Architect Paul Merrick on How Architecture Builds a Community

Paul Merrick knows how buildings affect people, and his projects reflect a commitment to beauty

Building relationships is just as important as erecting beautiful buildings according to Paul Merrick

With a focus on building beautiful buildings, architect Paul Merrick is literally beautifying BC

After 40 years, award-winning architect Paul Merrick has learned much about holistic design, heritage restoration, regulation hindrances and maintaining a little humility.

Q: You won a Governor General’s Award for refurbishing The Orpheum theatre, now a national historic site. Was it challenging?

A: The Orpheum was an eclectic assemblance of pieces from various European artistic eras when built in 1926 by Marcus Priteca. It was the first large-scale restoration project we did at a time when no one in Vancouver knew the meaning of heritage, including ourselves. The Community Arts Council of Vancouver was instrumental in negotiating its redesign when Famous Players, which owned the building, threatened to tear it down.

Merrick won a Governor General’s Award for the restoration of the Orpheum Theatre, now a national historic site

Q: The home you built for your family in West Vancouver in 1972 still garners accolades, cited by the B.C. Architectural Society as “one of the 10 best homes built in B.C. in the last 75 years.” A recent newspaper article states that it “boasts fantastical multiple levels and a magnificent three-storey stone fireplace.” Will you describe it?

A: The house has approximately a dozen different levels that meander and evolved as my family grew. It features lots of wood indigenous to the area. The ceilings are 30 feet high and then extend to a pitched third storey. I explored what I could do on a limited budget. For the fireplace, I first built it in brick and my two teenage nephews layered granite, sourced from the site, overtop. They had never laid stone before so the stonework evolves from rough and crude at the bottom to precise at the top. The front door was architect Ron Thom’s old drafting table. A floor-to-ceiling Art Nouveau stained glass wall was purchased secondhand from Jack’s New & Used Building Materials.

Q: Where do you live now?

A: My home is in East Sooke on Vancouver Island on 1 1/3 acres that overlook the Strait of Juan de Fuca. I rebuilt an English cottage-styled home, creating a new entry stairway from the central living area on the main floor that is open to the attic with three levels of bedrooms above. It features lots of timber recycled from logs originally from sturdy old logging road bridges and a south wall made entirely of glass.

With the main feature of the home being wood, and the south wall made entirely of glass, Merrick’s home embraces the outdoors

Q: What are your thoughts on building green?

A: It means a great deal and generates a lot of bafflegab. Energy management is a valid concern, but building codes now ask requirements that have become descriptive instead of prescriptive, not only telling you the required result, but how to do it – that can be a problem. Leaky condos weren’t caused because people constructed shoddy buildings. They happened because the government decided we should be conserving energy and therefore insulate and seal buildings more, but the impacts were not well understood. Most building rot is not due to leakage but atmosphere condensation that can’t escape. The industry has learned much more, but I still have concerns.

Q: What was one of your most memorable projects?

A: I was asked to design homes for the Esquimalt Nation in Victoria. We realized that they were not obligated to follow government guidelines for First Nations buildings, so decided to build what worked for their way of life. It was satisfying to work closely with them to accommodate needs, stay within their budget – since funding mechanisms provided limited means – and to build homes that they now refer to as “the little Big Houses.” Big Houses are spiritual places. We made the living area more spacious with two-storey high ceilings to suit their lifestyle: they often host large numbers of guests for dinner, which involves cooking that generates lots of steam, so natural passive ventilation was used and a cupola; bedrooms above overlook the lower level.

Q: What have you learned in your career?

A: In making buildings, you make a community, and therefore touch the lives of people in all walks of life – directly with the client, contractor, tradesmen, banker and municipality and indirectly because it affects others who have to live near it or use it. Therefore, creating beauty is about building relationships as much as creating a piece of architectural art. When you’re a young architect, you think that if you build a better environment through architecture, you will make a better world. You eventually realize that it isn’t all-important but it isn’t unimportant either. When designing private schools, I learned from young people that buildings affect them. The students would say to me, “Thank you for building us such a nice school; it makes us feel that we matter.” I would be satisfied to be remembered for generating something I can admit to having been a part of to my children because everything we do we leave to our children, literally and figuratively.

Originally published in BC Home & Garden magazine. For regular updates, subscribe to our free Home and Garden e-newsletters, or purchase a subscription to the magazine.