Industrial Arts

For years, the University of Arkansas School of Art was spread out across Fayetteville, Ark.: a sculpture studio tucked into a building here, classrooms in a building there, a painting studio occupying a garage off campus here. But a transformative $120 million grant from the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation for scholarships, internships and travel grants, changed all that. The first major transformation, after a formal name change to the school, was the retrofit of an old pre-engineered metal building on a small industrial site near campus

A renovated metal building serves an art school and creates a community beacon

By Paul Deffenbaugh

Arkansas Arts Apr19 1

Architecture firms Modus Studio, Fayetteville, and El Dorado, Kansas City, Mo., joined together to turn what was a dilapidated warehouse situated on an undiscovered brownfield into a vibrant center of activity. Clever use of perforated panels; a strong, simple palette and well-placed lighting turns the building at night into a lamp, drawing in students, faculty and visitors.

Speaking of the collaboration between the two firms, David Dowell, AIA, principal of El Dorado, says, “We know those guys so well at Modus that I don’t feel there was a conventional design architect/ architect of record relationship. It really was a collaboration all the way through. I can see pieces that are characteristically El Dorado, and I can see pieces that are characteristically Modus. It was a very even, open collaboration.”

Photos: Timothy Hursley

A Brownfield Reborn

The site is a small industrial area with a few warehouses that sits along a multi-use path and is situated just off campus. The plan was to turn the area, which is about a city block in size, into an arts district with a combination studio and classroom building establishing the beachhead. Modus Studio and El Dorado won the very competitive contract in part because the team had figured out a way to keep the existing 1970s-era building and re-use it.

The site was not technically designated a brownfield, but it did require considerable remediation. One of the prior uses had been as a stave plant, making crossbars for utility poles. As part of the process, workers dug pits, filled them with creosote and tossed in the staves to coat them. The creosote overtime spread out and contaminated the site, requiring an extensive clean-up process.

The jewel on the site, though, was the existing pre-engineered metal building. “It was the perfect typology for what we were going to be doing,” says Dowell. “The idea was to start with the frames of the building that we could salvage and keep adding frames as we needed them. There was enough structure in the volume that we could add a mezzanine for additional square footage.”

The team added four new bays on the east end and one bay on the west end.

“The skin was leaking like a sieve,” says Jason Wright, Assoc. AIA, partner at Modus Studio. “The bad shape of the superstructure was partly due to the fact it was erected in the late ‘70s, and didn’t meet building codes standards of today from a loading perspective. We were retrofitting a storage facility and changing occupancy use classification, so we needed to reinforce the mainframes of the building. It wasn’t that difficult. We just had to apply more material in plates and angles.”

The crew removed all the skin of the building, leaving nothing but the main frame and purlins. The mezzanine addition is not a true mezzanine, but a separate structure placed inside the building. “The mezzanine is as tight as we could get it and code would allow,” says Dowell. The vertical head clearance is 6 feet 8 inches, and thankfully the load requirement was just to support people and not wind or snow loads.

The metal building frames were supplied and installed by Alliance Steel Inc., Oklahoma City, which receives strong praise from the design team for its attention to detail. “They were very respectful of it being a legacy building in the greater context of a university campus,” says Wright.

Lamp Lighter

The pre-engineered metal building defines the volume and space of the building, bringing it back to its industrial roots. The heavy frames on the interior and low-slope roof inform the passerby that this was a warehouse. But the perforated panels and careful attention to lighting tell a different story. Those elements establish this mundane building as something more—a waypoint, a beacon, a refuge, a hub of activity.

The new bays on either end define entrances and it is in these areas that the designers focused on the perforated panels. There are panels on either side of a deep wall with lighting in between. ATAS International Inc., Allentown, Pa., provided the corrugated aluminum panels and the perforated aluminum panels, both with a PVDF coating in white.

“With these porous areas where we have these open bays, and where you go from inside to outside, it was our intention to blur that line,” says Jody Verser, Assoc. AIA, designer, Modus Studio. “And we looked at a combination of perforated corrugated metal and corrugated metal. We came across a very economical product from ATAS and it checked all of our boxes because we could have the exact same profile of their Belvedere Short Rib as we could with the perforated. We could just marry up those profiles and really do away with a lot of clunky trim and detailing that you would have to deal with otherwise.”

They also worked with ATAS to perforate some of the corner trim. “I think those finer details really helped polish off the project,” adds Verser.

“We wanted to capitalize on the industrial nature of metal building technology,” says Wright. “However, we wanted to push the limits given the material palette we had to work with within that building type.” And it needed to be done within a strict budget.

Situated next to the trail and nearby city streets, people constantly pass the building. “As you move around it,” says Verser, “you see the moire pattern kind of flicker and you see the building turn into a kind of lantern at night because it’s always going be active with art students in there. It’s a kind of core where the lights never turn off.”

The white palette provides a blank canvas to showcase the art that’s being created within. The building celebrates the industrial aesthetic, which includes the fenestration. The designers positioned multi-walled polycarbonate panels that are framed more like windows adjacent to the framework to reveal and revel in the heavy steel. “It celebrates the structure,” notes Verser, “and it deals with some of the gloominess that can pop up. The panels really scatter daylight far into the space.”
An industrial building can be a dour and dark environment, but the combination of metal panels, bright lights, perforations and large daylights turn a squat, uncomfortable, ramshackle building into a hive of creative activity that brightens the environment and attracts the community.