Platinum at a Price

In the Kansas City that’s in Kansas—the dowdy stepsister of its larger and more glamorous namesake across the Missouri River—the vast stockyards are idle now, and the wealth they once produced is a thing of the past. But drive around some of the city’s weary neighborhoods, and here and there, between blue-collar cottages in varying traditional styles and states of dishevelment, you will stumble across a miracle of affordable modernism.

These small homes, surely among the most gorgeous modular houses ever built, are the creation of the University of Kansas’s remarkable Studio 804 design-build program, which aims to teach young architects-to-be not just how to design, nor even merely how to build, but also how to cope. For students, the process is essentially architectural boot camp run by a professor-cum-drill-sergeant named Dan Rockhill. He’s a hard-assed modernist who tries to balance his quest for perfection with an understanding of the 22 “fragile young egos” working with him each year on the annual Studio 804 project.

But this year’s structure, completed in May, is more than just a cool house. It’s also a shining example of state-of-the-art sustainable design—and an illustration of the aesthetic and financial challenges sustainable design presents, especially in a place like the Midwest, with its brutal climatic extremes. In Kansas City, architects have to worry not just about heating and cooling but about tornadoes.

It’s hard not to love Studio 804, which has always mixed mouth-watering modernism with ample social conscience. Its previous stick-built houses, in Lawrence, Kansas, where the university is located, were designed for the disadvantaged yet stand as a glorious rebuke to the notion that low cost (or low income) must mean dreary. When the program turned to Kansas City, where many lots were available at little or no cost and local community-development organizations wanted to participate, Rockhill had no intention of trying to site the studio’s work in the most comfortable part of town. “We seek out neighborhoods on the fringe,” he says, “often in need of some resuscitation.”

That’s when Studio 804 shifted to building in a large warehouse near campus and then trucking its work 40 miles to the city for assembly. Doing construction in a factory was less worrisome than dispatching students day after day onto I-70. The physical constraints dictated by the need to transport modules imposed a useful discipline on student designers. And since all the construction had to be done in a semester, building indoors provided valuable protection from weather delays, to say nothing of frostbite.

The four beautifully detailed homes produced this way were all made to sit relatively lightly on the planet—especially the fourth home, a crisp composition of wooden slats and snow-white panels. It features renewable materials, such as Forest Stewardship Council–certified Brazilian hardwood cladding and cellulose insulation, coupled with savvy low-tech strategies like a white roof to reflect the punishing summer sun and windows massed on the south side to maximize solar gain in winter.

The modular houses went pretty far toward sustainability, but in 2008 Studio 804 took ecologically minded construction to a whole new level, turning its attention to the small town of Greensburg, Kansas, which was almost entirely wiped out by a devastating tornado in 2007. Following the disaster, Greensburg decided to rebuild as a green community, and the city council mandated that all municipally owned buildings larger than 4,000 square feet had to meet the stringent LEED Platinum standards. The sleek modular arts center that Studio 804 produced for the town just a year after the destruction was lauded by then Governor Kathleen Sebelius and became the first LEED Platinum building in the state of Kansas.

Likewise, Studio 804’s latest effort, built on-site in the Rosedale neighborhood of Kansas City because of its size and gabled form, became the state’s first LEED Platinum house when it won certification in January. It will also be capable of functioning off the electrical grid—and feeding solar-generated electricity back into it. Building a Platinum, environmentally conscious home in the frayed community is in keeping with Studio 804’s history, not to mention Rockhill’s views on climate change. But there were pedagogical as well as ethical reasons for taking on the challenge. “Having gone through a LEED experience gives the students a leg up on employment,” Rockhill says, because “sustainability is at the forefront of the industry.”

The shape of the Rosedale house, like nearly every other aspect of the project, was strongly influenced by the standards developed by the U.S. Green Building Council, as well as by the desire to demonstrate that a substantial photovoltaic array could be integrated into a typical roof line. “We wanted it to look somewhat conventional,” Rockhill says.

The structure’s bluff face, a thinly disguised set of garage doors, is also partly the result of the environmental agenda, since moving the garage off to the side, the way it was done in other Studio 804 designs, would have meant a lot more paved driveway. In fact, the aesthetic challenges are evident at the very front edge of the property; instead of crisp-white conventional concrete, the driveway and walk are paved in a nubby, permeable species of concrete that looks and feels like white asphalt, edged wittily in coal. Rockhill explains that to get Platinum certification, a house can’t merely dump runoff into a sewer or allow paved areas to flood willy-nilly onto neighboring land. “You take responsibility for your storm water by absorbing it,” he says.

