By Michelle Aiello
The American Institute of Architects (AIA) has announced the inductees of its 2022 College of Fellows, and among them is Gray Architects and Engineers Vice President of A/E Professional Services Randall Vaughn, FAIA. Only three percent of AIA members are chosen to receive this honor, which, according to the AIA website, recognizes “architects who have achieved a standard of excellence in the profession and made a significant contribution to architecture and society on a national level.”
For those who know Vaughn, this recognition is hardly a surprise. Since his graduation from the University of Kentucky School of Architecture in 1984, the Seneca high school graduate and Louisville native has built an extensive and successful architecture career – and has generously offered his time and financial support to causes and initiatives that are deeply important to him.
Randall has been influential in setting standards for the profession of Architecture,” said College of Design Dean Mitzi Vernon. “He is the consummate model for service, as a volunteer in mentoring, in event participation, and through his generous financial support. We are both delighted for Randall as a new AIA Fellow and gratified that another member of our extended family has been given this exceptional honor.”
In terms of choosing a career, Vaughn was one of the lucky ones. He remembers taking an immediate interest in architecture as a young child. “My father worked for a vending company, and would bring home coffee stirring sticks for me to tinker with,” he remembers. From there, his interest in building and creating increased, and in middle school, he began writing letters of inquiry AIA and other firms all over the country.
That curiosity has served him well, and when the time came to attend college, he decided on the University of Kentucky School of Architecture. UK was close to his family in Louisville, but there was another factor at play: “The University of Kentucky was, and I believe still is, the only accredited architecture program in the state.” So after looking into (and being accepted by) several regional schools, he joined the Wildcat family.
Vaughn stayed busy during his time at UK, working his way up from Residence Hall Advisor to Residence Hall Director – a position he held for three years. Running a freshman dorm with around 575 male students gave him an introduction to the management and leadership skills he would later go on to use in his daily life as an architect. During the summer, he bolstered his experience by working for the United States Army Corps of Engineers. He also completed an internship with the Lexington city government, working in traffic engineering.
Upon graduation, he was hired by local firm Sherman Carter Barnhart Architects and spent the first 12 years of his career there. In 1990, he earned his license and had the chance to work on several significant projects across the country, including public housing projects in Lexington, Charlotte, Nashville, Atlanta, and East St. Louis. When asked about a standout among those, he mentioned that since he worked at a design firm, only a couple of those projects ended up coming to fruition prior to his departure from the firm.
But that was all about to change In August of 1996. Following the recommendation of former UK School of Architecture Dean Charles “Chuck” Graves, Vaughn began his career with Gray – and pivoted from a purely architectural firm to a design-build company. At Gray, design and construction go hand-in-hand, and Vaughn’s focus went from housing to industrial buildings, distribution centers, and manufacturing facilities. At the time he began working there, Gray was working with Toyota and many of its automotive suppliers. “It was different and exciting, and it continues to be exciting to this day,” he said. “There is never a dull moment.”
When asked about the highlights of his career, Vaughn first mentioned the friendships, partnerships, and relationships he’s developed along the way. “I’ve been at Gray for 25 years, so I’ve seen a lot of change and a lot of growth – both in the business and the development of other professionals.” He’s grateful that this work has taken him to Japan, China, Korea, Scandinavia, and many other places around the world.
He is also quick to mention the rewards of witnessing how helping to set up business operations and manufacturing facilities has positively affected communities. “When we show up in a community, whether it’s a rural or urban community, and we’re building an industrial facility, that’s bringing jobs to that community. “It’s amazing to be a part of that, and all the good things that come out of that.”
In addition to personal and professional rewards, he appreciates that his career in architecture has consistently offered a wider view of economic conditions and what’s going on in the market. “We get to experience what makes the world tick,” he explained. Manufacturing is where things start. We’re in a robust economy right now, we’re very busy. But there have been times where (that hasn’t been the case), and things slow down. And we get to see whether or not companies choose to expand or grow, or increase their capacity to meet consumer demand.”
Over the years, he’s witnessed an influx of European and Asian companies setting up manufacturing operations in the United States. “We like to say we provide shelter for the guts of the operations, which can range from basic to complex. Being involved in creating that shelter means we get to learn more about what elements go into that operation, and we get to see how the things we see and use in daily life are manufactured.”
While his work at Gray and community volunteering keeps Vaughn well-occupied, as early as 2010, he has been an active supporter of the College of Design and the School of Architecture – serving on various advisory boards, mentoring students and graduates, and strengthening the historic partnership between Gray and the College of Design. “Randall is the whole picture,” said College of Design Associate Dean for Students Bruce Swetnam. “He’s the consulate professional, and he gives back to both education and to the community.”
But there is a deeper incentive that goes along with that work. Vaughn said, “There was a point in my career when I became concerned about the pipeline of students entering the architecture profession. I realized that the College could have done a better job of growing that pipeline of persons of color, particularly African Americans.”
At the time of his graduation, he recalls around four other students of color graduating along with him. And as he progressed in his career, he did not see UK architecture alumni of color entering the workforce. “The numbers were dismal,” he said. “But I thought, I can sit back and complain, or I can step up and say, ‘How can I help? How can I contribute?’”
Part of that contribution is simply being visible on campus. So, whenever there is an opportunity to sit on a workshop panel or do a guest lecture, he always accepts the invitation so that students of color can see themselves represented in the profession. Over time, the results of this work led Vaughn and his wife, Peggy Stamps, to generously donate funds toward College of Design DEI scholarships.
When asked what we might do to foster diversity, equity, and inclusion through the lens of architecture and design, Vaughn mentioned that when we look at how communities have evolved, there have always been inequalities. “The least desirable land is often used for housing for underserved and underrepresented populations. Or those populations are located next to flood prone areas, dangerous emissions, or exist in food deserts without sufficient public transportation.”
While this has continued to happen throughout the 20th century, there is work being done to bring about equality. But along with this work, Vaughn stresses the importance of intentionality. Architecture and design professionals can create healthy spaces that allow populations to thrive – but there is an educational and societal component that cannot be ignored.
“I was told by one of the former (CoD) Deans that because the University of Kentucky had the only accredited (architecture) program in the state, it became very competitive and they didn’t have to do much in the way of outreach to underrepresented groups.” But still, a change in demographics happened. “When I was there, women made up less than five percent of the architecture department. Today, it’s over 51 percent. So in the last 30 years, something intentional took place to make that change happen. That can be done with other groups, too.”
Vaughn believes that funds for scholarships, however small or large, do make a difference. More effort can be directed toward recruiting faculty from underrepresented groups and backgrounds, and promoting events that explore the history of architecture through a more diverse perspective. Exposing young people to the profession is another angle. But that exposure has to come early, Vaughn says, ideally in middle school, or even elementary school.
Despite the challenging nature of UK’s architecture program and the feelings of loneliness and isolation he sometimes experienced, Vaughn maintains that the experience was a positive one overall. “The quality of the program spoke for itself at the time, and still does today. But we’ll never get to a level playing field unless it’s intentional.”
To learn more about supporting the College of Design, visit www.design.uky.edu/give.