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BARELY LEGAL: HOME EDITION

by Rick Hauser

Rick received his Master of Architecture from the University of Virginia in 1995, and worked for several architectural offices in Charlottesville, VA, before locating in western NY near his wife’s dairy farm. There he worked independently and as project architect with a Rochester, NY office prior to starting I.S:A in early 2001. He has taught at Hobart and William Smith Colleges and is the founder and manager of Perry New York LLC. 

For more information about Rick Hauser and InSite:Architecture please visit: insitearch.com 

For more articles from Rick Hauser’s click here to visit his syndicated column ‘Architecture Matters’



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A handy, if unauthorized, subtitle for the New York State Building Code might be “The Absolute Least You Can Do Without Breaking The Law”.

This is not exactly inspiring. When it comes to energy use, “meeting code” means that you are building the biggest energy hog that you are permitted to construct. The Hummer of Houses, so to speak, a barely legal residence that contributes the most greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions allowable.

I have no objection to the NYS law. It sets minimum standards. Regarding energy use, it tries to contain gross negligence which would exacerbate environmental problems or tax our energy generation capacity. But their tool – the code – is a blunt instrument in this regard – a cartoonishly small, ineffective mallet against a War of the Worlds-scale enemy. (FYI, the enemy in this caricature is the potentially catastrophic effects of climate change; the cause is the increase in CO2 concentrations that has triggered global average increases in temperature).

Code compliance doesn’t usually result in the best return-on-investment (ie lifecycle) decisions regarding energy-efficient design and technology, nor should it. It’s not yet up to Big Brother to legislate best practices or compel us to be financially savvy.

At the other end of the spectrum from ‘barely legal,’ is the holy grail of greenhouse-gas emissions – zero. A Zero Net Energy (ZNE) building is one that – over the course of a year – consumes no more energy than it can produce. ZNE buildings – mostly homes – exist now. Superinsulation, energy-sipping appliances, a smart grid, consumer energy awareness, and perhaps $30,000 for wind turbines or solar arrays, will do the trick.

More broadly achievable might be if we set that as a 20-year goal, with intermediate benchmarks and a measurable way to chart our progress. Actually, Architecture 2030 has issued that exact challenge. They note that buildings contribute a whopping 76% of all coal-based GHG emissions and they submit that 2030 is an achievable nationwide goal for phasing them out.  For homes completed in 2009, their target for fossil fuel-based energy use was a 50% reduction over the published regional average, stepping up the reduction every 5 years until “carbon-neutral” new construction is achieved in 2030.

Can that goal be readily achieved right here in the Finger Lakes, right now? One year’s actual energy data at two 2009-built area homes designed by my firm indicates the answer is yes. Do we collectively have the willpower and the foresight to make this a priority? Time will tell.

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SAVING OLD BUILDINGS STARTS WITH YOUR STATE OF MIND

by Rick Hauser

Rick received his Master of Architecture from the University of Virginia in 1995, and worked for several architectural offices in Charlottesville, VA, before locating in western NY near his wife’s dairy farm. There he worked independently and as project architect with a Rochester, NY office prior to starting I.S:A in early 2001. He has taught at Hobart and William Smith Colleges and is the founder and manager of Perry New York LLC. 

For more information about Rick Hauser and InSite:Architecture please visit: insitearch.com 

For more articles from Rick Hauser’s click here to visit his syndicated column ‘Architecture Matters’

 

lssAt a recent presentation to the Geneva Historical Society I mentioned in passing my experience helping save an old school from the wrecking ball. At the urging of members, I promised to write about it.

The old Leicester Street School sits at the high point in the village of Perry, in the middle of a residential neighborhood, a block from downtown. Its highly visible cupola is a landmark. Today the top floor of this 100,000 sf, neo-Georgian edifice has 24 light-filled apartments, including ten loft units with mezzanines in the former library. The other apartments retain original oak cubbies, closets and sliding, counter-weighted slate chalkboards. On the main floor, professional office space and a state computer-training lab occupy similarly-appointed former classrooms. Only a gymnatorium (I love that word!) still awaits that magical combination of concept, commitment and cash.

