Gray Design Building Update | March 2023 – University of Kentucky College of Design
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Gray Design Building Update | March 2023

Gray Design Building Update | March 2023

We’re pleased to share a sneak peek of the Gray Design Building project – and some exciting updates! Construction crews are hard at work transforming the former Reynolds Tobacco Warehouse into the future home of the College of Design and UK’s departments of Landscape Architecture and Biomedical EngineeringTo get the latest news, we spoke to Director of Technology and Facilities Joe Brewer, who is working closely with construction, design, engineering and IT teams to create an innovative, transdisciplinary learning space. This project was made possible by the generosity of our exceptional alumni, industry partners and friends. Thank you for doing your part for the future of design education in Kentucky. 

Updates at-a-glance:

  • All demolition and sanding has been completed  
  • Floor openings have been created to accommodate the central stairs and the forum space 
  • The layout and wall framing for faculty and staff offices has begun 
  • Brick tuckpointing 
  • Wood purlins replaced 
  • Masonry repair 
  • Interior drywall started 
  • Plumbing roughed-in 

College of Design: If we were to walk into the Gray Design Building today, what would we see?

Joe Brewer: This project advances very quickly, so what you’ll see will be different each day. The space includes two floors and a basement – we are working on the first and second floors currently, with future expansion possibilities. One amazing thing about the building is it used to be very packed, very maze-like, with lots of walls and small rooms. Now it’s completely open, so you’ll see a historic tobacco warehouse with beautiful columns – exactly as it was originally built. The building will stay largely open, with faculty and staff offices, fabrication labs and classrooms. As we speak, the walls on the second floor are nearly complete.  

What phase of the construction process are we in?

Modern construction projects don’t really have phases – they’re more organic. There are multiple phases happening simultaneously, so for example, while plumbing is happening on one floor, drywall is happening on the other.  

From the outset of this project, the goal was to creatively adapt an existing structure to create a space in which design, landscape architecture and biomedical engineering students will learn together. What are the features or design elements you are particularly excited about?

I think, more than any one feature, this building will be an unprecedented space for collaboration. It will be a laboratory for ideas. The fabrication lab, the classrooms, and even the main entrance of the space, are specifically designed to bring a group of diverse people together to work on a problem.  

How do you see this new environment improving the experience for all involved?

First, let me say that climate change is real, and extremely important. And for that reason, adapting existing buildings is something we must do as a society. I think that, as a university, instead of tearing down an old building, we empower it for the next 100 years. The most environmentally responsible building is the one that already exists. And that is something I hope our students – who are also responsible for the design and creation of spaces – will take with them. They’ll be working in an adaptive reuse building, and hopefully that will inspire them to find similar projects after they graduate.  

How will the layout of the studios and instructional spaces impact teaching and learning?

All studios will be open, so first-year students can literally look over and see graduate-level work. And as people gather around, they’ll interact and engage in ways that they don’t in the siloed spaces that we currently have.  

What will fabrication look like?

The fabrication lab is given a space of prominence in the new building. On one level, that’s very practical. It will be easy to move materials in and out, and because of the glass walls, you will see the work being done as soon as you enter the building. On another level, it’s metaphorical. If collaboration is the central theme of the building, then “making” is how we get there. It’s one of the most irreplaceable experiences one can get in higher education. We can do a lot of things digitally, but making stuff isn’t one of them.  

The boiler maker yard gives a sense of visual openness but also has practical purposes. Can you elaborate?

We envision the boiler maker yard to be a kind of “operating theater” where people can learn by watching, and then eventually learn by doing. This will be the first time we’ll be able to apply that philosophy to design education. It will give us an opportunity to build things outside, at full scale. 

Regarding furniture and fixtures, what are some key pieces you are excited about?

That is still in the discussion stage, but I can say that it will be a recognition and celebration of the college’s history and the history of design. So many of the important pieces, including our chair collection, will be on display in our new space.  

Let’s talk about energy use. What initiatives are being taken to be sustainable?

We are working with the engineering firm CMTA to make sure that the building is as efficient as possible. While adaptive reuse is the most environmentally sustainable model because of the embedded carbon, old buildings don’t often have the best insulation. So the first thing we’ll do is install insulation in all exterior walls to keep warm or cool air from escaping. The second –and the part that I’m most excited about – is that this will be the first building on UK’s campus with a geothermal system.  

For those not familiar, what are geothermal systems and how do they work?

A geothermal system uses the heat of the earth to generate power. It involves drilling wells deep into the Earth (in the case of the Gray Design Building, 87 wells 550 feet deep will be dug under the parking lot.)  We are going to mark those wells to show our environmental strategy to students and visitors. And all of this will come together in a state-of-the-art digital controller. That’s a critical piece, because if the building wasn’t “smart,” we wouldn’t be able to use any of our resources efficiently.

The building is situated at one of the most prominent entries into the city of Lexington. Talk about what that could look like for internal and external audiences.

Just like we want this building to be a mixing pot for us as a college, we also want it to be a transdisciplinary space for others on campus. Since the building is on the edge of campus, it will be an opportunity to connect with folks in the community and beyond. It’s going to be easier to get in and out, and it’s going to be easier to park. But it really goes back to collaboration and shrinking the gap between the university and the community.  

You mentioned easier access to the building. Are there any plans to expand or enhance the Scott Street entrance from South Broadway?

I hope that this building provokes a new conversation about a plan that’s been in place for a long time – which is to extend Scott Street. So instead of a dead-end, it can become a major entryway into campus. The city and the state are interested, so we’ll have to see what happens.  

When is the next opportunity for visitors to see the building?

Because we’re a design school, we’ve been given unprecedented access to the construction process. So as the project moves forward, we’ll continue to provide opportunities to students, faculty, staff, alumni and the community to see how things are going. We will also share construction photos and updates on our website and social media platforms. 

Gray Design Building Update | March 2023