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Successful in business by careful design

It's not unheard of for William L. Henderson to take a vision for a building from a sketch on a napkin to a multimillion-dollar reality. It's what he does for a living -- he's an architect.

He's been quite busy in Niagara County, across New York, and in 26 other states in recent years.

Casually dressed in a navy blazer, white button-down shirt and jeans, he recently met with a reporter in his eclectic office in Clarence Hollow, in a structure built in 1858 as a Methodist church, later serving as a Grange hall.

His firm, WLH Architect, is currently working on the revision of the former Miller Hose Fire Company building at 2737 Main St., Newfane, turning it into the new Newfane Town Hall and community center.

When the volunteer fire company moved down the street to a new $1.6 million home at 6161 McKee St., Henderson designed that, too.

He also is at work on a redesign of the Terry's Corners Fire Company hall in Royalton, where solar panels will be employed to reduce energy costs, and he recently designed a proposed plan for a bottle recycling site in Wrights Corners.

>What's the thought behind many of your designs?

I think it was Frank Lloyd Wright who said, 'It's the spaces that matter, not so much the building,' and it's the intriguing things that happen with space. It's the Japanese garden philosophy -- you tantalize them with little things to draw people in. We designed a fire hall for the Allegany Fire Department, and they had a 1948 pumper they wanted to showcase. So we built a [glass] bay for it, and it's lit from beneath and above. I had two people tell me they sat through green lights at that intersection in front of the fire hall just looking at that pumper.

>What are your thoughts on creating the new Newfane Town Hall?

We're taking an eyesore and making it look good right in the center of town. When people drive through now and see the Town Hall, they're going to say, 'This looks like a nice little town.' It's going to be an opportunity for all of those shops to pick up some discretionary shoppers, as well as business from the employees that work at Town Hall. It's going to have a dramatic impact. As an architect, it's neat what I get to do with a building, but it's really neat to have an impact on a town like this.

>Yet, you had to cut back on bigger, more expensive ideas in the redesign. How did you cope with this?

One of the philosophies I follow is that the more parameters there are, the easier it is to design because there are fewer decisions to make. You work with what you've got.

>Did you always plan to be an architect?

"I started drawing barns at age 3 or 4, and I kind of heard I had a relative that was an architect in Pennsylvania, but I never knew much about him. I grew up in the ghettos of Buffalo and didn't expect to go to school. But I went to Kansas State University, and it was a top-notch school for architecture. I've been lucky in some of the things I've gotten into, to be able to have such a dramatic affect on people. You have to have a passion for architecture in order to do it right.

>What's your work background?

Six months out of school, I was named project architect for a 280,000-square-foot office building in Kansas City -- that's unheard of. And after that, I worked on a huge production television studio project. I was also a senior architect for the San Jose Airport and did renovation work on the Oklahoma City Airport and Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. . . . I've turned a box factory into a multi-use building on the Erie Canal in Fairport, with residential, retail and commercial spaces. I worked for Foit-Albert Associates here for a while. . . . We've also done the South Lockport Fire Substation. I've done everything from military bases to industrial work to a rodeo arena. I even designed an alcohol still -- an ethanol test station on an experimental farm in Kansas. I've had some strange opportunities.

>What are some of your other current projects?

We've been working for a year on a project in Chicago -- 200-plus senior housing units. . . . We're also working on two other senior housing projects in Chicago. We're looking for a spring start on the fire hall in Terry's Corners, which will have solar photovoltaic panels and the Mitsubishi Electric variable refrigerant flow zoning system and some radiant heat in the bays. We're wrapping up an office building project in North Carolina. We're working on the [proposed] bottle recycling center for Newfane General Contracting Inc. in Wrights Corners. We've done some housing. We just finished a hot tub room for a home in Clarence. We've really done everything from 1,000-square-feet to 400,000-square-feet projects.

>Tell me about your firm.

My son, Jeremy, actually has his degree in biology from UB. But he had been doing some drafting work for me on the side. He came to work for me five years ago when his lab shut down, and he runs the office for me and does some site representation work. Sunita Bhatia has her degree in architecture and linguistics from UB. Rob Gillis works for us part time. He's a licensed architect who teaches at Erie Community College. I started this company in 2003.

>You try to use innovative, energy-conscious decisions in your designs. Can you elaborate?

A lot of it is just paying attention to what's out there on the market. You do that and you don't get stuck in the mud [in your mind-set], and you can do a lot with buildings from an energy-efficient standpoint.

>And you mentioned that you like to get feedback from your clients.

Our philosophy is that we are educating our clients in the design process so that they can make the best decisions for their project. For example, after we had written the program, when I met with the firemen from Miller Hose, I sat down with my laptop computer, and we hooked it up to a television and took the diagram, and they told me what they wanted, and in two hours, we built their fire hall. They have the authorship, and they're really proud of the way it turned out. I really like to see the clients get involved.


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