I had moved to Perry just after voters had rejected a proposal to abandon this 3-story, 1906 brick edifice, in favor of a new school on the edge of town. The Board of Education waited the required 90 days to put the identical measure back on the ballot.  In the meantime proponents of the new school made an impassioned case that the original building was unadaptable, unsafe and unworthy of additional tax dollars. Tours were given showing water damage to the foundation, holes in the floor, and tarps in the attic redirecting rainwater from the leaking clay tile roof. At heated public meetings, advocates of saving the old building were asked (rhetorically, I think) if they would stand outside and catch children jumping from the 3rd story windows when the inevitable conflagration came.

At the next vote, the measure to build a new school passed.

The morning after, it was clear that a few other things had happened too: First, the campaign had the unintended side effect of morphing a venerable civic structure into a dangerous, structurally unsound liability, in the public consciousness. Second, no one had given much thought (or allocated any funds) to considering what might be done with it next. The conventional wisdom was to tear it down as soon as the students moved out, and before the vandals moved in.

My first foray into community life was thus to form a “Task Force to Re-use the Leicester Street School.” We made efforts to assure that critics and skeptics – as well as advocates – were part of it. Without a doubt, the most challenging task was changing those perceptions. So I went on the road throughout our great state interviewing, documenting and photographing other school conversions. We shared these sweet success stories at public meetings, juxtaposed with the harsh alternative – a $500,000 demolition price tag (I told you it was a big building).

We compiled condition reports for the building (already completed by the district and concluding the building was sound), and a local photographer lovingly documented the interior and exterior. We made calls to hypothetical tenants and invented uses. We solicited letters of support from every agency known to humankind. Then we organized it all into multi-pocketed folders, called it a “Request for Proposal”, wrapped it in a bow, and sent it out to interested developers across the state.

These efforts succeeded more because they served to change the community’s state of mind, rather than because a particular developer responded. I believe we created a “sense of inevitability” that took on a life of its own. Two or three negotiations with developers fell through and it took two more years before buyers – a local attorney and his wife who had attended the school  – were found and the deal was closed. But by being proactive, the Task Force had time on its side, and built momentum towards re-use. Once the community came to consensus that this old school could become Perry’s greatest asset – or its biggest liability – the pieces were in place.

IMG_025My firm was fortunate to lead the design team that renovated the building, in which we learned much about the surprising adaptability of such buildings. We even had our office in one of those former classrooms for two years. I miss the high ceilings, abundant natural light, and of course those chalkboards!

As for the gymnatorium? If you have any good ideas, let me know.

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Put Your Money On Downtown

Rick received his Master of Architecture from the University of Virginia in 1995, and worked for several architectural offices in Charlottesville, VA, before locating in western NY near his wife’s dairy farm. There he worked independently and as project architect with a Rochester, NY office prior to starting I.S:A in early 2001. He has taught at Hobart and William Smith Colleges and is the founder and manager of Perry New York LLC. 

For more information about Rick Hauser and InSite:Architecture please visit: insitearch.com 

For more articles from Rick Hauser’s click here to visit his syndicated column ‘Architecture Matters’

Downtowns are back. In cities large and small, in villages small and smaller, communities are rediscovering their Main Streets. Why? Because that’s where the vitality is. Developers are buying buildings to rehab for the same reason Willie Sutton robbed banks: Because that’s where the money is. Government is putting the money there – in the form of grants, low-interest loans, income tax credits and property tax abatements. Why? Because that’s where the infrastructure is.

 

An interior of a totally rehab’d apartment in downtown Perry. This 7500 sf building leveraged all of the programs described – grants, historic tax credits, sale-leaseback. The apartments rent for 75% more than before and were leased before construction was complete.

Our region is no exception to this trend. In Mount Morris a visionary developer has purchased 20 buildings; in 2010 he and other galvanized owners were busy delaminating vinyl and T1-11 siding from facades, replacing windows and rehabilitating interiors, while they continue to recruit tenants in a coordinated strategy to create a viable mix of businesses. Down the road in Perry, a community-wide investment group is completing renovation of its second anchor building, having raised $600,000 in private capital as one part of a broader reinvestment that has transformed 40,000 sf of vacant Main Street real estate in 5 years.

Meanwhile, Corning’s Market Street has long been an exemplary model of a community-minded corporate sponsor taking an interest in the 1972 flood-devastated downtown as a long-term recruitment and retention strategy. Finally, Geneva has aggressively pursued grant opportunities on behalf of its building owners which, in coordination with the Geneva BID and enterprising building owners, is resulting in some highly visible successes throughout downtown.

