When South Campus students return to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga for the start of the spring 2023 semester, they will quickly find a space they can call their own.
On Jan. 9, The Aviary at Stacy Town Center will be introduced. Located at the corner of East Eighth and University streets in front of the Decosimo Apartments, The Aviary is a student space conceptualized and designed by students in the UTC Interior Architecture and Design program.
The story behind the creation of a student-centric space to serve the social and academic needs of students residing in Decosimo, Guerry, Stophel, Walker and UC Foundation Apartments began more than 18 months ago.
Stacy Town Center, which opened in 2001, might best be known as the building within campus housing that hosts a Subway sandwich shop.
The space initially housed a fitness and recreation area before it was later converted into offices—most recently occupied by Housing and Residence Life.
When Dr. Abeer Mustafa arrived at UTC as associate vice chancellor for enrollment management and student affairs, it didn’t take long for her to notice an absence of South Campus community gathering spots.
“When I first got here, I was like, ‘Why are we sitting in a student space?’” Mustafa said. “I was told, ‘Because we don’t have an office.’ So I’ve always looked for a space for us to move Housing.
“I wanted to give the space back to students. You have almost 1,900 students that live on South Campus, and it’s important for them to have a big enough space where they can congregate.”
While there are student meeting spots at the University Center, UTC Library and recently-renovated Lupton Hall, there weren’t any spaces of note on the south side of McCallie Avenue and its five-building student housing complex. So Mustafa had what she referred to as one of “my crazy ideas here at UTC.”
In the summer of 2021, she met with UTC Interior Architecture and Design faculty members, including Associate Professor Jessica Etheredge—the program’s director. They discussed potential opportunities for students and different spaces across campus.
They quickly focused on creating a Stacy Town Center student lounge area to improve South Campus student life.
“I loved her ideas. I loved her energy,” Etheredge said. “Dr. Mustafa wanted our students to be involved, so I created a plan for the first four weeks of the semester.”
Beginning Day One of the fall 2021 semester, Etheredge had the third-year students enrolled in her Commercial Interiors I course divide into groups of two. During the four-week project, the students gathered information through research, brainstorming, site visits, field measurements of the space, interviewing Residential and Campus Life staff and surveying students living in the apartments.
The students developed design concepts and proposals for the approximate 3,300-square-foot Stacy Town Center student lounge using the information and feedback.
Proposals included revised plans with furniture layouts that supported user needs. Deliverables included project boards with furniture plans, visuals and digital presentations.
Real-world presentations were then made to a group that included Mustafa, Chancellor Steven R. Angle and members of the University of Chattanooga Foundation—which owns the five South Campus properties.
“Needless to say, the students were a little intimidated making that final presentation in front of administration and staff,” said Etheredge, who quickly learned this would be more than making the presentation and moving on to the next assignment.
“After the final presentations and the students left the room, the discussion immediately turned to, ‘We’re going to get this approved. This is going to happen. This is going to take place,’” Etheredge recalled. “Dr. Mustafa was all about, ‘Let’s recognize and celebrate the students. Let’s present this. Let’s hire some of the students as project managers so they can see the process first-hand.”
Said Mustafa, “Jessica didn’t put any blinders on the students. She said, ‘Interview, imagine and design,’ and that really came out in their work. I appreciated that piece. I wanted to see the originality of the students.
“This is their vision. This is their project. It’s important for them to be at the table.”
When Jacob Ridenour enrolled at UTC, he didn’t know what field he wanted to pursue.
“I kind of just selected this major; the word architecture jumped out to me,” said Ridenour, a native of LaFollette, Tennessee. “I found a passion I didn’t really know I had.”
Ridenour and fellow interior architecture and design major J.T. Taylor are co-designers of The Aviary.
They are both seniors at UTC; that’s where the similarities end.
“We’re complete opposites, but we work super well together,” Ridenour said. “He’s a very outspoken guy with a lot of real-world experience, and he’s got the craziest, biggest ideas. I’m kind of the quieter, ‘OK, that’s a great idea, but how can we make that a little more realistic?’
“I think just being opposites, we meshed together and it worked out really well.”
