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There's a building boom underway in the city as older houses make way for splashier, limestone-clad new builds

Vancouver's housing market may have cooled, but that hasn't stopped west side ranchers and mid-century moderns giving way to “stockbroker Tudors” and monster Cape Cods—anything that allows builders to maximize the available lot size and add a touch of “luxe” to the neighbourhood.

Demolitions in Vancouver“Business has definitely become busier in the last several years,” says Kevin Li, VP of marketing with VictorEric Design Group, a luxury homebuilder that has around 10 homes under construction at any one time. Forty per cent of the firm’s work is in Vancouver, with the remainder spread between Richmond and the North Shore. Li says that recent immigrants account for the bulk of his clients, though he’s quick to add, “They are living in these houses.”

Between January and April of this year, the City of Vancouver permitted 290 new single-family houses. And while the number of new builds hasn’t grown appreciably, the value of these new homes—limestone-clad manors in South Vancouver, 4,000-square-foot marble monsters in Dunbar—has. In 2009, the City of Vancouver permitted $187 million worth of new single-family-home construction; last year, the tally was almost twice that amount, at $337 million. 

The latest spurt of construction echoes the boom of “stucco specials” built in the late ’80s, says historian Michael Kluckner, author of Vanishing Vancouver. Homebuilders in that era built blown-out monster homes on spec in anticipation of Asian buyers. “These great big houses were blown out to the maximum, but they didn’t tend to be particularly well built. They were just a hell of a lot bigger,” he says. 

The craftsmanship got so shabby—Kluckner cites a house where the cornerstones were made of Styrofoam—that the City of Vancouver ultimately intervened, introducing a bylaw in 1992 mandating the type and quality of materials that could be used. Now, he fears shoddy construction is returning—though builders BCBusiness talked to maintain that Vancouver has the toughest guidelines of any municipality in the region.

Industry players also tout the economic benefits of this activity. Mike Ing, a real estate agent with Sutton Group West Coast (who himself is in the process of selling a $3.3-million house under construction in Arbutus), argues that there’s a significant boost to the local economy from all the single-family home construction, which totalled $581 million last year. But for critics, including Michael Kluckner, more luxury homes—amid an affordability crisis—is not what the city needs.

“It would be all well if the city said they needed to densify this area—the way mansions in the West End were subdivided into rooming houses,” he says. “It would at least indicate that in this cycle of demolition and renewal you were getting something that advanced the city. Instead we get the demolition of all this cultural landscape and its replacement by another generation of almost unsustainable single-family ownership.”