Fay Jones School: Building a culture of innovation and inclusion

Adohi Hall, University of Arkansas

Adohi Hall, University of Arkansas

At the University of Arkansas Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design, Dean Peter MacKeith says, “Any new building on campus essentially becomes a member of the faculty.”

Created largely by women-led firms, the university’s groundbreaking mass timber projects – and the women who designed and teach in them – have a lot to teach students, and the profession, about the connections between innovation, inclusion, and interdisciplinarity.  

The university is rapidly emerging as a national leader in mass timber construction, launching three innovative timber projects in as many years. The building spree kicked off in 2017 with the University Libraries storage annex, the first mass timber / cross-laminated timber (CLT) project in the state. Completed in 2018, the 27,000-square-foot, USGBC LEED Silver-certified structure provides a climate-controlled environment to house up to 1.8 million volumes.

Adohi Hall, which opened in 2019, is another first: the nation’s first large-scale mass timber residence hall. The project – a 2021 AIA Housing Awards honoree – was created by a design collective that included women-led firm Leers Weinzapfel Associates. “In all our work, we look for the synergy between place, purpose, and means. These came together in an extraordinary way at Adohi Hall,” commented Andrea P. Leers, FAIA, Principal, Leers Weinzapfel Associates. “We drew inspiration from the regional context of the Ozarks … and the wood-based construction system we developed forges a bond between setting, human comfort, and sustainability.”

That synergy is reflected in the name. “Adohi” is a Cherokee word that means "woods” – an acknowledgment of not only its timber design but also the campus’ location along the Trail of Tears traveled by Native American tribes during a forced relocation in 1838-39. The three-building complex includes a pair of five-story residential buildings, plus “the Cabin,” a common area central to Adohi’s purpose as a Living Learning Community. Designed to enhance opportunity for students enrolled in programs like architecture and design, art, music, and theater, the community space features a paint room, graphic design studio, and a workshop with a 3-D printer, soldering equipment, and other tools.

The Workshop, Adohi Hall, University of Arkansas

From the name to the materials to the collaborative spaces, Adohi reflects the architecture school’s core priorities and showcases the power of design.

“It is a sought-out place to live and learn as a student, and I think that the CLT has a big part to do with this,” explains Leanne Baribeau, AIA. A Fay Jones School alumna and associate architect at local firm Modus Studio, Baribeau served as project manager on the Adohi team. “Every public space and every student room has exposed CLT ceilings that were thoughtfully designed to be as 'clean' and free of utilities as possible. Wood was celebrated instead of covered up, and on top of that we used local Arkansas cypress in every location possible.”

The Cabin, Adohi Hall, University of Arkansas

For Dean MacKeith, Assoc. AIA, Adohi demonstrates the role architecture – and architecture schools –play as innovators. “University campuses have often been the greenhouses for innovations in architecture,” he noted, “not just stylistically but really much more about innovations in how we should live and work and learn.”

Those principles are on full display with the school’s next mass timber project, the Anthony Timberlands Center for Design and Materials Innovation. Set to break ground later this year, the $20 million design research center will house the architecture school's expanding design-build program and fabrication technologies laboratories and serve as the new home to the school's emerging graduate program in timber and wood design.

The project will be led by Dublin-based Grafton Architects, headed by 2020 Pritzker Architecture Prize winners Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara. According to MacKeith, this latest commission means “three of the five most significant university investments and commissions have been or will be accomplished by women-led practices” – a fact that is “immensely meaningful” for architecture students.

This rendering shows Grafton Architects' conceptual design proposal for the Anthony Timberlands Center for Design and Materials Innovation.

The prevalence of women-led firms in campus projects is the natural outgrowth of a deliberate focus to nurture an inclusive school culture, including faculty recruitment. Diversity is a priority not just when it comes to gender but “geographically and in types of practices,” MacKeith says. “Frankly, at a certain point you have to say to search committees ‘I need to see greater breadth of the candidate pool, and you need to give due regard to candidates’” representing a diverse range of perspectives, inside and outside the U.S.

One new faculty member, Assistant Professor of Interior Design Jisun Lee, Ph.D., can attest to the school’s emphasis on international perspectives. “As a female Asian woman looking for a position, I didn’t hold a Ph.D. degree from the USA,” Lee says. “Even though I did a postdoctoral study at Cornell, I obtained my Ph.D. from South Korea. The school was unbiased and fair to look into my work and experience, capture my qualifications, and offer me the position.” Lee also cites the school’s emphasis on study abroad opportunities as an example of efforts “to offer international perspectives in the profession.”

While MacKeith acknowledges that expanding diversity among faculty remains a work in progress, women represent 54% of Fay Jones School faculty and staff. That’s almost on par with the Fay Jones School student population, which was 63.5% female for the 2021 spring semester. Remarkably, the school’s female student population is up 80% since 2014, compared to an increase of just 28% for the male student population.

Current faculty member and Fay Jones School alumna Emily Baker, AIA, remembers what it meant to have female faculty members as role models. “When I was a student, the idea that ‘I am a woman architect, a female architecture student” wasn’t really at the top of my mind,” Baker says. “But the thing that sticks out from my memories is how important it was to have women faculty there. Even when I wasn’t directly thinking about that, having those people represented on the faculty meant the world to me."

