From a modest second-story converted pigeon coop in Wyoming County, far from the recognized centers of architectural discourse, a Western New York firm is drawing widespread praise for its progressive work designing rural dwellings, and for its environmentally conscious design of a research facility on the edge of the rainforest in Madagascar.
The firm has also taken on a somewhat unexpected and unlikely leadership role in developing sustainable downtown revitalization plans for small towns and villages across New York State.
Rick Hauser opened In.Site: Architecture with partner Ali Yapicioglu in the bucolic village of Perry (about an hour’s drive from downtown Buffalo) in early 2001, five years after Hauser settled there with his wife, Meghan, a fourth-generation dairy farmer.
Unsure how he would put his architectural training to use in a small community of about 3,600 people, Hauser found work on his first day in town. At an art show at nearby Castile public library, he met Charles “Bud” VanArsdale, former president of the Bank of Castile. VanArsdale was head of the library board and was looking for an architect to help build an addition. Hauser started the project independently, a precursor to In.Site, working from the farm’s cabin with no running water, heat or electricity.
At the same time, Hauser threw himself into the local community. He and Meghan organized Last Night Perry, a New Year’s Eve event which just celebrated its 19th year, a summer chalk art festival and a farmer’s market. He founded the Perry Main Street Association in 2006, and in 2013, he was elected mayor.
“The prerogative and obligation of small-town living is involvement. If you want something done, you’re empowered to do it,” said Hauser, who also taught architecture for 12 years at Hobart and William Smith College and opened a second studio in Geneva when he retired from teaching in 2008. “When you do those things, you build relationships and you build credibility.
“So, far from being a place that suffocated an architect, it’s been a very receptive and very open environment to start practicing.”
Embedded within his community, Hauser’s relationships and the trust he built among residents helped attract traditional architectural work that focused on connecting people with their natural environment. “We don’t start with a style, we start with a place,” Hauser said. “The place speaks, and we listen.”
The firm’s award-winning designs include the Cordelia Greene Library addition; BARNagain, a LEED Platinum home constructed in Lima from reclaimed barn wood; and Granny Cottage, an earth-sheltered stone micro-dwelling built across the street from a family’s home in Warsaw to house elderly parents, boomerang children or simply serve as a retreat from the main house.
Those connections built in Perry also led to a job 9,000 miles away. Ted Chapple, a builder in Avon, N.Y., put in a bid to do the construction work for a small In.Site project. He didn’t win the job, but he was so impressed with In.Site’s drawings, he recommended the firm to his sister, Patricia Wright, a renowned primatologist based out of Stony Brook University, who founded a research campus in Madagascar. She eventually hired In.Site to design a breathtaking research facility and dormitory that overlooks the rainforest.
Hauser’s investment in his adopted home took him and the firm down another unexpected road: downtown revitalization. Upon purchasing a two-story building for the firm in the heart of Perry, Hauser and Yapicioglu decided that the second floor, which had been vacant for 35 years (except for housing pigeons), would be converted to office space, reserving the street level for a retail occupant. Burlingham Books has now occupied the space for 11 years, becoming a linchpin for the village’s redevelopment efforts.
From that experience, Hauser and Yapicioglu formed Perry New York LLC, a for-profit, community-wide investment group of more than 35 investors dedicated to rehabbing buildings and recruiting business to the area. The idea is predicated on getting people to invest in their own community. Residents can contribute cash, but also sweat equity, raw materials, or in-kind professional work in exchange for an ownership stake in a project.
Hauser says more than $600,000 was raised for two projects covering about 20,000 square feet of buildings. The investments reduce the borrowing needed to purchase, rehab, and maintain the buildings, allowing for more affordable rents, which help attract business to the refurbished spaces. A key component was getting the town added to the National Register of Historic Places, which generated substantial tax credits shared among the LLC’s owners.
“People care again about downtown because they’re vested in it,” Hauser said.
Though it wasn’t what Hauser had set out to do with In.Site, he soon realized that this approach – and the role his firm played as a catalyst for change – was what was missing in so many of the other “Little Apples,” the hundreds of economically depressed towns, villages and small cities across the state. Soon dozens of other communities began to reach out, asking for help with building analysis, feasibility studies, forming advocacy coalitions, and the other skills Hauser discovered while developing a self-sustaining downtown in the living laboratory of Perry.
“We’re sought out because no one else does what we do,” Hauser said.
The downtown revitalization piece perfectly complements the firm’s work in natural spaces. Both are focused on the sustainable use of resources – whether that’s amplifying a home’s connection to its natural environment or creating vibrant villages that embody the energy of its community.
“They’re really two sides of the same coin,” Hauser said. “We believe in sustainable communities and environmentally tuned architecture. To be in a place where we have that kind of diversity and latitude of practice, to be able to develop our expertise in those two distinct but complementary areas, is exciting.”