; it was really just to work with a Special and find out what was of value inherently in the design that could be brought forward."