Campus’ New Flagship
Rob Deal is the executive vice president of JRA Architects, the Lexington-based firm in charge of the new Academic Science Building. Although many designers and consultants have come together to form the design team for the ASB, Deal is the lead project manager – which means he is keeping a very busy schedule. Fortunately, we were able to sit down and have a discussion with him about UK’s newest landmark building.
Q: Take us back to the beginning of the process – how you initially landed the contract and traveled around with the group to look at similar or comparable facilities in North America.
The University is very selective with their choice of designers. Our firm has had a very long history on campus. We’ve been doing work on campus since 1946. Ernst Johnson who founded the firm did Memorial Coliseum, Lafferty Hall, Funkhouser – our presence is all over campus. It’s been a good partnership for decades.
UK is the flagship university in the Commonwealth, and this is the flagship building. For us it’s just a very special opportunity.
To partner with us, the university also selected Payette Associates out of Boston who do labs in science buildings.
On our tour of facilities in the country, we covered 10 buildings in seven business days. We scheduled everything right down to the wire. I’m still shocked to this day that it went off without a hitch.
Q: How important was that trip in hindsight in forming some of the decisions you would make and the steps you would take next?
The newer buildings emphasized student interaction and put science on display to support the academic mission of those programs.
So, the simple things like incorporating glass into the lab environment where you can see into the labs from public spaces was a common theme for all the new buildings.
Comparing it to the Chemistry-Physics building, one of the biggest shifts I think people will notice is the amount of daylight that will enter our building. It has glass everywhere, we kind of refer to it as being porous. So light will enter the building and transmit through the common space, into the labs, and come into the core of the building.
We want this to be a student-friendly building. We want non-A&S majors to come there to study and be a part of the building. It has that kind of potential for impact on campus.
Q: How did those spaces feel to you guys when you were in them?
I think they’re 180 degrees from what’s on campus now. The closest thing I know on campus is another building we did, the David Marksbury Building. It’s similar in a lot of ways. It has a facing curtain wall; the new Academic Science Building will have a curtain wall. It’s very transparent and it will be a LEED building, so it will be environmentally friendly and green. It’s the flagship building and it’s going to end up embracing that spirit – very modern.
Q: Talk a little about the work that went into the actual design of the building.
When we got back from the tour, the next months were spent in a programming phase and that’s not really putting pen to paper and coming up with designs, but it is a study of university curriculum, looking at section size, looking at growth. This is a building the university can grow into for many, many years. And so there was a lot of analytical data crunching to anticipate that growth and identify new programs, like neuroscience, which will be supported in the building.
In terms of design, there have been several versions of the building with different materials. Really, you can look around UK’s campus, and if you spend enough time on it, you’ll come to the realization that it is a red brick campus. The building is nestled up against the library on one side, the new dorms behind, PS2 (Parking Structure #2) on the other side, you realize there are all these different textual expressions that surround our building.
I think what we do is a funny little thing, we keep playing with it and eventually say ‘That’s right, that’s a UK building.’ It’s actually fairly modest in its design, it’s not wild and crazy, it’s not putting a new material on campus. It’s kind of bold in its simplicity, yet it looks like it belongs on campus.
We did a building over on Transy’s campus a few years ago and one of the best compliments I ever got was that someone was lost at the groundbreaking and couldn’t find the new building. I think we want this to fit in and blend with the campus context and I think we’re headed in that direction.
Q: Can you talk a little about any exciting features that will be incorporated in the building?
Active learning spaces – there are several in the building. They are sort of team-based learning pods with the smaller ones in groups of six around a common screen where the facilitator has common control of all the tabletops. If groups are working on different problems and the group working on problem A has something to share with the rest of the class, the facilitator can display it for everyone to see.
There is a lot of space to gather with soft, lounge furniture. If you’re between classes or just want to study, there are abundant options throughout the building on all levels.
If you want to reserve a room, there are study rooms throughout the building that can be reserved. The building will have dedicated learning centers for biology, general chemistry, and organic chemistry publicly situated on the floors where those programs are located. The students won’t have to look for them. They are front and center near the main common space. At the end of the day, we also want the building to raise student achievement. So that’s been a very direct response to the need for larger, better learning centers.
Other features, of course, are the two lecture halls. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that when we’re done these will be the best, most high-tech, largest learning spaces on campus. We have a 300-seat and a 200-seat, double row lecture halls that will have video capture and AV support – it will be state-of-the-art.
On the non-academic side – the building will have a café on the ground level. We want to support students in every way we know how. We’ve even talked about little things like charging stations and outlets in the lounging areas where the students will gather. We’re going to load it up with power for laptops and wireless.
Q: We understand there will be the possibility of some exciting outdoor space that will be incorporated into the design as well?
We’ve had several meetings that have helped to program the desires for some of the outdoor space. So yes, there is space for outdoor classrooms, there’s space for what we call an “eco-pod,” but it’s a space for research and the area can be changed out if needed. We have kind of a rain garden and wetlands basin feature that will help the ecological group, but we also have to deal with storm water as well, so we’re trying to figure out a way to incorporate our storm water management that comes off the roof into this rain garden area as well.
We have an axolotl terrarium on the inside right by the café so you can have your lunch and look at them. And we’re still trying to figure out where each of those goes, but I think it goes back to the theme of science on display and student-engagement. From the terrarium to the display cases that will be three-dimensional and interactive – from building directory to green information about the building – all of it can be interactive and provide learning opportunities. It’s not static, there’s always something going on.
Q: You’ve talked a little about the building and what it means to UK’s campus. Can you talk a little bit about what having this type of buidling at UK will mean nationally?
The reality is that UK is competing for the same students as others – there’s a lot of competition locally with places like Eastern and regionally with Ohio State, Tennessee, other big institutions equal to UK, the SEC, and Big 10. Everybody wants the best and brightest.
The reality is you have to have the faculty of that caliber to teach those students and lure them – and you need the infrastructure in place, and the building plays a big part in that. So it’s all very circular. You can get the best faculty if you have research opportunities, but you also have to have the best facilities. So I would anticipate with this building that the best and brightest faculty get on board, that the best and brightest students come to UK and are excited to be a part of the sciences at UK. I do think it’s that important.
Although, it’s not just about scientists or people going into the sciences. It is also about the nursing student that has to get through general chemistry to go off to nursing school. It has that kind of impact in other programs across other disciplines. We’ve done the math, and on an annual level, I think it was over 35,000 students that would be touched by the building. It’s a staggering number just looking at section sizes and throughput of how many students it will affect.
Q: What does it mean to you to be the head project manager on this? What does it mean to have such an important footprint on campus when you’re looking into the future and that legacy?
It’s an honor is all I can really say. I think at a certain level architecture is fairly self-indulgent. The best day any architect ever has is on dedication ceremony day where you open the building and cut a ribbon. We get one day out of a lot of work to step back and watch people appreciate our efforts. I am very much aware of the importance that this building will have on campus and how impactful it will be, and I’m honored and glad to be a part of it. It’s nice to be associated with something that important.