KU’s student architects have built another amazing property, but they need to sell it — now

As the students of Studio 804 gather in the empty parking lot on a late autumn morning, the churning sky mirrors the gray expanse of the abandoned Farmland Industries plant. Behind chain-link and barbed-wire fencing, rusted pipes snake over grass-studded railroad tracks, connecting old warehouses and corroded storage units that once held chemicals.

A few minutes after 8, architect Dan Rockhill, the director of Studio 804, pulls in and parks his truck inches from the “No Trespassing” sign posted on the front gate.

“This is a toxic site,” Rockhill warns as his class — graduate students in the University of Kansas’ School of Architecture, Design and Planning — gathers in front of a rickety warehouse. “In fact, some of you are glowing.”

They follow him inside.

The place is a dump. He points to the bent lid of a refrigerator-sized toolbox. “A lot of crackheads and meth addicts come through here,” he says, adding theft to a list of hazards and hardships endured by past Studio 804 students.

But in this grimy warehouse, often without heat, Rockhill and his students have constructed award-winning buildings slice by slice, transporting each prefabricated chunk to sites in Lawrence, Greensburg and Kansas City and piecing them together like gigantic jigsaw puzzles.

The design-build concept, which involves students in both the conception and construction of buildings, isn’t unique to this group at KU. Universities across the country train future architects this way. What puts Studio 804 in a different category is its ambition. It builds each project in the span of a single semester. That distinction hasn’t gone unrecognized. Last year, Rockhill’s program earned the Education Honor Award from the American Institute of Architects. It also has beaten scores of professional firms to win Architecture Magazine‘s “Home of the Year” award — twice. Studio 804’s work has been cited in publications as far afield as India and South Africa. Last summer, Rockhill lectured in Finland about the innovative program.

On this fall morning, Rockhill’s newest crop of students is reaping the benefits. The university has spent $2 million to upgrade Studio 804’s classroom. No more toxic warehouse. At their new work area, inside nearby East Hills Business Park, the students go from hushed to almost giddy. Inside the new, pristine space, the students’ voices echo through the empty 67,000 square feet.

“Anybody got a skateboard?”

“Dude, we all need to get Rollerblades!”

“We don’t need Rollerblades. We can have office-chair races.”

Rockhill doesn’t have time for games. He doesn’t have time to wait for electricity or desks, either. By the light of a laptop projection on the wall, his crew gets down to business. They haven’t been in class a full week yet, but they’re already evaluating opportunities for their 2010 design-build project.

Several students have drafted letters or put together PowerPoint presentations, but Rockhill fumes. Their work is too vague. They’re missing key components.

“This is not your usual tippy-tappy studio,” he says. “We kick ass here.”

Studio 804 is more than a class. It’s a business.

And it needs a sale to get back in the black.

It’s 6:55 a.m. on a Wednesday, and a handful of barely awake students lumber up the skeleton of a house in the Prescott neighborhood of Kansas City, Kansas.

The members of Studio 804 perch on the dusty ledge of what will become the garage of this two-bedroom home. One student tentatively pokes at a day-old piece of carrot cake left amid the construction rubble and then digs in to a sugary breakfast.

As they sip coffee from gas-station cups, the students glance at their watches. Because they struggle to rise in time to make the early morning meeting, many have self-imposed penalties for tardiness. One student has promised to wear a Sharpie mustache when she’s late. Another has pledged to shave his hair into a mohawk.


Still, there’s an air of seriousness. Laura Foster balances a notebook, crammed with receipts, on her lap. She’s 804’s chief financial officer, and the numbers don’t look good. “We’re beyond broke,” she says. “We’re so broke, we can’t even finish.”

A few minutes after 7, Rockhill saunters up and stands in front of the class in the gouged-out earth that will soon be filled for the two-car driveway. For more than an hour, they talk through the day’s to-do list: Finish the interior drywall, get started with the sheetrock, pull down the scaffolding to make way for the shipment of windows. They also probe solutions to the latest minor crisis: a roofing company backing out of its promise to donate a composite deck for the porch.

