If you build it, they will come
Harvey and Lauren Rayner have big plans for their rural town—greenhouses, workshops, residency programs, tiny homes, and maybe even a coffee shop and English pub. But it all starts with a rustic-chic bed and breakfast.
Though you wouldn’t know it from the outside, Harvey and Lauren Rayner’s folksy two-story Waterport abode houses a cushion factory, a software development and web design firm, an up-and-coming real estate mogul, and a professional horticulturist. The Rayners grow most of their own food, make homemade wine, kiln-dry their own pottery, maintain a successful company that ships internationally, and are flipping homes in their neighborhood. And they’d love to teach you any of it.
Having raised two daughters in Harvey’s home area of the English countryside, in 2012 the Rayners moved to Waterport. While in the UK, Lauren worked as a florist with her own nursery business, Harvey worked odd jobs while experimenting with graphic arts and animation, teaching himself software and web development, and designing a new greenhouse technology.
Today, the Rayners’ main source of income is an ergonomically designed meditation cushion inspired by Harvey’s own history with the practice. “I designed a cushion for myself, first and foremost, just because I used to experience a lot of butt pain,” Harvey says in his British accent. “Even after meditating regularly for ten years, I still had that problem. So I created a cushion, Lauren helped me sew the different prototypes, and it took like twenty iterations—the first couple looked really… obscene,” he smiles. Shortly before moving to the United States, they perfected the formula and began selling their cushions on eBay. “Within the first six months of living here, it became clear neither of us needed to get a job,” Harvey says, “The cushions were reliable enough. We’re not millionaires, but we live comfortably with something left over for projects.”
Waterport rests along Oak Orchard Creek, winding sixty minutes west of Rochester. Since its high point of thirty-three stores in the 1930s, the hamlet’s industrial plants are long vacant and the yearlong population has dwindled to a diverse hodgepodge of artisans and craftspeople who work out of their homes, making a living on websites like Etsy. As such, the post office thrives—“That’s the only thing left in the village,” says Lauren. “Every time I go there to drop off a shipment, there are always people bringing in packages. These little businesses are the only reason it’s still there.” Aside from the Rayners’ meditation cushion business, Waterport’s community includes a canoe maker, an alpaca yarn business, a cartographer, a man who makes dolls, someone who sells old tractor parts, and the Rayners’ youngest daughter, who sells custom upholstery. “It might be because of the lake here; I mean, that’s the main asset to the whole village,” says Harvey. “If you’re going to work at home, you’re going to live near either a mountain or a lake or a forest, right?”
Waterport attracts fishermen and outdoor enthusiasts, but despite its robust network of local makers, residents need to travel to nearby towns for amenities and entertainment. That’s why, when for the first time the Rayners had money left over after paying bills, they decided to invest in the community. “It’s partly selfish, in that we want to live in a nice place,” Harvey confesses. “If you create beautiful places and interesting projects, one would hope you’d attract interesting people. What’s the saying? ‘If you build it, they will come,’” he says in his best American accent. So, what to do with the extra money felt like a natural choice; they began buying properties in their neighborhood with a unique—and ambitious—plan.
Initially, Harvey’s vision for his first Airbnb property was clean and modern But, to save money after his initial investment, he started salvaging and refinishing old wood. “I ended up liking the character of the salvaged wood more than the new, and then I got excited and just ran with it,” he says. “It was a lot of work, but I wanted to create a space that’s really comfortable to be in, where you don’t have to worry too much about spilling the tea.” He feels that in an ultra-modern space where everything looks perfect, there’s a subconscious pressure to be perfect yourself. “Whereas in a place like this, I’d hope people feel more relaxed, more accepted. You don’t have to worry about if the dog gets up on the couch or scratches on the floors, because they’re already scratched to hell,” he laughs. In a small-population rural town, there’s no shortage of salvageable wood and antiques. And Harvey doesn’t just repurpose the lumber; in a humble way, there’s true artistry to his style. Clothes hangers in the closet dangle from an old wooden oar instead of a rod. Refurbished cart wheels act as bedside tables. And the property even encourages customers to create art of their own with a pottery shop in the basement.
