David Hacin, AIA, knows everyone. The 44-year-old architect can't walk through Boston's South End, where he lives and works, without a stream of greetings from shopkeepers, neighbors, and fellow dog owners. Even in the city's other neighborhoods, he regularly runs into friends and acquaintances, often from the close-knit local design community. “I grew up in a small town,” he says, by way of explanation. “There's something [I like] about knowing the lay of the land.”
Hacin's social nature has played a starring role in the rapid rise of his 11-year-old firm, Hacin + Associates. From the day he went out on his own after working at larger firms, including a five-year period at Boston's CBT/Childs Bertman Tseckares, his client base has grown out of his strong personal relationships. Early commissions included a house for his sister in Arizona and a trade show booth for a couple he befriended when they opened a bath-and-body-care store close to his apartment. The former gave him the opportunity to realize he enjoyed custom residential work, still a mainstay of his firm. And the mom-and-pop bath shop evolved into Fresh, an international beauty care company and his biggest retail client. With the exception of his sister's house, Hacin credits most of his initial breaks to his commitment to his adopted neighborhood and city. “You know that saying, ‘All politics is local?'” he asks. “I kind of feel that way about architecture, too. Not just that you give back, but also [that] you gain from being involved in the city and its trajectory.”
He couldn't have found a better place to get started than the South End. When he moved there after graduate school, the area contained a historic district of Victorian rowhouses, plus a more motley mix of warehouses, parking lots, and gas stations. He joined the neighborhood association, making contacts that eventually led to jobs converting historic townhouses into condos. And when a farsighted developer conceived a ground-up artists' loft building that he hoped would revitalize the community, he chose Hacin's fledgling firm to design it. The project, Laconia Lofts, proved to be a turning point for both architect and neighborhood. Loft commission after loft commission followed for Hacin, and the South End boomed as developers saw the potential in its old industrial buildings.
As Hacin's career developed, he arrived at an understanding of his own views on architectural style. Raised in Pennsylvania, he spent the summers in Switzerland with his Swiss architect father. That exposure to European design gave him a comfort level with Modernism. “It took me a little while to figure out,” he says. “My interest is clearly in modern architecture. I developed a keen appreciation for historic preservation and work very hard to preserve historic resources. But if we're building new, we're building new.” His sensitive townhouse conversions earned him the trust of local preservationists. By the time he felt ready to propose modern projects for the South End, he'd accumulated a deep and valuable well of community goodwill.
Juxtaposing the unapologetically new with the well-preserved old can strengthen the urban fabric, he posits, citing Amsterdam and London as examples. “I guess I see it a little from the European perspective,” he says. “They have a little more guts with their historic buildings because they have more of them. They have the confidence to let the new contrast with the old. Here, a lot of times, we're reacting in fear to what people might not like.” His multifamily buildings blend contextual materials and scale with streamlined forms and spare detailing, announcing their modernity while complementing the established rhythm of the city. Some of Hacin + Associates' more recent work even combines old and new within the same building: At several just-finished or on-the-boards adaptive re-use projects, the firm has restored and preserved an existing structure while layering a modern addition onto its top or side.
Impressed by the small, relaxed studio atmosphere his father cultivated, Hacin has endeavored to do the same. He's limited his full-time staff to 10 people, joint-venturing or hiring consultants when the workload gets too heavy to handle. (Make that 10 physically fit people—the office is located on the fourth floor of a walk-up building, a situation he hopes to change soon by finding a new space.) The Princeton-and Harvard-educated Hacin has purposely chosen employees from diverse educational backgrounds to ensure a wide range of influences on the firm's work. And he's kept a steady slate of three project types going—multifamily, custom residential, and retail. While each type exercises different design muscles, they all inform one another to some extent. “I learned from retail that a person makes up his mind about a space within five feet [after entering] the front door,” he says. “So entrances are very important at all our projects.”
Perhaps because of his retail design experience, Hacin likes to get involved in the marketing end of his multi-family projects. His firm often works with the developers of its buildings to design logos and signage. And as chair of the board of directors at the Boston Center for the Arts, he's acted as the client for several construction projects by fellow architects, giving him another perspective on the architect-developer relationship. “David is a leader of a generation of architects who find work by getting into the community and finding out what the development issues are,” says Elizabeth Padjen, FAIA, editor of ArchitectureBoston. “It's a change from the perception of young architects as economically naive.”
In the last year, sustainable design has emerged as a major development issue in Boston, with the city's adoption of a Green Building Standard promoting (and in some cases requiring) adherence to LEED guidelines. Hacin is stepping up his commitment to green design accordingly. While the commonsense aspects of sustainability—things like climate-appropriate siting and operable windows—had always interested him, he admits to feeling frustrated in the past by green materials. “Before, you didn't know if they were really sustainable or not, and there was a limited palette,” he says. “Now, with certification programs, it's so much easier.” A mixed-use, publicly subsidized SRO the firm is designing for the South End will incorporate geothermal wells and a reflective roof for greater energy efficiency. “As I'm going through it, I'm realizing it's fairly understandable,” he says of LEED paperwork. At the high end, the firm is designing a coastal Oregon beach house filled with green and healthy materials: no-VOC paints and finishes, bamboo flooring, locally obtained stone, and recycled decking.
Of course, the adaptive re-use and remodeling work Hacin has been doing all along conveys its own environmental benefits. By definition, it recycles existing materials and reduces the need for new ones, avoiding the waste and embodied energy associated with ground-up construction. As Boston developers address a strong demand for housing by converting commercial spaces to residential use, the firm will only continue along this path. It's also branching out into new neighborhoods; in addition to a just-finished adaptive re-use loft building in the downtown business district, Hacin and his staff are designing another in the burgeoning Fort Point Channel/South Boston Waterfront area. They're also working on affordable housing in Lawrence, Mass., and a Manhattan apartment remodel, among other projects.
Wherever Hacin's focus is, he'll do his best to ensure his larger projects attain a sense of beauty and proportion, even boldness, while remaining a good neighbor to other buildings on the block. In the case of his custom residential work, he'll strive for a timeless Modernism that uses materials and spatial configurations in dynamic, surprising ways. And he'll think about each project in a long-term sense, not only about how it will look in five to 10 years, but how it will hold up decades down the line. “Philosophically, architects come and go,” he says. “In the end, what's left are the buildings.” To design something enduring may be the most sustainable achievement of all.