The once-ubiquitous Vancouver Special hasn’t historically received a lot of love. They were often quickly built, they’re utilitarian in design and they favour max square footage over thoughtful space planning. But the boxy homes that were once so popular in the Lower Mainland, it’s the only housing style developed here that isn’t found anywhere else, hold great renovating potential. “They’re simplistic and malleable,” says Ben Leavitt, founder and creative director of PlaidFox. That second quality, being easy to modify, applies to both their interior and exterior structure. Paired with the Vancouver Special’s vintage charm, it’s sparked a resurgence of interest among a younger generation of homeowners aspiring to inject some fresh energy into the design and imprint it with their own identity.

Among those new homeowners are Kaitlin and Jamie, a couple in their mid-30s who enlisted the PlaidFox design team to assist them with rejuvenating a ’70s-era, four-bedroom, three-bathroom Vancouver Special in the Mount Pleasant area. Instead of opting for bold design manoeuvres or dramatic colour additions, the stylish couple leaned toward a more neutral, minimalist approach. “They wanted to add a vibrant, youthful feel‚” says Kelly O’Quinn, senior designer at PlaidFox, who collaborated with Leavitt to revamp the couple’s dated corner lot residence into a space uniquely reflective of their tastes. The team worked to incorporate modern elements while honouring the home’s inherent charm. “It’s about seamlessly merging the old with the new; respecting tradition while embracing innovation,” Leavitt explains.


Homeowners Kaitlin and Jamie, below, wanted to bring a vibrant, youthful feel to this former Vancouver Special. In the dining room, the Vitra Wiggle side chair, Vakkerlight paper-like pendants, spherical Audo Copenhagen TR bulb wall lamps and oval Lock and Mortice Seton dining table contribute structure to the design. Meanwhile, the velvety Nanimarquina Noche rug, timber De La Espada Kim bench-turned-coffee-table and the linen-and-wool throw pillows add layers of texture to the living room. Photo by Ema Peter


Creating this synergy of old and new called for a comprehensive renovation, in other words, stripping the home down to its essence. “We took it down to the studs,” says Leavitt. “We preserved the original architecture on the exterior, but we didn’t want a disjointed look, where the interior feels starkly different from the exterior.” The renovation strategy focused on revitalizing rather than replacing. The existing flagstone fireplace received a fresh coat of paint, Benjamin Moore’s Chantilly Lace, and plaster, along with a new contemporary terrazzo hearth. And while the original wood ceiling was replaced, the team ensured that the design maintained its original feel.

BEFORE: Living Room and Dining Room Area

AFTER: Living Room and Dining Room Area

“I always loved the side-by-side of the three materials: the corrugated rust wall, that white painted fireplace and then the wood ceiling,” says Kelly O’Quinn, senior designer at PlaidFox. “How they all converge—that’s sort of my favourite pocket.” Photo by Ema Peter


Other features, however, were updated to reflect modern tastes. The layout was transformed into an open-concept space, removing walls to eliminate cramped rooms, and getting rid of finishes such as spindles on the stairs and textured amber windows. They also revamped the small, non-functional kitchen, which previously featured linoleum flooring and melamine countertops. “We aimed to have each space semi-bleed into the next, so that your eye travels,” says Leavitt. A variety of wood tones, meanwhile, add a vintage flair. “Mixing different woods creates a nostalgic atmosphere, evoking a sense of warmth and character,” explains O’Quinn.

At its core, the design is about capturing the essence of a well-lived life, a space that’s imperfectly perfect. For Leavitt, that essence lies in the home’s eclectic mix of pieces, each telling its own story. “Homogeneity can drain a space of vitality,” he says. In the living room, for instance, a delightful mingling of old and new furniture creates a relaxed atmosphere that avoids being overly formal or matchy-matchy. Classic furnishings, such as the comfy Cassina Soriana armchair and the Audo Copenhagen Knitting lounge chair in leather, reminiscent of the Vancouver Special era itself, are seamlessly integrated with a sleek, ultra-modern Muuto armless modular sofa. Personal touches add character and heritage, with elements like a vintage scroll from Kaitlin’s family displayed above the sofa, or a vinyl record collection featuring artists like Charlotte Cardin, Daft Punk and Phoenix.