The recipient of the American Institute of Steel Construction’s Early Career Faculty Award for her work in structural steel research and teaching, Baker is involved in developing the shop portions of the Anthony Timberlands Center. While that experience is “very empowering,” Baker’s specialization is not without challenges. “Especially as someone who works in fabrication, you feel the pushback that you are not the image of the person that they are looking for, for expertise in that area,” Baker notes. “I think that’s why I gravitate to things like prototyping because when you’ve got a physical object in front of you, you can’t deny whether it works or not.”

Baker draws on those experiences in the classroom. “I have noticed sometimes there’s a team with a woman who did the lion’s share of the work, but when it comes to presenting the project, there could be another very vocal student who presents it. So I’ve started to pull some of those students aside and say ‘it’s fine that your personality is not to jump in front of the crowd, but I do want to encourage you to own the work that you’ve done.’ Because while excelling in school is merit-based, when you come into the profession, a lot of things are based on people’s impression. You can go through school and get straight A’s and still maybe not have some of the skills for advocating for yourself that you’re going to need to keep going forward.”

For Baker and other faculty, achieving an inclusive campus that welcomes diverse perspectives encompasses content to “more directly address the reality we all live with.” As Associate Dean Ethel Goodstein-Murphree, Assoc. AIA, Ph.D., puts it: “Diversity in the profession is not just about the XY chromosomes of the folks sitting around the table; it is recognition that responsible practice in any of the design disciplines involves voices who are going to speak to social equity and access in the community, are going to speak to resilience in communities.”

One of the school’s strategies to further socially conscious design is interdisciplinarity, and it’s a focus from the beginning of a student’s experience. “Preparing our students for highly nuanced professional paths involves a unique set of first-year experience exposures,” Goodstein-Murphree says, including a half-semester course in which a multi-disciplinary “bevy of members of the faculty” share their expertise with students. “We introduce all of the design disciplines as being interrelated from day one. We do a welcome talk that presents our initiatives in terms of what it means to be in a state that has extraordinary timber resources, what it means to be in a state that has fragile core infrastructure.” By centering discussions of “equity, diversity, and ableism” in these real-world contexts, faculty “try to make clear in that first connection with students that if the society's and the culture’s problems and challenges aren’t the problems and challenges of the design professions, we probably aren’t doing what we should do, especially at this time of history.”

The interdisciplinary focus is reflected in the very organization of the Fay Jones School, which reorganized in 2010 to incorporate interior design as a core department. The move was mirrored by a renovation to bring all three disciplines -- architecture, landscape architecture, and interior design – under the same umbrella and under the same roof for the first time. The cutting-edge, multi-disciplinary Anthony Timberlands Center represents the next step in this evolution.

The move to integrate interior design supports equity in more ways than one, according to Goodstein-Murphree. “From time to time, you see a male student whose abilities really would propel him in that direction but who is reluctant to transfer. It’s about equity, not just with regard to gender but also with regard to understanding interdisciplinarity and biases in the profession a little more clearly. Any frameworks that break down pre-existing, dated perceptions of the design profession, as well as the people who participate in the design profession, are absolutely necessary if we are going to move forward to achieving better equity and social justice.”

Lee underscores the importance of interdisciplinary and holistic approaches in developing creative design solutions. “All disciplines, including interior design, are mutual sources for interplay. Technology that is continuously advancing also impacts all disciplines to be more interactive and increases the capacity of architectural creation.”

Lee’s research focus is environmental design, and she cites biophilic design and biomimicry as two multi-disciplinary fields with particular relevance to the profession’s climate, health, and equity priorities. “Nature has long inspired architects and designers for innovative design solutions to human problems… by mimicking biological processes and systems that already contain design solutions that are perfectly functional and aesthetically beautiful,” Lee explains. This interdisciplinary exploration involving “biologists, scientists, architects, interior designers, and even artists” has “led to one of the important design approaches that contribute to a sustainable, equitable, healthy built environment.”

In Lee’s Healing Space Design course, students brought this approach to bear on the pandemic – developing design solutions to address not only social distancing and ventilation but also “community vibrancy.”

As the next generation of architects completes their studies in an era when we’re questioning everything about how we live, work, and learn, the possibilities for equitable design innovations seem endless.

Beyond design solutions, can the pandemic generation drive cultural change? Women in the profession say change can’t come soon enough.

“The pandemic has been an absolute nightmare for most working women, myself included,” Baribeau says. “All of the support systems that we had for ourselves – daycare, public schools, even playgrounds – were completely taken away while we were still required to perform all the same tasks. I was very lucky to work for a firm that was supportive and understanding during this time, but that didn't mean that I didn't feel the pressure from all sides.”

While the pandemic laid bare many challenges, it also revealed solutions. “Now that the worst of it has passed, it seems that some positives have come about – mainly the flexibility that comes with working from home,” Baribeau continued. “I think it has also shined a spotlight on what women have to juggle every day and that if we ever want equality in the workplace, the state and public schools are going to have to step up with more low-cost and free childcare options. This is the anchor that is holding all working women to the floor.”

As Dean MacKeith says, architecture schools are “greenhouses” not only for design innovation but for “how a campus can be organized to really reflect the best aspects of our society and culture.” The broader impact on the profession is still taking shape, but what we know so far is promising: At the Fay Jones School and many others, tomorrow’s architects are coming of age in an environment where virtual technology is a way of life, sustainable and equitable design are at the forefront – and women are in the driver’s seat.

Image credits

Adohi Hall, University of Arkansas

Timothy Hursley

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