UNC Asheville Selects Frank Harmon as Architect for Craft Campus; Site Set To Go From Landfill to Landmark

The view captured Frank Harmon’s imagination.

Frank Harmon, FAIA
Frank Harmon, FAIA

Standing on a grassy bluff overlooking the French Broad River, the third oldest river in the world, the acclaimed Raleigh architect knew for sure that he wanted to design the buildings that would one day become UNC Asheville’s Craft Campus.

The natural beauty of the Craft Campus site as well as its surprising past inspired Harmon. Its sweeping vistas offer “a view that’s every bit as good as Biltmore Estate and yet it was a former trash dump,” he said.

The site, once a Buncombe County landfill, has been re-purposed as UNC Asheville’s Craft Campus. The site, just four miles from main campus, will be a complex of environmentally friendly classrooms and studios for the teaching and learning of the region’s renowned studio craft traditions. Methane and other alternative fuels generated on-site will serve as “green” energy sources to power kilns, furnaces, forges and other critical infrastructure.

The University has set the Craft Campus on a mission to become the leading undergraduate craft studies program in the nation, while re-centering the modern American studio craft movement in Western North Carolina.

It will be no small task to create the buildings that will encompass this expansive vision. But Harmon, who was recently tapped to lead the design of the Craft Campus, is more than up to the challenge.

At 67, Harmon has spent more than three decades creating critically acclaimed spaces for people to live and work. His craftsmanship is highly regarded by both his peers and architecture critics. He has won more than a dozen honors from the North Carolina Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, including one earlier this year. Time magazine named his Rake and Hoe building in Raleigh as one of the 10 best in the nation in 1988. BusinessWeek and Architectural Record lauded his metalworking studio at Penland School of Crafts.

Jean McLaughlin, Penland School of Crafts director, is quick to add her voice to the praise.

“Students and instructors truly love the iron studio. Our studio coordinator who first worked in the facility said that he thought the studio itself motivated students to do even better work,” McLaughlin said. “At Penland we teach through demonstrations and one-on-one guidance, so it has been important to have instructors tell us that the space functions really well.”

In addition to the metalworking studio at Penland School of Crafts, Harmon has also designed a number of other working and learning spaces for artists, including the North Carolina Pottery Studio in Seagrove, the Star Works Factory for artists in Star, N.C., and several private studios.

But Harmon isn’t just passionate about the arts, he’s also dedicated to sustainability. He’s worked on a number of ecologically sound projects from the Ocean Conservation Center in Beaufort, N.C., to the Walnut Creek Urban Wetlands Educational Park in Raleigh. This ethos fits perfectly with UNC Asheville’s Craft Campus mission.

“The possibility of being able to use methane on the site as a fuel source was very attractive to me,” Harmon said. “Our firm has been focused on sustainable buildings for decades. This just seemed a beautiful opportunity to give something back to a piece of landscape that had, in a sense, been taken away.”

Craft Campus Director Brent Skidmore said that these sensibilities, as well as Harmon’s impressive design record, made his firm the clear choice. The eight-member committee fielded 19 applicants and held interviews with five architectural firms. They agreed unanimously on choosing Harmon’s firm.

“Frank’s signature is an excellent match for our project,” Skidmore said.

Harmon’s vision for the campus began to materialize during the search process and is continuing to take shape.

“It will be a place that respects the land where it is built and the ecological traditions of the region. It will seem very much at home in its surroundings. And it goes without saying that it will be a building that is provident of energy and resources; it will be sustaining,” Harmon said. “So, it will be very much at home on the site but at the same time we’d like it to express that it is a building of today and represents the best that crafts have to offer as we move forward into the 21st century.”

Through a generous lease arrangement with Buncombe County, UNC Asheville’s Craft Campus will be located on a 153-acre site north of the University. The design process will begin in December. The campus is expected to open in four to five years.

The design team includes Frank Harmon Architect, Altamont Environmental Inc., Ambient Design Group, Cavanaugh & Associates, Costing Services Group, 4SE Inc. and RMF Engineering Inc.

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