Now, here’s the lesson in it all. In each case, private for-profit owners leverage public resources as a component of viable business plans.  They put their money where their house is, and they take the long view. Through that lens, there are three public resource-leveraging strategies that each community’s leaders should be pursuing as ingredients toward successful downtown rehab. I’ll call them Compete, Comply and Postpone.

COMPETE

Get a grant. Those communities that have been advocating for their downtowns, completing projects with local money, and forming downtown citizen advocacy groups are positioned best for the current gold standard of downtown grants: the annual New York Main Street Program. Now matching up to $500,000 per community, it leverages far more than that in private dollars. Mount Morris, Dansville, Lima, Arcade, and Perry are some of the area’s the more recent recipients.

COMPLY

Get your downtown on the National Register. Many downtowns have within them potential districts with architectural and historical merit. Renovate a contributing building to a designated district in a sympathetic manner and you can get 40 cents of every dollar spent on rehab back, when federal and state credits are combined. Any individual or entity can nominate a district, but sit-downs with owners in advance of any such undertaking is crucial, in part to dispel the erroneous notion that such a designation will impinge on their freedom. The truth is, owners in a district who want to paint their buildings pink, tar and feather them or knock them down – even all three, sequentially – could still do so if they were allowed before.  But, those owners who wanted to take advantage of very significant tax credits on passive income would have that option. For renovations over $200,000, these credits can easily exceed the extra costs of complying with rehabilitation standards. I know this because I’ve prepared historic district applications and tax credit applications. It works.

POSTPONE

Lock your assessment at the pre-renovation value. Working with an IDA, some communities can offer a “sale-leaseback agreement” that extends the lower assessed value for five years and phases it in over five more (it also cancels out sales tax on your construction materials). Talk about a win-win! Tax jurisdictions benefit – in the long term – because this incentive will ultimately increase their tax revenues. Meanwhile, delaying that increase can save you $100,000 in taxes if the pre-renovation and post-renovation values were just $200,000 apart. There are simpler abatement programs too; some are as easy as filling out a one-page application available at your assessor’s office. Want more information? Search the web for NYS Real Property Law 485(a) and 485(b).

 

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Committed owners will no doubt work towards all three of these strategies, while aggressively seeking tenants and low-interest loans, cash-back energy incentives and green design programs. They will advocate collectively to the proper municipal entities or downtown associations to pursue the grant, establish the district, and opt-in to existing programs.

It makes solid, long-term sense to invest downtown. Why? Because that’s where the future is.

 

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IS THIS YOUR HOUSE? PART I

By Rick Hauser

Rick received his Master of Architecture from the University of Virginia in 1995, and worked for several architectural offices in Charlottesville, VA, before locating in western NY near his wife’s dairy farm. There he worked independently and as project architect with a Rochester, NY office prior to starting I.S:A in early 2001. He has taught at Hobart and William Smith Colleges and is the founder and manager of Perry New York LLC. 

For more information about Rick Hauser and InSite:Architecture please visit: insitearch.com 

For more articles from Rick Hauser’s click here to visit his syndicated column ‘Architecture Matters’

The rule for neighborhoods and their venerable houses is the same as that which guides the evolution of species – Survival of the Fittest. Houses which do not evolve to meet the changing needs of their occupants perish. Into that slow spiral of disinvestment, deterioration, and devaluation they draw adjacent houses and over time, neighborhoods.

Houses which adapt to serve their owners’ changing needs over a lifetime, or adapt to attract new homeowners and their new lifestyles, survive. By positioning themselves as adaptable they drive reinvestment, renovation and renewal of their value and their neighborhoods.

In my firm’s work for the Geneva Neighborhood Resource Center (GNRC), we have been studying a phenomenon dubbed “The Geneva House.” You know the house. There are hundreds of these homes, and not just in Geneva but in all the villages in our readership. They are nearly identical in character, age, details, dimensions and floor plans. They have two-stories, two stairs, a front porch, and a formal, compartmentalized floor plan measuring about 810 square feet on each level.

These houses are at risk if they do not evolve. Because of a perceived inflexibility to accommodate multi-generational needs, accessibility, or to adapt to the more open, informal mode of living often sought today, they are undervalued. Many owners of these old houses seem resigned to the burden of a $4000 annual utility bill that will only rise over time.

Luckily, it doesn’t have to be that way.