Rockhill throws out a few suggestions, but he doesn’t feed them answers.

These 16 students have three weeks — and virtually no money — to figure it all out. If they want to graduate, they have to finish this house.

There’s resentment in Rockhill’s voice when he says he never got this kind of hands-on training when he was in architecture school. “The public would be amazed at how detached architectural education has been from the reality of building,” he says. Lectures and computer work dominate curriculum. Internships get students out of the classroom but generally slot them into the cubicle farms of architectural firms to grow into what Rockhill says is an entire generation of ill-prepared professionals. Because they don’t understand the literal nuts and bolts of construction, they pass the buck to the contractors. “A lot of architects are basically just good at covering their asses,” Rockhill says. “They don’t know what they’re doing.”

That’s why he started Studio 804 in 1995. He wanted to throw his students into the real-world chaos of a crowded construction site and the pressure of building a home that’s ready to sell on the open market.

Jared Eder, a 2009 graduate of Studio 804 who now works at Ellerbe Becket in Kansas City, is among the students who have been lured to KU by the program. “I was sick of the ‘paper architecture’ route of the more traditional paths to a master’s,” he tells The Pitch in an e-mail. “There comes a time when you need to step away from the computer and all the ‘photo-realistic’ renderings and make something, put your money where your mouth is.”

John Gaunt, dean of the KU School of Architecture, knows that Rockhill’s program has become a national draw. “It’s one of the shining lights of the school — and the university,” he says.

Because Rockhill wants his students not only to come up with designs but also to stretch the industry’s imagination, every idea gets a full analysis. Last semester, one student thought that the Prescott house would look cool wrapped in metal cladding. The class did a full mock-up. Even for the teacher, it was an exhausting process.

“But I’m not going to acquiesce because they’re tired,” Rockhill says. “This is a building that’s going to be here 50 years at least. Are we going to do shitty work because they’re tired? No. We’re going to work until we have something we’re all comfortable with.”

The workload is a gut check for students who want to cash in on 804’s reputation. Past participants say Rockhill’s class was a major boon for their resumes when they hit the job market. But Studio 804 isn’t so popular that it has to turn away students. And the grind can take a toll. “There are two people from the fall who are not here now,” Rockhill says of the current class. “They did not make it.”


The students labor for free and do most of the work themselves — a few licensed professionals hook up the water and electrical lines. And they learn that the first rule of architecture is good accounting. “The single greatest thing that never gets talked about in education is the budget,” Rockhill says.

The groggy group members, taking their last sips of coffee on this Wednesday morning, feel the financial burden.

Studio 804, Foster says, is a business. “And you have to learn how to run the business,” she adds.

Last year, 804 took a risk.

“It almost crippled us,” Rockhill says.

Studio 804 built sustainable homes long before green became fashionable. As early as a decade ago, Rockhill and his students were using old windows from deconstructed buildings and laying water tubes under floorboards that warmed during the day and heated the house at night.

In recent years, a certification system called Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) — created by the U.S. Green Building Council — has become the yardstick for sustainable construction. To earn the designation, architects and builders must include conservation measures, such as low-flow water fixtures, and construction strategies, such as recycling odd bits of unused material. Though LEED is more than a decade old, very few buildings are so sustainable that they earn enough points for its highest rating, platinum — something Rockhill demands of his students.

“Builders are all conservative,” he says. “Architects are scared. So if we don’t, who does? We’re in a position to take a leadership role in these issues, show what can be done.”

Aside from Rockhill’s salary, the university doesn’t front money to Studio 804 for its construction costs. Instead, Rockhill operates the outfit as a nonprofit. The sale of each project fills the 804 bank account. If students want to build a house, they have only the money in that account — and whatever materials they can coax companies to give them for free.