Once the interior is finished, Harvey plans on building a greenhouse sunroom extension, as well as a 50’ x 25’, two-story-tall greenhouse next door. While living in the UK, Harvey built a prototype of an innovative insulation system. “You have a double skin, with a cavity in the middle,” he explains, holding his hands out parallel to each other, “and you fill that cavity with liquid soap bubbles to create an envelope of insulation.” During the day, he says, the sun melts the bubbles into a shady insulative layer that acts like cloud cover. With their prototype in England, the Rayners were able to keep subtropical plants healthy throughout winter. “So it functions a number of ways; it provides food throughout the year, it helps to humidify the air in the winter, and also it’s like a big solar collector … You can use it to help heat the house, basically.” Beyond its horticultural and energy-generating purposes, the greenhouse will function as a common space—especially with the tiny house community Harvey intends to eventually build. “People want to get out of their houses in the middle of winter and get into a space where there are plants and warmth from the sun, have a shower, and sit around and have a coffee with some friends.” Harvey explains that it wouldn’t be a commercial growing space but more of a conservatory. He likens it to the Lamberton Conservatory in Highland Park. “That was part of what inspired me,” he says. “Going there in the middle of December when there was snow on the ground and just feeling soothed.”
The Rayners envision a community fueled by a barter economy of knowledge, skills, and resources. “So, we have the tourist element to this project,” he says, referring to the greenhouse, Airbnb, and lake to attract people. “If they come here and stay for some time—maybe they build a tiny house and live here; maybe they can use some of our resources to help build their own—so it’s like a business-sharing model. Or, maybe they just used a workshop or maybe they needed to use our truck or some storage. So it’s like sharing business know-how.” Aside from the construction skills involved in building tiny homes, the Rayners have a wealth of experience and resources to offer. While Harvey’s background leans toward software design, graphic art, building websites, and app development, Lauren is particularly passionate about permaculture, which she describes as “a philosophy of studying how nature works and mimicking it the best that you possibly can. The healthiest ecosystem is a forest,” she explains. “A mature forest. And in a forest, it’s very complex. There are a lot of systems functioning within that system and they’re all playing off of each other, helping each other, feeding each other, and eating each other. The more complex you can make your system, the better.” To simulate this environment for her own garden, she puts mulch over the soil to mimic the layer of leaves on a forest floor. “That does several things: it feeds the microorganisms in the ground, it keeps the moisture in, and it stops the weeds growing.” As a result, Lauren usually doesn’t have to water the garden and never has to do any weeding. Using this method, she regularly grows tomatoes, peppers, cauliflower, broccoli, eggplant, beans, and potatoes. She also makes microbial tea and biochar for fertilizer. “These skills,” she says, “living off the land, living self-sustainably—I really think people want to learn them, and there’s a demand for workshops like this.”
Twenty minutes from Waterport, the village of Medina offers a promising model. “A lot of young people are moving back there now,” Lauren says. “It went from being a ghost town—literally nothing, the shops were all empty—to the buildings on Main Street being totally full. There are always cars and people. They’ve got a bread shop, a meatery, a coffee shop …” “a chocolatier,” pipes Harvey, “English pub, opera house.” Their list goes on. And although they aren’t holding their breath for such a dramatic transformation in Waterport, Harvey sees it as part of a greater trend. “I’ve seen videos on YouTube of people … one guy in particular from some big tech firm decided he would move back to his hometown and buy up half of Hyde Street.” That’s not as possible to do in a city, and giving back to small communities can make a huge difference on the people there. “And if we’re part of a trend, then maybe other people are looking at this place the same way, seeing potential in it, and we just don’t know them yet.” The Rayners hope that’s the case. “You don’t want to think you’re going to have to do it all yourself. You just play your part, you know? Make your contribution.”
“We need more of you,” Lauren says
Harvey laughs. “No, no—that would be a [bleeping] disaster.”
John Ernst is a Rochester native and (585)’s editor-at-large. See more of his work at johnmwrites.com.