Taylor is decidedly not a traditional college senior. He already possesses two degrees—in education (from Montana State University Billings) and music performance (from American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York City). His teaching career included a five-year stint with the New York City Department of Education, but he always wanted to go into design.
“Interior designers who study interior architecture need a little bit more education,” he said, “so I went back to school.”
When Etheredge asked her students to divide into groups on the first day of junior year in August 2021, the Taylor/Ridenour team came together.
“It was self-selection,” Taylor recalled. “His work ethic is super good. He’s got an extremely clean and established design aesthetic, but that’s all I really knew about him.
“He has proven to be the person that has set the bar extremely high as far as partner work; he’s very easy to communicate with. Coming from a different generation, my expectations are different from these kids, and he was very easy to adapt to.”
Taylor said it wasn’t long before the Aviary concept was born.
“Everything I design emulates nature,” Taylor said, “so we found a root image: a robin’s eggs nest. Then we chose all the colors from that image—blues, browns, yellows and golds. And since we are the Mocs, what can relate to birds and still house the student body? The Aviary.”
“What drove our whole design,” Ridenour said, “was we wanted this space to be a nest for students to just have a home away from home, so this image of a nest was our inspiration.”
Creating the new space costs money, though, and the UC Foundation agreed to fund the $500,000 renovation.
Board member Roger Smith, chair of the UC Foundation’s real estate committee, has been a part of the project from the outset—reviewing competitive student proposals and choosing the winner.
“Participating in the process was something I was really excited about,” Smith said. “I’ve always believed we have professionals teaching soon-to-be professionals, so why not use them instead of hiring outside talent? The students did a great job and had terrific ideas.”
Smith, a 1973 graduate of the University, was asked to compare student spaces during his time as an undergraduate to what will now be available.
“When I was there,” he said with a laugh, “we barely had a student center for the entire campus. It probably wasn’t as big as Stacy.”
Officially, construction and renovation work began on Oct. 31, but the process started long before that.
The interior architecture students learned first-hand about working within budgetary limits and got a taste of what it’s like to actually work in the field after initially seeing the project delayed due to supply-chain issues.
“This has been a great opportunity for them because they can say, ‘I worked on a half-million-dollar project. That’s not something you often get when you’re coming up through school,” said Laurie Kianka, project manager for Campus Life at UTC.
Kianka came to UTC shortly after the student presentations and was essentially tasked with putting the puzzle pieces together. She has worked closely with P&C Construction and Franklin Architects and made sure Taylor and Ridenour have been included in the process.
“When Abeer approached me and said, ‘We’re going to build this. Can you foster this project?’ I said, ‘I’d love to.’ It’s not often you see your stuff being built when you’re a student,” Kianka said.
“I’m excited that we’re going to have that opportunity to move these students into the real world and help them be more prepared to engage. They’re walking out that door with actual experience.”
Taylor and Ridenour even worked directly with the furniture vendor, NOI Furniture market director Erin Stevens.
“We all know that you go to school and you learn the dynamics of everything and how to conduct yourself in general,” Stevens said, “but when you get in the real world, that is sometimes night and day.
“We brought the students into our office and we started looking at the concepts they had—their vision. Jessica had worked with them on finished selections and colors, so we already had a concept in mind. We just worked with them to put realistic budget numbers together.”
Ridenour called it “an educational experience” of participating in meetings and being included on email threads when decisions had to be made.
“It was cool to see how the contractors, the architects, the designer from Franklin Architects, how all of them collaborated,” he said. “We talk about it in class, but seeing it first-hand was a really cool experience.
“Being able to look back to freshman year to where I am now,” Ridenour continued, “I would never have thought I would’ve been a part of a real-life project that’s going to come to fruition—especially on UTC’s campus. To be able to make a mark on UTC quite literally is pretty awesome.”
And that project will come to life when coveted student gathering space comes to the residents of South Campus.
“I’m excited and can’t wait to see students actually in the space and engaging with our design,” Ridenour said. “Seeing it come to life will be a real humbling experience.”
Added Mustafa, “We keep hearing that same theme over and over and over: ‘We’re really looking forward to having our space.’ They’re going to have that space to call their own—a spot designed for students by students—and it’s going to be amazing.”