5 Industrial Vancouver Spaces Converted into Homes

A handful of unusual ways Vancouverites have made a space for themselves in the city.

A handful of unusual ways Vancouverites have made a space for themselves in the city.

First published in 2010. 

“You can’t help but be part of the community,” says the owner. “There’s a constant stream of people up and down the street”

The current owner of 708 Hawks Avenue is delighted to have found a spot on Strathcona’s “it” street. “It’s quite quiet for one thing. And it’s fascinating, everything about it is interesting—there’s such a great mix of people and things that happen. And weirdness.” According to James Johnstone, a local historian who maintains the site  Househistorian.com, 708 was built in 1905 for policeman Thomas Crawford, who died there two years later. In 1922, his widow sold the property to Nicola and Marianna Di Tomaso, who constructed the storefront addition. The building was named the Georgia Confectionery and stayed with the Di Tomasos until 1975 (the same year the Hawks Grocery across the street was condemned, only to be later rehabilitated—Johnstone lives there now in a converted suite.)The multi-use nature of the property is a classic feature of historic Strathcona, where RT-3 zoning (allowing two-family residences in buildings) encourages owners to retain and restore character buildings. And because the candy shop was designed to entice passersby (and separate neighbourhood kids from their nickels), it speaks directly to the pavement outside it. “What I like about it is its problem,” says the owner. “You can’t help but be part of the community. There’s a constant stream of people up and down the street; there’s always somebody walking by.” In the couple of years he’s lived there, he’s gone out of his way to return the favour, opening the 2,300-square-foot house—known locally as “The Fishbowl”—to his neighbours by participating in heritage walking tours and community events. Candy for the eye and the soul.—J.B.

The dozen owners function as a co-op, jointly making decisions and, more recently, collaborating on a brand for the building

Back in the prehistory of 1989, the city  grappled with the fate of 4590 Earles Street. The concrete hulk, the last structure from the old inter-urban tram system, had been derelict since the ’50s. The shell was so robust it was prohibitively expensive to demolish, so in 1989 architect Linda Baker proposed converting the building into a dozen condos, settling the suites in a new three-storey wooden frame set inside the concrete superstructure. Today Earles Street Station shows how heritage can be wrapped around modern comfort. Andrea Polz and partner Marc-André Choquette (she works for the Georgia Straight, he’s executive chef of Voya at the Loden) bought their 1,168-square-foot, two-bedroom suite in 2007. They loved the apartment’s airiness, its high ceilings and loft-like openness, plus the historical ambiance of the building—its “industrial warehousey look,” as Polz calls it.The couple renovated the bathroom (out went the almond bath in favour of an open-concept shower wet room in chocolate and sand) and kitchen, knocking out an office area and closet in favour of an enlarged dining area off the open living room. Their labour, it turned out, was building something larger as well. “There’s a real community spirit,” Polz says of the building. The owners function as a co-op, jointly making decisions (there’s no property management firm) and, more recently, collaborating on a brand for Earles Street (articulated at Earlesstreetstation.com), which includes pushing the address as a film location: Poppy Montgomery’s character lived in their neighbour’s place in the Lifetime adaptation of The Cinderella Pact. Some of those proceeds go back into the building. “It’s better than a levy or increasing our strata fees,” says Polz. Next up is a larger conversion: the redevelopment of surrounding blocks into Norquay Village, a residential/retail area with midrise towers, townhouses, and street-level shops similar to the transformation at Kingsway and Knight. Heritage and density:the tussle never ends.—J. B.

“People associate status with size. Ultimately the planet can’t afford that theory. We wanted to make small spaces sexy”