In 2008, the students deviated from home building. After a tornado obliterated Greensburg, Kansas, the town needed a new arts center. Its leaders wanted to build green, but the city didn’t have much money. Studio 804 agreed to design and construct the art complex for $350,000. It became the first LEED platinum building in the state of Kansas, a structure worth close to $750,000, thanks to donated materials rustled by the students.

In 2009, the class used the first installment of money from Greensburg — more than a quarter-million dollars — to build Kansas’ first LEED platinum house. The distinctive home, with its vertical wood siding, sits in the middle of a ragged neighborhood just west of the University of Kansas Medical Center. “It’s like a sports car,” says Bob Myers, the real-estate agent for the house. “You feel that juice. It’s loaded and ready to ride.”

He’s right. The house is nested in a stand of trees, and its array of windows barely divides resident from forest, blurring the line between interior and exterior. The black concrete floor, warmed by the ample sunlight, begs for bare feet. The stairwell to the second floor is walled in glass, and the crimson floor is Brazilian cherry wood. The sleek, energy-efficient appliances are built seamlessly into the matte-black counters. Even the tile in the bathroom shimmers.


“It’s overloaded with green features,” Myers says. “There’s over half a million in it. You couldn’t reproduce it for less.” In the basement, where a fuse box would suffice in a traditional home, there are panels to control the photovoltaic solar array, the wind turbine, the radiant floors. There’s an energy-recovery ventilator, and there are two geothermal pumps.

But all the gadgets have so far confounded the buying public. “Appraisers, buyers, buyers’ agents,” Myers explains, “are not sophisticated enough. We’re not to the point of appreciating all of this yet. But this is the home of the future. This is where we’re moving.”

In the year since the house went on the market, Myers says, there hasn’t been a single serious offer.

The other 804 houses, including four funky modular homes, sold before construction was completed. There’s an unofficial waiting list for the studio’s work, which appeals to a certain aesthetic while remaining affordable. This one was different.

“If this house were $240,000, I could have sold it 10 times,” Myers says. “The reality is, you can’t build this for that price. And really, at $325,000, they’re taking a loss. A big loss.”

With that home still on the market, 804’s bank account was dry when the current students started the school year. “I told the kids in the fall, I don’t know how the hell we’ll do this,” Rockhill says.

In October, Greensburg paid the final $80,000 installment on its arts center. It’s a laughable amount to build a family home, let alone another LEED platinum structure. “But somehow they manage to pull this off, year after year, in an elegant, beautiful and successful way,” Gaunt says of Studio 804’s track record.

To pull it off this year, they’re going low-tech — and selling cheap.

On a recent Friday afternoon, Jennifer Mayfield hoists a plastic hose over her left shoulder and slides a surgical mask over her face. A fluffy substance that looks like laundry lint streams through the tubing and into the walls of the Prescott house. The gray flecks settle in her hair and cover her T-shirt like a thin layer of fur.

Mayfield’s task isn’t flashy, like the installation of a wind turbine or a solar panel. It’s a simple and dirty process. But filling the walls with cellulose is perhaps the most important aspect of the Prescott house. The recycled newspaper will distinguish this home from any other within hundreds of miles.

The idea was Mayfield’s. She studied in Germany for a year, where houses are built with several tons of insulation, drastically reducing energy costs. There’s a name and certification for the style of building: “passive house.” To meet the requirements, the home needs to be virtually airtight. The energy consumption must be 90 percent less than the standard home.

Nancy Schultz, an architect in Minnesota, built one of the first passive houses in the United States. It’s so effective and so comfortable, she says, that it’s easy to forget the seasons. Even in winter, the cold outside doesn’t seep in. While she was away earlier this year, the systems that heat the house went down. “For 10 days, there was no heat; nothing was on,” she says. “Inside, it was holding at 51 degrees. And it was minus 20 outside.”