To combat these misperceptions and help owners and prospective buyers recognize the opportunities these houses afford, the GNRC asked us to prepare “case studies” showing many ways in which the resilient “Geneva House” could be adapted to fit the bill.

This first installment is called “REconfigure”. It shares some simple ideas that can help the “Geneva House” adapt. Take a look. Depending on your needs and goals, you can create a more open, communal living area, grow or shrink the number and configuration of bedrooms, find sunny, quiet places for study or relaxation, provide single-level living or develop dedicated playrooms. All this within the house’s footprint. Future columns will share ideas for the MULTIgenerational house, the NEXTgeneration house, and the gREen-HAB.

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Think Local Act Global

By Rick Hauser

Rick received his Master of Architecture from the University of Virginia in 1995, and worked for several architectural offices in Charlottesville, VA, before locating in western NY near his wife’s dairy farm. There he worked independently and as project architect with a Rochester, NY office prior to starting I.S:A in early 2001. He has taught at Hobart and William Smith Colleges and is the founder and manager of Perry New York LLC. 

For more information about Rick Hauser and InSite:Architecture please visit: insitearch.com 

For more articles from Rick Hauser’s click here to visit his syndicated column ‘Architecture Matters’

“Think Global, Act Local” goes the saying.  And it’s usually true that we most effectively impact positive change at the local level.

But can local thinking yield global action? Sometimes the opportunity arises where one can act globally, or, more accurately, act across the globe to impact another locale. Such is the case with work with which I’ve been involved in the rainforests of Madagascar.  Our Finger Lakes/Western New York region has a stronger connection to the conservation work underway in this biodiversity hotspot than you might think, and a recent improvement in a Malagasy village has been made possible by the efforts, passions, donations, and labors of many players based here.

The story begins for me in 2006 when a world-renowned primatologist affiliated with Stony Brook University, but with roots and connections upstate, hired my firm to work in the land of lemurs, Madagascar where she’s been active for decades.  We designed- and five years later are building- Conservation Hall, an environmentally-attuned, locally-sourced, four-story, Research-and-Outreach Center at the edge of a national park.

The scaffolding, formwork, and excess brick and granite from this building – Conservation Hall at CVB – were all donated and we designed the new building around the available materials

That’s a surprising enough link between a small upstate architect and an African island nation. But while working on that project, we recently completed a second project a few miles down the road – the Maison des Beaux Arts de Ranomafana. While the Centre ValBio (CVB) where our main project is based, has become a major employment base for nearby residents, the Maison des Beaux Arts now serves as a marketplace in the nearest village where craftspeople and artisans create and sell their products.

The mayor of Ranomafana, Razanakoto Léon, is a forward-thinking citizen. A few years ago, CVB announced plans to add Conservation Hall to their rainforest outpost. The mayor approached us, as well as CVB’s director and the aforementioned primatologist Dr. Patricia Wright, with a novel proposal: he would waive the permit fees for the construction, in exchange for the design and construction of a new marketplace in the village. His project would improve commerce in his village, and leverage the skills and international attention focused at the Centre ValBio.

In order to keep the cost of this undertaking down, our design challenge as architects was to use as much “waste” material from the main construction site as possible in constructing the marketplace.  After inventorying available supplies, we designed the structure to use two types of leftover bricks from Conservation Hall – one became the water table, and the other filled out the upper walls. Excess granite became the concrete slab base.

The new marketplace under construction- using recycled wood from Conservation Hall at CVB for the roof structure

But the best part was the roof. The roof structure  – a series of pyramidal modules separated by gutters – was made completely from the four stories of scaffolding that had been used to support the formwork for the concrete floor levels of the other building! The load-bearing capacity of the scaffolding helped determine the size of each module. Meanwhile, the leftover formwork itself (the wood planks that hold the concrete in place until it sets) became the marketplace’s roof sheathing.

Maison des Beaux Arts de Ranomafana – first picture of the finished building.

Here’s where the local connections come in: We agreed to donate our design and construction administration services. Additionally, CVB donated building site materials. As if the connection between our regions was not enough, to fund the remaining materials the project received donations from one of our Western New York clients (who became interested in the project after we introduced it to them) and also benefited from the fundraising efforts of Seneca Park Zoo docents in Rochester who now annually hold a “Party Madagascar” to celebrate the cause. The ‘Lemur Lager’ they sell there is brewed at Honeoye Falls’ Custom Brewcrafters, another local partner.