Living room

In the dining area, a Seton oval pedestal table in black-stained oak from Lock and Mortice is matched with vintage-inspired Cassina chairs. Above the table, cloud-like sculptural Tense pendant lights by Vakkerlight introduce ambiance and whimsy to the linear space. “When choosing light fixtures for a space, you want to select items that act as an element of sculpture during the day,” advises Leavitt. The feature wall of angular millwork in Benjamin Moore’s rust-toned Ten Gallon Hat paint provides a striking contrast to the floating lights. The inspiration stemmed from a uniquely shaped tile the designers had discovered from Mutina. “It had this really triangular shape and we thought about installing that somewhere,” explains O’Quinn. “But in the end we wanted to do this bigger wall of it and just create a similar shape out of millwork.”

In the home’s heart, the bright white kitchen˛made more pronounced by the neighbouring rust-coloured dining room˛showcases a juxtaposition of light woods and natural stone marble. “Let this be evidence that PlaidFox can do a white kitchen,” quips Leavitt. Honed marble from SSC Countertops unites the backsplash and perimeter cabinetry surface in a seamless sweep of elegance, adding depth alongside the kitchen’s standout feature: a 19-foot island. “Adding natural marble to your kitchen is like adding a modern abstract painting,” says Leavitt, emphasizing its artistic dimension. The island, acting as the nucleus of the home, is topped with a concrete-like neutral white Caesarstone quartz and lined with custom white oak tambour millwork, making it the perfect gathering spot for dinner parties and epic board game nights.

BEFORE: Kitchen

Kitchen before

AFTER: Kitchen and Dining Room Area

“If you are going to do a white kitchen, natural stone is a way to really wake it up,” says Leavitt. The kitchen’s flat-panel cabinets—painted in the same Benjamin Moore Chantilly Lace that the team used for the fireplace—and the impressive 19-foot island’s white oak millwork get a natural lift from the Caesarstone neutral white quartz countertop. Meanwhile, the contrasting Delta Trinsic single-handle matte-black faucet adds a subtle accent in the minimalist space, standing out against the ornate SSC marble backsplash that flows into the countertop. Photo by Ema Peter


Kaitlin and Jamie’s input throughout the process ensured that the home mirrored their own style and way of life, while their knack for uncovering vintage treasures further enhances the overall charm of the space. “They exude a cool, casual and fun vibe,‚ says Leavitt, “and I truly believe the house embodies that spirit.”

Despite previous renovations, the home retains its soul, connecting with both its surroundings and its occupants. “I think people living downtown, maybe in apartments, believe that single-family neighbourhoods are places where creativity and fun slowly wither away,” says Leavitt. “But the reality is, when I look at this house, when I observe the movement happening in Vancouver, and when I see Kaitlin and Jamie as embodiments of that, I just feel like they’re making residential neighbourhoods much more exciting.”

In the end, this Vancouver Special is not merely a renovation, it’s a reinvention: one tailored to its occupants, and maintaining a timeless feel that thinks outside the box.

BEFORE: Bathroom

Bathroom before

AFTER: Bathroom

The main floor bathroom, bedecked with a striking Ferrandi wallpaper (by Christiane Lemieux for York Wallcoverings)chosen by the homeowners, features modern fixtures—a matte black Riobel faucet floating atop a concrete pistachio-green sink from Concretti Designs. A suede finish Silestone Nolita counter from Cosentino and a custom flat-panel white oak vanity embody the homeowners’ eclectic, global tastes. Photo by Ema Peter

This story was originally published in the May/June 2024 print issue of Western Living magazine.