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The end may be near for this 132-year-old Vancouver worker’s cottage

Strathcona has zoning designed to protect houses built in 1920 or earlier. But a cottage built in 1901 can be torn down through a quirk.

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In early Vancouver, workers often built little cottages to live in. Against all odds, two have survived at 617 and 621 Union St. in Strathcona.

But 617 Union may not be around much longer. A development permit application for a new duplex on the property has gone up and, if it’s approved, there would be no retention of the building.

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Strathcona is Vancouver’s oldest residential neighbourhood, and has special zoning in place to protect houses built in 1920 or earlier. Essentially, if a developer wants to build a new building, they can only build up to 0.6 FSR (floor space ratio), which is smaller than many houses in the neighbourhood.

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The cottage at 617 Union dates to 1892, which makes it one of the oldest buildings in Vancouver. But it’s less than 0.3 FSR, so it isn’t protected.

Civic historian John Atkin said that when Strathcona’s heritage zoning went into place, the city planner drawing up the rules felt property owners of tiny houses would be “penalized” if the houses were protected.

“So 0.3 FSR houses, of which there are very few, were allowed to be essentially demolished without an FSR penalty,” said Atkin, a past-president of the Strathcona Residents Association.

In an email, the City of Vancouver said its director of planning “has the authority to consider 617 Union as under-utilized, which would allow for a potential demolition of the existing building and subsequent construction of a new duplex.”

In this case, the cottage is totally bare bones, without any embellishments like the lace-like “gingerbread” decoration often adorning Victorian-era homes. But in a way, its no-frills design is what makes it historically important, because it shows how workers actually lived in early Vancouver.

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“It’s the diversity of housing type in the neighbourhood,” said Atkin. “You had folks that came in that could afford to do one type of housing, and you had others that came in and could only afford to do tiny things. It’s that sort of mix of incomes and abilities and building what you need, or want.”

The architect of the new duplex is Tony Robins, who designed the so-called “Cube House” at 3691 Point Grey Rd. at Alma in Kitsilano. Some people love the Cube House for its daring modern design, but it generated a lot of controversy because people thought it didn’t fit in the neighbourhood.

Robins’ design for 617 Union includes a facade that looks like an old house, but is separated from the actual duplex.

“We’re recreating the character of the typical neighbourhood (house), but we’re doing it in translucent acrylic, so it has a facade like all the old buildings,” Robins explained. “It’s shown as a facade by there being a deck behind the top part. It’s very much lauding what we all love about Strathcona.”

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A small cottage at 617 Union St. was built in 1892, when Vancouver was only six years old. Photo by NICK PROCAYLO /10104440A

The facade doesn’t replicate the building it will replace, though: it’s larger and more ornate.

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Robins said he looked at keeping the cottage in the new project, but much of the building has been replaced over the years, so there wasn’t much to save.

“None of it was original, it was all put on later,” he said. “The deck was filled in, the front porch, there was nothing left.”

If it was a bit bigger, though, you would have to rebuild it. Up the street at 320 Union, an 1895 house has been stripped down to the studs, and is being rebuilt to modern codes.

“It will be 99 percent new construction looking like (the original),” said Atkin. “These architects are good, so it will look like an 1891 house. But 99 per cent of it will be new. And that’s just what happens.”

The new duplex at 617 Union will be a “passive” house, the latest wrinkle in eco-design.

“It means it’s extremely energy conscious,” Robins explains. “You can shut the door and close the windows and leave, and it will go down one degree in a month. It’s completely sealed up. It has an HRV (heat recovery ventilator), which is fresh air coming through pipes.

“It is very, very high energy conscious. It has very thick insulated walls and triple-glazed windows and so on.”

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Robins has already done one project in Strathcona at 517 Union St. It replicates a house that burned down around 1917, but uses aluminum siding rather than wood.

“We were able to take the original 1897 house and recreate it in aluminum,” he said. “So it’s not fake, it’s kind of like the ghost of it, it’s called the Ghost House. The city loved the idea, we brought back the urban facade of the old buildings by bringing that.

“A 1940s’ bungalow was on the site at the time, and that destroyed the street facade. Whereas we put it back by putting back the 1897 house, but in aluminum.”

Like the Cube House, some people love it, others not so much because its facade is so shiny that it totally sticks out, like someone wearing silver lame pants to a party.

B.C. Assessment says 617 Union was built in 1901, probably because that is when the address first appears in local directories. But a search at the Vancouver Archives shows the property was hooked up to the city’s water supply in 1892, when Vancouver was only six years old and had a population around 14,000.

The lot is 25 feet wide by 122 feet deep, and was the 1,519th property to be hooked up to the civic water supply. The water department service card states there were two horses on the property, which has an official description of Lot 29, Block 91, District Lot 196.

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The official description is key to determining when a house was built because addresses often changed in early Vancouver, but the official description didn’t.

Sometimes the street names also changed — Union was originally called Barnard. The cottage started off as 621 Barnard St., and the house next door at today’s 621 Union was 623 Barnard when it was built in 1894.

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A small cottage at 617 Union St., left, was built in 1892, the blue cottage to its right, at 621 Union, was built in 1894. Photo by NICK PROCAYLO /10104440A
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The reconstruction of an 1895 house at 320 Union St. in Vancouver to bring it up to modern building codes means the house was basically rebuilt. But it will look like an old building when it’s finished. Photo by NICK PROCAYLO /10104440A
cott shiny
A replica of an old house at 517 Union St. in Strathcona was designed by architect Tony Robins. He calls it the ‘Ghost House’ because it isn’t a ‘fake’ reproduction, and has an aluminum facade that is very shiny. Photo by NICK PROCAYLO /10104440A
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Vancouver Water Works form for 617 Union, which was called Barnard Street when the property was hooked up to thec city water supply on April 29, 1892. Note there’s no actual address on the property, it’s listed by it’s property description. This may be because it may not have had a number on the building until a few years later.
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Vancouver Water Works service record for 617 Union, which was called Barnard Street when the property was hooked up to the city water supply on April 29, 1892. sun

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