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Rochester Innovators Series: Adam Ferrari

Rochester Innovators Series: Adam Ferrari

You may not have met him or know him by name, but chances are Adam Ferrari has already made an impression on you. From hip hangouts such as The Doggery and Forager Brewery to innovative environments like Limb Lab and the Conley-Maass-Downs building, the Rochester architect is the brains behind some of the city’s most creative and original spaces.

Adam is the owner of 9.SQUARE, an architecture and design firm that specializes in the adaptive reuse of historic buildings. He is also a well-regarded community advocate who has worked relentlessly to elevate the local dialogue on issues of urban design.

We recently had the opportunity to sit down with Adam in Room 204 of The Vault. The 150-square-foot office has the distinction of being both the space where Adam first started his business, as well as the current headquarters of Med City Beat.

Minor edits to the interview were made for flow and clarity.

You decided to take the plunge as a full-time entrepreneur in 2012. From that point, how did your business evolve?

I started out taking on anything and everything I could, every job from a deck plan to some consultant work for neighborhood planning. That first year was really a lot of fun because I had all this freedom to pursue whatever I felt like I wanted to.

Year two, I made a concerted effort to really chase projects that I could build a portfolio on, the first of which was the Limb Lab. So for the projects I really wanted, I lowered my fees and I worked way more than I should. Limb Lab was one of the projects where every day I was there, and I was spending my nights thinking about it. I wanted to have something at the end of the project to convey to someone, ‘this is what I can do.’

What kind of projects do you focus on now?

I work with a lot of startups and small businesses, where this is their first space and budgets are razor thin. As the business has grown, it has become synonymous with adaptive reuse, old buildings, urban-oriented buildings, and the younger, hipper crowd that frequents those places.

In many cases, you have this old, junky space in a beautiful old building. It doesn’t look like much, and you’re starting a brand new business. Let’s conceive it how you want it to be. Let’s craft the vision and stay with that pure vision for as long as you can.

Reflecting on some of the work you have done, how do you measure success?

For me, it’s always been about, number one that the client loves it. When the client is lukewarm on it, you can feel that. But when the client is in love with it, then you get excited because their passion starts to come out. Because they don’t know to design a restaurant. They know how to make their food. They know how to craft a cocktail. They know all those parts of it, and they just know what they want it to be but they just can’t quite get there — and I help translate that. 

Forager Brewery / Photo courtesy 9.SQUARE

Forager Brewery / Photo courtesy 9.SQUARE

The second part is that space, and place, are so important to our human condition. You remember the place you proposed in a restaurant; you remember the place you had your first date; or where you celebrated a team victory. And I love the fact that the places I have helped create are those places for other people. 

You were an original founder of the advocacy group Design Rochester. What role did the organization serve in shifting the dialogue to where it is now?

Design Rochester was needed because there was no outlet for talking about why things could be better. It was just the same stuff coming down the pipe, same players in town, and there were a lot of people who felt disenfranchised. They felt they didn’t have a voice. They didn’t have a way to connect. There was no transparency. There was no advocacy. 

There was a whole bunch of this, ‘it’s good enough, we’re Rochester.’ And I didn’t accept that ... We needed to collectively raise the bar for design excellence in Rochester. If we raised the bar and we missed it, we’re still now on a much higher level.

So I felt like I had nothing to lose. That’s the beautiful thing about being on your own — you have no fear of losing your job. I was pretty brazen in saying, ‘I’m just going to do it the way I think it should be done.’ And people who believe in what I’m doing will get behind me and people who don’t, I don’t think we’re going to get along anyway. And I was blown away by how people got behind me and supported that kind of thing. Then I carved out a little space for them to do their own thing. Every time I had a conversation with someone, I was just like: ‘Go do something. Don’t ask for permission. Just go try it out and see if it flies.’

You’re also part of the design team working on DMC’s Heart of the City plan. What have you been able to bring to the table as the sole local representative? 

Over the course of the process, now that we’re almost done with schematic design, I feel like the value I’ve added — in addition to community engagement and the on-the-ground work — is helping ground the team in the context of Rochester; which is so unique and so difficult to understand unless you’ve been here, and you know the players, and you know what their perspective is, and why they’re saying the things they’re saying, and what their motivations are behind it. So I helped tie those things together and bring this ship back on track when it would veer away.

The team is doing an unbelievable job with the physical design. I’m not really involved in that. I’m just helping make sure all the arrows are pointed in the right direction. So it’s been a lot of fun for me. My goal all along, and I hope the project reflects this, is that Rochester really deserves this — a world-class public square [that serves as] an epicenter of activity. 

What advice would you give to those who want to get more involved in community advocacy?

Well, it’s hard. I’m not going to sugarcoat it. But it can happen in Rochester. It can’t happen in Chicago, or Kansas City, or Minneapolis; it’s way too political. But Rochester is of a size where you meet your council person in the coffee shop and you can have a conversation with them. And you can email them directly. And you can call major players and you know them by name on the street. That familiarity is to the benefit of when you want to advocate for change ... So I would just say keep at it, stay motivated, stay dedicated. Because it does change things when you get involved.

In your opinion, what will DMC need to do in order to be successful?

Ten, 15, 20 years from now, there’s so much that’s going to be different in terms of business and technology that you have to make sure you’re adaptable. Cities are best when they’re flexible and they’re organic and they evolve.

For example, Disneyland looks the same as it did 30 years ago. It’s not very good at changing. And if you lock in a medical Disneyland, and if you create some sort of perfect environment in a bubble, and then things change, it doesn’t work. So you need to build into the infrastructure that flexibility. And then years from now, when things inevitably change, the system adapts to that.

You’re originally from Chicago and then went to school in Kansas. What keeps you in Rochester?

For me, when I lost my job and when I became frustrated with my job ... those were opportunities to leave [Rochester]. And in both cases, I chose to stay and chose to raise my family here. Those were intentional decisions because of how great of place this is. To some people, I’m always the guy who’s just a wet blanket — saying everything’s bad and we need to do better. But in actuality, this place is really phenomenal. I’ve had the benefit of living in a couple other places, and traveling to a lot of other places, and seeing how great it is to live here.

Rochester Innovators is a nine-part series being published in partnership with Destination Medical Center.

Cover photo by William Forsman

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