So clearly it is not hard to Drink Locally and Act Globally.

But if you want to go even further to help strengthen the bond between our region and one of the world’s most bio-diverse and threatened locations, that’s not hard either: Go to www.ictetropics.organd click the Donate button.

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DESIGN TIPS FROM FARMERS

By Rick Hauser

Rick received his Master of Architecture from the University of Virginia in 1995, and worked for several architectural offices in Charlottesville, VA, before locating in western NY near his wife’s dairy farm. There he worked independently and as project architect with a Rochester, NY office prior to starting I.S:A in early 2001. He has taught at Hobart and William Smith Colleges and is the founder and manager of Perry New York LLC. 

For more information about Rick Hauser and InSite:Architecture please visit: insitearch.com 

For more articles from Rick Hauser’s click here to visit his syndicated column ‘Architecture Matters’

 

I am married to a dairy farmer. So I may be more intimately familiar with the needs of cows than your average architect. But I’m not alone in my admiration of agricultural structures. Like many, I draw inspiration from the form, scale, rhythm and rootedness of farm architecture. Why is that? And, what might we learn about architecture from studying the farm?

SITING.
Let’s start with the obvious: Farms are located in beautiful places. The agricultural landscape is an ordered tapestry in whose contours you can read the accumulated, patient efforts and investments of past generations. In its fabric you can detect the patterned logic of efficient planting, the incremental ingenuity of those attuned to local conditions soils, weather and runoff patterns. This is a working landscape that changes not just with the seasons but by the week. Within this spectacular setting, the buildings are positioned and oriented, scaled and contained. Each structure on a farm belongs to that place. It gives measure to the fields. In both a practical and a symbolic sense, the structures are in balance with the fields that nourish them. As a result, these buildings simply “fit” the place.

SCALE AND RHYTHM.
A house can be pretty, but a barn is sublime. The height and breadth and length of a modern free stall barn can feel like a cathedral from the inside – seemingly endless rows of trusses, each composed of the smallest lumber units available, but collectively enclosing a thousand linear feet in a rhythmic march to a distant vanishing point. As you walk down the central aisle, daylight filters in via a tall ridge vent while the black and white inhabitants ruminate and watch you silently. It is a serene and unintentionally spiritual moment (though you may not want to kneel). From a distance these long, low, repetitive structures are very comfortable in the broad, horizontal, rhythmically planted fields they inhabit.

EXPRESSION.
Things are not covered up on a farm. The gleaming corrugated metal grain silos are not painted; each rib creates a shadow line below, and glints in the morning sun. Some upper wall panels are translucent polycarbonate to let in more light; at night they slice through the darkness, emanating long ribbons of warm yellow light, like beacons for passersby. The skeleton of the barns are exposed, sometimes with a skin of operable canvas curtains that frames the landscape. Corn cribs of wood or wire express their porous purpose of drying their contents. Bunk silos of gray concrete contain vast volumes of hayleage and corn, their mute walls telegraphing only the pattern of the steel or wood forms that were used to make them. The inherent honesty in expressing materials and the effect of revealing rather than concealing structural members makes a farm a great laboratory for an architect!

ECONOMY.
It almost goes without saying: Agricultural buildings are astylistic, unpretentious structures whose owners value incremental innovation over adornment. They need to perform their intended function perfectly and at the least possible cost. It is this ethic of Economy which is embodied in the “architecture” of the farm. But there is also an ethic of quality. Farms are capital-intensive, multi-generational endeavors; farmers (and their bankers) do not take their investments lightly. So things tend to be built to endure, with an eye to the future. This broader application of Economy is in the DNA of farm structures past and present. To me, there is much to learn about the beauty inherent in that spirit as well as in the forms that result from it.

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With all this background, you can imagine how thrilled I was to have our first agricultural commission. Farmers don’t usually consult architects, but my wife didn’t have a choice. The problem was that some of the cows on the west side of the freestall barn were baking in the afternoon sun. The conundrum here was how to omit hostile, low-angled western rays while admitting important cooling breezes. With Economy, Scale, Rhythm, and Expression firmly in mind, we developed a proposal: Lightweight 8’ tall “banners” spaced out along the western side, precisely angled based on the afternoon sun’s position, and hung on removable frames. These “solar fins” can be detached when winds become hostile and the sun is welcome once more. The farmer seems to like this; as for the cows, they’re still chewing it over.

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