Scott Merrill, AIA, knows something about storms. Last year his adopted hometown and workplace, Vero Beach, Fla., weathered four—two of them major hurricanes spaced just three weeks apart. The one-two punch of Frances and Jeanne took out the headquarters of Merrill, Pastor & Colgan Architects. Until just recently most of the 13-person firm was huddled together in temporary digs above the Pak Mail store, conveniently located along the evacuation route out of town.
Toiling in hurricane alley while building out the New Urbanist communities of Seaside and now Windsor in Vero Beach, Fla, has cemented Merrill's practical side. His first design objective is to protect the occupants of his houses and secure their investment in them. If, after that's achieved, there's budget left for invention, well, he says, he'll weigh the costs and risks of such indulgence. There are functional reasons for some of the familiar forms that resonate powerfully with the buying public, and to abandon tried-and-true performance for the follies of form is, in his opinion, irresponsible.
Merrill talks tough about his work designed in what many architects would call a “historicist” vocabulary. Maybe that's because this magazine editor has prodded him to explore the seemingly age-old division between so-called modern and traditional architects. The 49-year-old architect doesn't admit to hard knocks over his chosen niche, but his impatience with the durable debate is clearly visible. Why all this dither about what's modern and what's not? Although he dwells at the beach, he doesn't care a bit for lines drawn in the sand.
“I wish we'd stop having this argument over and over. After awhile you wonder if we're all from the same species,” says Merrill with weary exasperation. “Again and again we put ideology where it doesn't belong. Clients just want us to solve the problems and do it well. Architects take relatively small problems and give them an importance they don't have. What's worse is a simple idea that you make complicated. It's a form of hype.”
In Florida, the problems that need solving are many. The hurricanes, with their fury and drama, get all the attention, but it's the calm after the storm that brings the tenacious, pervasive infection: mold. “Last year was a horrible, horrible year. We had widespread catastrophic damage, but 12 times as many houses were affected by mold. Behind the walls, the damage seeped through for days,” he says. The 125,000 blue tarps draped over decapitated houses didn't begin to cover the extent of the local ruin. These days, following Katrina's devastation, everyone is thinking about the awful power of nature's destructive forces. Merrill, who was born and raised in Ohio, and educated at the University of Virginia and Yale architecture school, has been thinking about it since he moved to Florida 17 years ago. Since then, he's witnessed and participated in a tremendous housing boom—much of it densely clustered along Florida's lengthy, vulnerable coastline. “We're building very expensive housing, commissioned by intelligent people, at 6 feet above sea level,” he says.
But right now the only issue people are willing to tackle is building technology. “We've seen incredible increases in wind load standards with the adoption of uniform Florida standards. We now have glass you can hit with a baseball bat,” he says. “What we discovered in these last storms is that the high impact glass performed as advertised, but the sustained water resulted in leaks. The damage was mostly cosmetic but substantial to floors and so forth. The old windows with storm panels fared better. So, we'll probably go back to storm panels. In some ways, it's easier to address standards than the bigger questions about where we should build.”
Until that day of reckoning, he'll continue to balance cost versus risk when he specs those technological marvels, he'll weigh his clients' desire for open, easy-living houses against the greater protection of a more closed building envelope, and he'll choose clear-cut solutions over more fanciful ones, even if it means holding his muse at bay. “We deal with things that are longstanding problems. We still don't have some of the basics of shelter solved,” he says. “We don't have mitigation of mold solved. We make many concessions to water and clients here. What we do is realistic and practical in Florida.” Fortunately, Yale prepared him to think defensively about structure. “I had a teacher who thought and taught so much about water droplets,” he says. “You could go to the extreme of building a bunker.”
Instead, he consults the collective wisdom architects have assembled through experience. For instance, he points out, “certain profiles of roof simply take wind better, like hipped roofs. Broad profiles take it full force.” At this line of discussion, his frustration builds steam again. Why take clients down a path of experimentation that exposes them to unnecessary risk and continued expensive maintenance? “We have a huge inheritance we can either accept or reject,” he says, addressing his colleagues in architecture. “We reject what we think has been vulgarized. We make off-limits certain architecture that could contribute simply because it's been badly done. Is there something about basic strategy that can yield interesting results? Can we expand the DNA we draw from?”