Jutting out of the foliage in its verdant Eagle Harbour setting, the Merrick House seems to take you into the folds of an architectural folk tale. It seems to emerge right out of an old-growth tree, suggesting a Tolkienesque forest-mansion with its cantilevered rooms, Gothic domes and rotunda poking into the treetops.
Designed by renowned architect Paul Merrick and indisputably an architectural wonder, it was nonetheless endangered once its second owner, Lorne Rubinoff, put it on the market last year. A few buyers were prepared to make offers between $1.25-million and $1.5-million, but, Mr. Rubinoff says, "their major intent was to knock it down."
The white knight now swooping down to help save the circa-1970 masterpiece is none other than the District of West Vancouver. The municipality once seemingly indifferent to architecture is co-operating with Mr. Rubinoff, Merrick Architecture and heritage consultants Birmingham & Wood to conceptualize an infill house on the lot in exchange for permanent designation as a heritage house.
Once the architects come up with a concept, such as a freehold carriage house, they'll draft a Heritage Revitalization Agreement (HRA) to present to council and then for public hearings. If all goes well, it will become the first infill built under the district's heritage revitalization policy, and a harbinger for more to come.
"Lorne is going first," says West Vancouver Mayor Pamela Goldsmith-Jones, "but we're hoping that this project obviously has much broader applications."
Mr. Merrick, celebrated for Vancouver landmarks such as Cathedral Place and the Electra building retrofit, remains fiercely proud of his eponymous house. Its front door, a beautiful fine-grained fir, is the recycled drafting table of legendary architect Ron Thom, Mr. Merrick's first boss and mentor. The house itself began as a 960-square-foot dwelling for his small family in the early 1970s. Mr. Merrick augmented it twice until it grew to its present size of roughly 2,500 square feet.
On a recent site visit, Mr. Merrick pointed out how the house wraps its central stone chimney, so that the floor circulation winds up and around that central core and terminates in unexpected turrets and perches. Crafted from cedar plank, Douglas fir and salvaged glass, the house boasts a marvellously organic floor plan that defies categorization. Inside, it projects the impossible-looking geometry of an M.C. Escher drawing. Just how many storeys are in this house? "I think 11 - is that what we counted, Lorne?" Mr. Merrick says.
The supporting columns rest on the natural bedrock foundation, so that the beams and the floor-to-ceiling glass walls cantilever over into the glade, transforming entire walls into living murals of greenery. "The forest becomes the wall," Mr. Merrick says.
Although the HRA incentive tool has been in the West Vancouver policy books for many years, it has only become usable recently, as a result of the district's 2006 Heritage Strategic Plan and the establishment in 2007 of a formal Community Heritage Register of eligible properties. The Merrick property was officially added to the register last year. But that alone doesn't offer legal protection: The lot currently allows the razing of the house and the construction of a new 3,600-square-foot house, in theory - and also in reality, should a typical bottom-line buyer purchase it.
However, if Mr. Rubinoff is allowed to subdivide the 11,000-square-foot lot in exchange for designating the house as heritage (which should ensure its survival but lower its market value for developers) then it's a win-win situation, as long as the architects and the district work together to ensure the new infill house respects the site.
"We're trying to encourage people to work with the original landscape," says senior community planner Stephen Mikicich, who is conferring with Mr. Merrick and Mr. Rubinoff on the draft HRA. Preservation is meaningless if the surrounding landscape is paved or built over. Part of Mr. Mikicich's task with the Merrick House is to ensure that the infill is done with sufficient care and sensitivity. "It's not just to protect the house, but most importantly the house in its setting." For instance, the proposed infill house should be compact and complementary to the existing house, and should preserve as much as possible of the cedar, maple and fir trees that give the lot and its environs so much of that pastoral character.
To be sure, this is the sort of house whose unique properties defies any cookie-cutter approach. "The house is experimental and very owner-specific," as Mr. Rubinoff puts it.
But to be effective in the long run, West Vancouver will have to go beyond one-solution systems such as swapping infill permits for heritage designations. In fact, the district and its partner organizations are exploring further options such as coach houses, half-duplexes and so-called "mortgage helpers."
Ms. Goldsmith-Jones confirms that the district will be looking at legalizing secondary suites this fall. Expect even more options to crop up when the district implements its pilot project program this fall, a call for proposals for alternative housing types not allowed under current zoning regulation.
But steering the construction juggernaut away from blindly steamrollering over the lush forest is most important. "In a way," Ms. Goldsmith-Jones says, "we're just taking the blinders off and looking at what's right in front of us."