Documenting Change: Lesson One – University of Kentucky College of Design
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Documenting Change: Lesson One

The Site

by Emily Bergeron

Founded in 1865 as a land-grant institution, the University of Kentucky is the state’s flagship university. The campus is adjacent to downtown Lexington, Kentucky, a mid-sized city confined by an urban growth boundary created to protect the region’s famous horse farms and Bluegrass landscape. The University’s campus covers more than 918 acres, serves more than 30,000 students, and employs approximately 13,500 people. It comprises more than 19 million gross square feet of building space in more than 400 buildings (UK Sustainability Strategic Plan, 2018). Sitting on the west edge of campus on South Broadway is the R. J. Reynolds Company Building (“Reynolds Building”), a two-story, brick masonry building with heavy timber framing built in 1917 as a tobacco warehouse and redrying plant (Vivian, 2019). This historic site is the subject of Documenting Change.

The Reynolds Building has deep roots in the history and culture of the Bluegrass region. Lexington played a significant role as a tobacco market during the early twentieth century, and redrying plants like the Reynolds Building were common wherever tobacco auctions occurred. An extensive site history and conditions assessment by Historic Preservation Professor Dr. Dan Vivian details how the building existed before the August construction. The Reynolds Building had open interior volumes on all floors with wood columns and exposed trusses, creating a visual rhythm. The condition of the building’s large timber posts reflects a long history of use. Interior features continued to reflect past occupants, including interior partitions from the offices used by the original Reynolds Company staff, bead board wainscoting, hardwood doors, and decorative trim work.

The University of Kentucky acquired the Reynolds Building in the 1960s, using the new acquisition as the University’s art department (Kast, 2022). The School of Architecture was briefly housed in Building #1 before moving to Pence Hall. Since then, the buildings have been primarily used for storage and art studio classes, including sculpture, photography, metalworking, painting, and videography. The building was vacated about a decade ago when the University’s School of Art and Visual Studies relocated to a nearby adaptively reused historic tobacco warehouse. Leadership in the College of Design, seeking to find a space to unify all its programs under one roof, began surveying options. In February 2019, the University of Kentucky Board of Trustees approved the design phase for rehabilitating the Reynolds Building as the future home for the College of Design (UK College of Design, 2020). The University released plans for updating the building in 2021, including outdoor spaces, a cafe, and lecture halls utilizing student-designed furniture (Kast, 2022). The proposed adaptive reuse plans will take advantage of the structure’s existing layout. For example, open floor plans will use the “repetitive structural grid” to create a space that provides more opportunities for collaboration and experimentation (Wilson, 2021). On August 8, 2022, the University of Kentucky held a ceremonial groundbreaking for the Gray Design Building.

Using the Site as a Learning Laboratory

During the fall semester of 2022, the students of HP 252, Adaptive Reuse and Treatments for Historic Buildings, used the Reynolds Gray building as a field study to learn about traditional building structures, materials, and conservation techniques. Working with CPMD Project Manager Keith Ingram, Turner Construction, and Director of Technology and Facilities for the College of Design Joe Brewer, the class assessed the building in its (relatively) untouched state.

Students were asked to document the structural and material condition of the building before any major renovations occurred. The class will create a conditions assessment of the building that can be used to document the state of the Reynolds Building as it existed in August of 2022. This will provide contrast to the condition of the Reynolds-Gray Design Building after renovations are completed.

Why is this “sustainable”?

We have the ability and responsibility to minimize the climate impact of the structures we design. Circular strategies (e.g., adaptive reuse, refurbishing existing buildings, reuse of Second Life Components) are receiving increased attention as we recognize the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). Adaptive reuse projects also have multiple other benefits, including the preservation of buildings and places with historical or cultural significance and reduced costs relative to new construction. Further, a successful adaptive reuse project often results in comparable performance to new “green” buildings without the added expense and emissions outputs involved in construction. Universities seeking to significantly reduce their carbon footprints are increasingly utilizing strategies that include retrofitting, renovation, and adaptive reuse (Jensen & Bergeron, 2022).

In the process of reimagining and adaptively reusing the space for the College of Design, the Reynolds/Gray project embodies the University of Kentucky’s mission to “design, construct, operate and maintain spaces that support the mission of the University while promoting environmental stewardship and the well-being of the community.” (UK Sustainability Strategic Plan, 25).  Adaptive reuse, the reusing of an existing building for a new purpose instead of new construction, can significantly reduce embodied carbon impact and plays a role in a circular economy. The adapted building is 13500 m2 with an estimated CO2-eq per m2 per year of 9,191. A similar functioning new structure (only materials) would have a climate footprint of 124078 CO2-eq. The avoided CO2 emission by deciding to adapt is challenging to calculate precisely because the amount of removed material and environmental impact of new material is necessary to the calculation. As the project continues, this estimate will be easier to determine.

Studio Gang, the Design Architecture firm on the Reynolds/Gray adaptive reuse project, have noted the significance of the undertaking to sustainability:

When it is essential to conserve resources and decarbonize, reinventing existing buildings to serve new purposes has never been more critical. This project for the University of Kentucky College of Design (CoD) demonstrates how the act of fabrication can resonantly bridge between old and new as it transforms a century-old tobacco warehouse into a 21st-century, cross-disciplinary learning environment (Studio Gang, 2022).

Buildings are agents of change for environmental conservation. They can play a significant role in addressing climate and reducing GHG emissions. We are all consumers and occupants of buildings; however, we rarely actively think of the global environmental impact of where we live and work. While there is a bias towards appreciating what is “nice and new,” an adaptively reused building can serve as an example of sustainable design, inform inhabitants, and encourage social responsibility. Understanding the nature of sustainability, how the built environment affects the natural one, and what role we can play in making an impact through preservation and design is vital to creating a habitable planet. In the next module, we will look at the concept of sustainability, its origins and evolution, and what it means to be “sustainable.”

Suggested Readings

Aerial view of the Reynolds Building site (outlined in yellow)  in Lexington, KY. 

historical photo Reynolds BuildingThe Reynolds warehouse buildings, circa _____.

Reynolds BuildingReynolds Building exterior, 2019

exterior view new buildingRendering of the main entrance and covered outdoor workspace in the Gray Design building.

Interior of the Reynolds Building, 2019.

open studio renderingA rendering of the open studio space on the second floor, utilizing existing flooring and support beams.