To get that kind of performance, Studio 804 is using tactics that have baffled Kansas City, Kansas, inspectors. Because they have to hold all that insulation, the thick walls are made from lumber typically used in floors. “These wall cavities are crazy,” Mayfield says. “During the first mock-up, we stood in them and took pictures. You can stand in these wall cavities.”


To fill them up, Mayfield needs more than 340 bags of cellulose, each of which weighs nearly 29 pounds. That’s not the only insulation, either. “We basically wrapped the house in a 3-inch blanket of polystyrene,” she says, pointing to the thick, yellow chunk of foam on the exterior wall.

If it meets the certification requirements, Prescott will be first passive house in Kansas and one of fewer than 15 in the country. (The specifications are still so new in this country that even the Passive House Institute U.S. can’t name a specific number of qualifying structures.) Rockhill wants this house to be LEED platinum, too, but some of the requirements for the two certifications contradict each other. Passive houses want to let in the sun so the light will hit the concrete floor and heat the space. The LEED requirements work to block out sunlight, reducing the cooling costs. When Mayfield put in an order for windows recommended for passive houses, there was a moment of panic.

“There was a tense few days where we weren’t sure if we were going to have any windows at all,” says student C.J. Armstrong.

The students’ LEED consultant was out of town, Foster says. “So I’m calling anyone who knows anything about LEED, asking them, ‘Can we use them? Do you know?'” If not, they’d have a choice: Eat the total cost of the windows ($16,000) or sacrifice their LEED certification.

The LEED consultant eventually signed off. The windows, which open like sliding doors, are among the defining features of the house.

There are other cool things about the house, says student Katherine Morell, who serves as the group’s marketing director. Morell is the tour guide when a neighbor strolls by or a member of the KU Endowment wants to see the house. On this Friday, she’s showing off the group’s progress to Kevin Harden, a local architect and a member of the advisory board for the KU School of Architecture.

He asks her about the home’s unusual siding. It’s Douglas fir, a common North American lumber, but Morell points out that Studio 804 has given it a twist. The students have used a Japanese technique, called shou-sugi-ban, to naturally protect and paint the timber. For the better part of one Sunday, a handful of students ran a propane torch over each piece of wood, heating it to more than 800 degrees to seal it against invasion by water or insects. A group of students now are mounting the blackened wood slats on the house.

“That’s the burnt Douglas fir,” Morell says.

“It’s charred!” one student corrects from the scaffolding.

“Toasted!” another shouts.

So this house will be impressive but not intimidating. Residents won’t have to worry about the renewable-energy panels in the basement. This house looks no different than any other in the neighborhood, either. It has a gabled roof. There’s a front porch. “If someone’s scared of it, they’re not going to buy it,” Morell says.

They’ve priced it at $180,000 — which, their research shows, will allow a buyer earning 80 percent of the median income in this neighborhood to afford it. They leave fliers at the Sun Fresh grocery store when they pick up snacks. Their literature is in English on one side and Spanish on the other. Their DIY advertising seems to be working.

“A lady this morning called and was talking about how she needed to make sure she could get a loan,” says student Joel Garcia, the group’s unofficial liaison to the Latino community. “That makes you realize they really want to buy it.”


It comes with a one-year warranty. Rockhill doesn’t pretend that a house built by students will be without a few minor flaws. Recently, he acknowledges, there was a problem with the shower at last year’s house. But Rockhill keeps a close watch as construction progresses.

“He always tells us, ‘Are you going to come back in five years when it doesn’t work? Or is it going to be me and the dean who come back?'” Armstrong says.

“So far, we haven’t had to do any kind of major repairs or changes,” he adds. “It’s all actually gone fairly smoothly.”

Then he pauses.

“Uh, now that I say that, I’m scared,” he says, smiling up at a bunch of students perched on the scaffolding.

“There’s some wood behind you. Can you please knock?” Foster says, pointing to a sheet of plywood. “We’ve only got 28 days to go.”

Even the best-run businesses need a little luck.

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