Every element in Bruce Haden’s unit of Koo’s Corner—from custom art to furniture, down to the specific detailing—says architecture. Haden, one of Vancouver’s best-known urbanist architects, had fallen in love with the Strathcona area when he lived on Hawks Avenue a few years before finding Koo’s. “Seeing as how Hawks is only four blocks, it was an extraordinary coincidence that something became available here,” says Haden. “It’s the best street in the city.” Haden says he was in a “failed relationship” with Kitsilano when he and developer Robert Brown began brainstorming. “Robert and I wanted to do something sustainable and socially relevant, which weren’t words that were used often back then,” he says. Along with Heather Tremain, Brown’s partner at Resource Rethinking Building, “we shared a specific vision, for sure.”Koo’s Garage was missing a foundation, which had to be added by raising the structure and building concrete pads for the existing columns. Two units went into the original shell, and another four were added, with Haden claiming the end corner unit as his own. All are fairly small, four of them 850 square feet plus garage space, or smaller; Haden recognized the potential difficulty of convincing buyers they could live in tighter quarters. “People associate size with status. Ultimately the planet can’t afford that theory. We wanted to make small spaces sexy.”A testament to the restrictions of space, Haden’s bed pulls out to reveal a bathtub. The decks are the only aspect that never really worked out. By unanimous vote, the owners are taking down the separators to create a communal backyard instead. “They say you can measure the overall health and happiness of a person not only by your close relationships but by the casual daily interactions you have. We tend to isolate ourselves,” Haden says. “Zoning guidelines often are based on isolation and control. Here it’s totally the opposite.”—C. S.

“The building has a second life. It’s neat, everlasting, efficient”

The “new old school” was conceived when developer Mark Shieh and his sister took a trip to China. Shieh wanted to bring the courtyard concept, symbolizing independence and shared space, back to North America. He had been in discussion with the owner of 595 E. Georgia—built in 1940 as Saint Francis Xavier School by the Chinese Catholic Mission—for about a year. Construction started in July 2008, as soon as classes were over. Shieh, of Take Root Properties, teamed with Bruce Haden of Hotson Bakker Boniface Haden Architects and David Hamilton of Trillium Project Management to transform the schoolhouse into a five-unit townhome that achieved Built Green Platinum certification—the highest eco-rating in Canada.“We were systematically taking apart the building,” says Hamilton. The schoolhouse, with two front units and three side units, boasts the original entrance. Green features include geothermal heating, permeable pavers, bamboo flooring, and a master switch to turn off all electrical items. Each unit was built to accommodate live-work lifestyles. Shieh is currently using his flex space as his wife’s community-oriented art studio; the space will ideally one day be converted into an organic café or coffee shop. “It was about changing the use, not just tearing it down and rebuilding,” says Hamilton. “The building has a second life. It’s neat, everlasting, efficient.”—C. S.  

“Can we make intelligent changes and keep the integrity of single-family houses?”

I believe in imagining our city healthier—where families can thrive and neighbourhoods can prosper and improve. And clearly, there’s some self-interest involved.” Advertising copywriter Paul Barriscale is clear about what led him and his wife, schoolteacher Karen Froebe, to convert their existing garage to a laneway home. A fan of urbanist guru Jane Jacobs, Barriscale is concerned about the million people expected to come to Vancouver in the next two decades, and where these newcomers will live. He’s also worried about keeping elders and young adults in the areas they’ve always called home. One solution, he’s convinced, is for homeowners to densify, as he has done. An added incentive: cost. When the couple bought their 1937 home five years ago, they saw the garage needed work: a new floor, an automatic door—nothing too dramatic, because only two years earlier the structure had been rehabilitated after a troubled past as a meth lab. Then the roof went; replacing it meant up to $10,000. Might as well build a new one, they figured.That’s when Barriscale saw a story in the Globe and Mail about Jake Fry, the founder of Smallworks Studios, a design firm in Southlands hoping to catch a ride on then-mayor Sam Sullivan’s nascent EcoDensity drive. Three years, four public forums, and 53 speakers at city council later, Barriscale’s laneway house has been cleared, designed (it’s the same design as West House, showcased during the Olympics in David Lam Park), and built. The LEED-certified space is small—474 square feet—but arranged to maximize space and extremely energy-efficient through radiant heating and a heat-exchange system. The tenant—a salesperson who’s downsizing—is delighted, but not everyone shares his enthusiasm. “We’ve heard from some of our neighbours,” Barriscale allows. “They see a laneway house crop up and they’re not happy. Change is hard for people. But we have a choice: with a million people expected to come to the Lower Mainland in the next 20 years and the mountains, the ocean, and the ALR all around, do we want people living out in Hope and driving into the city, or can we make intelligent changes and keep the integrity of single-family houses?”—J. B.