Upon gazing at the outside of a building you get a feel for its strength and resilience while on the inside you get a feel for its personality, warmth and depth of character. Combining the two is an essential aspect in making one’s unique space feel comfortable. The creation of such wonderfully unique, sustainable, beautiful building designs has been the backbone of success for Merrick Architecture, which has concretely established itself as one of the most diversified and innovative companies, primarily for residential projects, in the west coast construction industry.
Founded by Paul Merrick and Roger Bailey they operated the practice through to the early 2000s when there was an expansion of operations that included several other principal executives coming onboard including Greg Borowski, Graham Fligg and Mitch Sakumoto. That working arrangement continued until 2010 when Merrick and Bailey divested their ownership stake although Merrick remains involved in a consultant’s capacity. Shaun McIntyre was brought into the fold in 2014 as the fourth principal in order to better serve a plethora of market opportunities in Victoria.
With its two studios in Vancouver and Victoria and 40 employees, Merrick Architecture offers a wide range of services including: advisory design, building planning and design, construction documentation production, LEED consultation, project management, interior architecture, lighting, light design, furniture, as well as adaptive re-use and renovation of old buildings, some which either already have – or wind up having – heritage designation.
The Canadian Business Journal recently spoke with Borowski about the company’s impressive reputation and expansive portfolio within the construction industry. A great deal of the success can be attributed to Merrick Architecture’s ability to provide high-level expertise on a number of diversified services.
“Most of the projects we’re involved with presently have a mix of uses. The Downtown Eastside Single Room Occupancy (SRO) Hotel initiative, which was 13 separate hotels, were to be made habitable accommodation on behalf of B.C. Housing and the City of Vancouver,” says Borowski.
The Downtown Eastside SRO project includes an $87.3 million contribution from the B.C. provincial government for construction and implementation costs, plus additional funding over a 15-year maintenance period. The federal government has committed up to $29.1 million through the P3 Canada Fund.
Borowski says Merrick tends to be most dominant in the market residential sector but it’s quite common for many of those to be mixed-use structures. It is exceedingly rare that there would only be a residential component to such projects, with retail and or office space often being included in the overall development plans.
“We found ourselves able to manage a great variety of different projects. The longevity of the practice is due in some respects to the diversification. We’ve never been too embedded in any one sector so anytime an economic downturn happens we are more than capable to picking up in other areas,” says Borowski.
Merrick Architecture’s commercial work is often characterized by a variety of retail uses and sometimes office uses with market residential blended in as well. The company has also dabbled in the recreational sector with one such notable project being the Riverway Golf Course.
“For the 2010 Olympics we did the Whistler Olympic Park facilities,” adds Borowski.
Another aspect of the company’s success has been its ability to retain its valued employees throughout the years. Longstanding project teams with a low turnover rate enable an internal continuity that is lacking in many companies. It also puts clients at ease knowing and creates a stronger comfort level in knowing they are dealing with the same people each time.
Borowski is also very quick to compliment the knowledge, skills and values of the employees at Merrick Architecture and says the way to maximize their contributions is to try and build around their individual strengths.
“The fact that we have been able to build a relationship with a great number of our staff is a real strength. They bring their own knowledge, skills and values to the projects they are involved in and we try and build around the strengths they have,” he says.
At Merrick Architecture, Borowski and his partners have always prided themselves on a corporate philosophy that community and humanity should always be at the forefront of any project. After all, it is people who inhabit the final product. Nowhere is that more evident than the major undertaking on behalf of the City of Vancouver and B.C. Housing to accomplish the 13 Downtown Eastside SRO Hotels. During his initial tour through those hotels Borowski says it appeared as if someone had taken a baseball bat to them in causing immense amounts of internal damage.
“It was really quite shocking in a wealthy country like Canada to see the conditions people were living in. Having been part of the process of bringing them up to a decent level of habitability it’s quite rewarding to see the improvements for people and their lives. It’s also very important that we showcase strong social and community environments with the projects,” says Borowski.
A substantive project Merrick Architecture is involved with includes working with Westbank Corp. and Kengo Kuma Architects and Associates on the Alberni project in the downtown core. The 43-storey tower is carved by two emphatic scoops that form deep balconies furnished in wood. There will be a total of 188 units, with sizes ranging from 518 to 6725 square feet and is scheduled for completion in 2021.
Merrick is also working on a major office building project for Westbank in the tech sector.
“We’ve worked on some office projects over the years but this new project will be one of a series of landmark buildings along West Georgia Street,” says Borowski. “At the far end of West Georgia Street near Stanley Park we did the Laguna Parkside project so we’re anchoring both ends of the street and leaving our mark on the downtown.”
In addition to its vast portfolio throughout Vancouver, Merrick has been an integral contributor to a great number of major projects in Victoria including the Janion Hotel redevelopment, a building that was shuttered for 50 years before being acquired by Reliance Properties, a company that has enlisted the professional services of Merrick Architecture on many occasions.
“We transformed that into micro-residential projects, which allowed people to buy in at a very low rate because of the size of the suites,” says Borowski.
Technology within the construction industry continues to evolve and it’s been a noticeable change from Borowski’ s perspective. “I began with a drawing board and paper and pen and now the variety of digital media we have to use is phenomenal. Now when we do a project we model everything in three dimensions. You can really visualize what a project will look like in a neighbourhood and you can assess how a building will fit into a given context,” he says.
As an acknowledgement of the tremendous work provided by Merrick Architecture the firm recently received a variety of City of Vancouver Heritage Awards for its involvement in the Downtown Eastside SRO Hotels. The company was honoured by the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada as outstanding architectural practice.
“We also won a Wood Works! B.C. Wood Design Award in collaboration with Kengo Kuma for the Shaw Tower Teahouse downtown. That’s probably the smallest project we may have ever done but it’s a spectacular wood structure with structural glass and a table that rises out of the floor and can go back down flush with the floor,” adds Borowski.
With so much emphasis on humanity and serving the community, Merrick Architecture has an initiative that was started by one its senior associates, Louise Webb, drawing from employees’ salaries during the year on a strictly voluntary basis. That money is provided to a group of Downtown Eastside charitable groups and goes a long way to help keeping those organizations running all throughout the year.
Borowski and his partners believe Merrick Architecture is on a solid path and he hopes to see it continue to build upon the range of excellent services it now provides. Alberni, Westbank and the Horseshoe Bay project are just three examples of what he’d like to see much more of in the future. It is all about turning in top-quality work, which in turn results in earning the confidence and trust of those major clients.
“I feel very proud that we have built that confidence over the years and that will give us more opportunities to work on some really neat projects,” says Borowski. “We want to continue to build new client relationships and build upon more success with our repeat clients. I would like to see our practice continue to reinforce those really great client relationships.”