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At Fay Jones School of Architecture, BIM Helps Marlon Blackwell Knit Old and New Together

Vol Walker Hall is getting a new glass-clad addition, designed by the architect who knows it best

By Ingrid Spencer

After 20 years of teaching students at the University of Arkansas’ Fay Jones School of Architecture in Fayetteville, Marlon Blackwell, FAIA, is uniquely qualified for the task he was given by the school: to renovate the historic Vol Walker Hall, where the school is housed, and add a new structure—the 35,000-square-foot Steven L. Anderson Design Center.

Vol Walker Hall, a stately 70,000-square-foot Beaux Arts building, was completed in 1935 as the university’s library, but it’s been home to the architecture department since 1968. It was designed by a trio of architecture firms, including the Missouri firm Jamieson and Spearl, noted for contributing many buildings to Washington University at St. Louis’ Collegiate Gothic campus. The library-turned-architecture building has long been in need of updating. The library stacks and reading areas were underused, with spaces “made for books, not people,” Blackwell says, even as they supported the floor of the main gallery. That same gallery, however, had poor light and acoustics, which did not lend itself to a proper critique room or exhibition space.

For Blackwell to design an addition that would harmoniously meld old and new, he had to carve out and add space, transforming the T-shaped original volume into an H. “We worked with the original DNA of the building, incorporating it into the DNA of the addition,” he says. “The design strategy makes the entire building more didactic in structure. The original building was built with the materials and technology of its time, and we wanted to show how building technology has changed, but do it in a way that honors the existing proportions and materials.”

Along with new spaces (studios and critique areas, a 200-seat auditorium, faculty offices, a conference room, and a green-roofed terrace to be used as a covered outdoor classroom), the $32 million renovation and addition will set up the roof for a phased addition of solar panels, and honor the materials and volumes of the original building without copying them. For example, on the western façade, a custom steel curtain wall and a brise soleil of fritted glass fins to help shade intense afternoon sun will provide a lighter take on the punched openings and heavy limestone facades of the original building. “The limestone rain screen of the addition reduces the structural load, so we can cantilever and use fewer structural columns,” says Blackwell, who heads the University of Arkansas architecture department.

The project, to be completed in 2013, unites three disciplines on campus: architecture, landscape architecture, and interior design. “Opportunities for collaboration between the three departments were previously limited,” says Blackwell, who touts the easy circulation between the addition and the old building as key to the teamwork to come. The addition will provide three floors of studios, two of which will be equal in size to the old studio space in Vol Walker.

From BIM to IPD

The sheer complexity of this renovation and addition required the design team to be able to see the project at every scale and level of detail. Accordingly, the university mandated the use of building information modeling (BIM). “It was also the complexity of the design that required a 3D environment for the [mechanical, engineering, and plumbing] consultant to model their systems,” says Will Burks, an intern architect and IT director for Blackwell’s firm. “The intent was to not have the systems in the project be visible, or impact the overall design. Without the integrated delivery there would be no way for the consultants to know exactly how to route their systems throughout the project."

To carefully peel apart the layers of history in the old building and add new layers to it, every detail of Vol Walker Hall was put into a building information model, which was largely done using original construction drawings. Blackwell’s eponymous nine-person firm worked with an internal BIM system on many of its projects in the past, but it had not previously used BIM to enable integrated project delivery (IPD), a process in which several people involved in a project—clients, architects, subcontractors, etc.—can log in from multiple locations and simultaneously work on a single integrated model.

With the help of associate firm Polk Stanley Wilcox, a team of 12 to 14 people—including mechanical and structural engineers and a lighting consultant—were able to “construct” their own model, which could then be integrated seamlessly into the architectural model, complete with sophisticated renderings and three-dimensional details. The architectural model became central to the entire project, assuming changing roles throughout the process.

According to Burks, the team used Revit 2011, which at the time didn’t have an affordable method of accomplishing the kind of IPD that was necessary. (Autodesk has since released its Revit Central and Local Server packages, which would have been an acceptable solution had they been available at the time). Burks and Blackwell created a cloud computing system using a Hyper-V central server, which team members could access from wherever they were, on whatever device they might have at hand—“even a smart phone,” says Burks. Blackwell’s office took charge of modeling standards, file linking, model review and maintenance, and content creation. The associate architecture firm worked alongside Blackwell's firm to perform the detail documentation and construction administration, while directing the LEED documentation and specification writing efforts. “It was pretty seamless,” says Burks. With such a detailed information model, the team was able to eliminate construction surprises and uncertainty. Going forward, the model will be an invaluable tool for the facilities management team to maintain the new building.

The team’s investment in technology has already begun paying off. This addition and renovation was recognized with a 2012 AIA TAP BIM Award for exemplary use of BIM in a small firm.

Old and new

While the completed project promises to be a symbiotic hybrid of historic and modern, the process by which that hybrid arrives is really a radical departure from the way architecture has been created in the past. “This project provides a forward spirit for the university,” says Blackwell, “informed by the old, but decidedly new.”


The University of Arkansas’ architecture school facilities will include the new Steven L. Anderson Design Center and a renovated Vol Walker Hall. All images courtesy of Marlon Blackwell Architect.

The stately Beaux-Arts Vol Walker Hall was completed in 1935 as the university’s library, but has housed the architecture department since 1968.

On the western façade of the new addition, a custom steel curtain wall and a brise soleil of fritted glass fins shade the building from the intense afternoon sun and provide a lighter take on the heavy limestone façade of the original building.

The addition and renovation will install improved gallery space.

A renovated reading room in the original Vol Walker Hall.



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