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Knowing which design genre fits your style is helpful when talking to your residential designer about your custom home design.

In Vancouver, homes fall into three main design genres:

  • Modern
  • Contemporary
  • Craftsman

Plus, there’s the Vancouver Special, which we describe as well.

In this article, we will explain why two of these genres often get confused, plus help you decide which suits your preference, so you’ll love the final look of your custom home. More than that, it is important to note that some design styles are more energy-efficient than others – a consideration that is becoming more top-of-mind for designers and homeowners in Vancouver.


modern home design, modern residential design

Modern architecture is a broad style, but this home represents one example. Photo credit: Sloane Private Property Brokers

Modern architecture

modernist architecture, le corbusier, villa savoye

Another example of modern architecture. This is Villa Savoye by Le Corbusier, a famous modernist. Photo credit: ValueYou

Modern, or modernist, residential design is best described by pointing you to the works of Frank Lloyd Wright. The style was born in the early 1900s, but became the predominant design style after WWII.

Homes built in this style feature square elements, minimal decoration, and favour function over form. They often have flat roofs, but not always.

The modernist movement evolved into several additional design styles, such as post-modern, mid-century modern, and is even related to Art Deco.

Here in Vancouver, and along the coast, you will also find West Coast Modern, which uses natural materials and blends the home with its rugged West Coast environment.



contemporary home design, contemporary residential design

Contemporary architecture. Photo credit: residencestyle.com

Contemporary architecture

In contemporary home design, you are likely to see flat roofs (not 100% flat – roofs must be at least 4/12 for proper drainage), minimalistic design, clean lines and square shapes.

Contemporary homes often have large windows and open-concept floor plans, which means they can often be built with less square footage, since the space can be designed efficiently.

Whereas modernism was a design genre defined at a particular time, contemporary design reflects the residential style that is always new.

Because of their large windows, contemporary homes are susceptible to air leakage, and heat loss and gain. To combat this, these homes should be outfitted with windows that are double-, or even triple-glazed. This means more expensive windows, but the payoff is worth it – homes with large windows mean a nicer atmosphere inside, and are shown to improve mood and quality of life. Big windows are not just aesthetically pleasing, they have real physical benefits for your well-being.


Contemporary and modernist styles often get confused, and the two terms are usually interchanged by most people. It is easy to see why – the two styles have many similar features, including minimal decoration, flat roofs, square shapes and a penchant for function. However, most of the square, minimalist homes you see being built today in Greater Vancouver are likely contemporary (although you can find an interesting listing of Vancouver modern homes here).


With pitched roofs, heavy wood beams, wood siding, porches, columns and heavy mullions in the windows, Craftsman home design is very common in Vancouver, and across Western Canada and the Pacific Northwest.

craftsman home design, craftsman residential design

Photo credit: Architectural Designs

That said, the style is often impractical for Vancouver, where lots are small and space is always at a premium – Craftsman homes are bulky and heavy looking. They use materials that are outdated (large wood beams are not a sustainable building material), and don’t fit with Vancouver’s new standard for a smaller building footprint on the lot.

Because of their materials and size, achieving a net-zero home built in the Craftsman style is very difficult. More compact and functional designs will likely be the future for Vancouver as energy efficient design becomes the norm.

Inside, Craftsman homes are cozy and comfortable.


vancouver special homes

Older versions of the “Vancouver Special”. Photo credit: Huffington Post

The Vancouver Special

Vancouver Special home renovation

A renovated “Vancouver Special” home. Photo credit: robzwick.com

Drive along 1st Ave., and you will pass by the “Vancouver Special” type of architecture. These homes are square with few exterior details, save for brick or stone on the lower level, and a balcony on the upper floor. They generally have small windows and low-pitched roofs (basically, a square with a triangle on top), and are cheap to build. The style was popular in the 1940s and is still used today, with some small changes. Overall, the design is Vancouver’s version of cookie-cutter home design – easy to replicate, simple to design and cheap to construct.