The result is a barnlike dwelling that trades the smoldering sex appeal of its modular predecessors for the more mature virtues of ecological purity. Yet once you get to know the 2,500-square-foot house at 3716 Springfield Street, it reveals itself to be sexy indeed, in its own more than skin-deep way. How else to describe the matte-black kitchen countertops of paper composite? Or the blindingly glossy epoxy paint that, despite the absence of volatile organic chemicals, makes the downstairs floors look like polished onyx?

Rainwater is collected for use in the garden. Wells tap into the earth to provide geothermal heating and cooling. The flooring upstairs is a luscious but environmentally correct jatobá (also known as Brazilian cherry) that is the color of dried blood. Parts of the house are made from 60-year-old Douglas fir recycled from a disused munitions plant in De Soto, Kansas. Forty feet of high-efficiency glass on the south side are shaded by louvers that were carefully placed to maximize passive solar gain in the winter while blocking the baking summer sun. The living-room windows look out on a small wind turbine that supplies extra power. The cladding is rich-looking South American hardwood (with FSC certification, of course).

Rockhill was determined not to let the LEED requirements dictate the house’s shape altogether. “Although we have an eye on LEED, we don’t let it have such a pronounced impact that it shackles our design intent,” he says. For example, the Springfield Street design called for quite a bit of glass. “We liked the openness of the end elevations expressing the volume of the space and wanted to work like hell to keep that quality,” Rockhill says. That meant paying through the nose for the highest-performing window assemblies made in North America. Off-the-shelf products simply wouldn’t have made the cut for LEED.

The windows weren’t the only thing that cost a great deal of money—the photo-voltaics alone exceeded $25,000—and Rockhill unfortunately decided to spend it at just the wrong time. Studio 804’s stunning modular designs had won international acclaim and, in Kansas, a waiting list of potential buyers, even though each home is tucked into a rumpled-looking block where modest older homes sell for a lot less. The reason was that the student-designed modulars were an incredible bargain. Rockhill recalls selling the first for just $140,000—and having built it for less. He sold the fourth of the series for $200,000. “We even have knockoffs,” he exults, showing off a couple of boxy imitators near one of the Studio 804 projects.

Emboldened by the success of the smaller houses and the Rosedale site’s proximity to the University of Kansas Medical Center, a source of well-paid employment—and thus potential buyers—Rockhill and Studio 804 embarked on a much more ambitious project involving cutting-edge technology and design. They poured $310,000 into the Springfield Street house, along with $350,000 of in-kind donations. (At Studio 804, cultivating and soliciting donors is as much a part of the learning process as framing walls.) Then there’s all that unpaid student labor.

The upshot is a costly house indeed, in a low-income neighborhood; in January, the home had already been marked down once and was on the market for $325,000, with no takers. The timing was simply unlucky. Although Kansas City didn’t have the kind of real estate bubble seen in Las Vegas or Miami, the downturn struck here too. In November, the average new home sold for $280,350, off from $325,559 a year earlier.

Then again, Dan Rockhill has never been about money, and, of course, neither has Studio 804. In his private practice, the 62-year-old architect has single-mindedly devoted himself to his own distinctive brand of Great Plains modernism, producing uncompromising designs that he builds with his own team so that he can control every aspect of the process—even when the process makes little sense for him financially. For some lucky (and, often as not, ungrateful) clients, he has essentially worked for free.

As for Studio 804, it has always been not-for-profit, except to the extent that it profits the students who cycle through the program each year and gain the priceless experience of dreaming up a house and then taking tools in hand to turn their plans into a livable reality. At Studio 804, students do everything from figuring out how to work cooperatively to negotiating conservative local housing authorities in a permit process that regularly drives Rockhill up the wall. He has learned that, in prying loose the necessary approvals, seeking sympathy is sometime s more effective than submitting ironclad calculations. When students divide up tasks, he tells them, “If you cry easily, you go to the building inspector.”

The overall experience can be brutal. The first semester, devoted to studio work, is integrated with other classes, but then the real work begins. Students give up part of their winter vacation, workdays start by 7 a.m., and toward the end of a project, everyone is working seven days a week, sometimes into the night. Although esteemed, Studio 804 is not overwhelmed by applicants every year. It’s just too tough, says Rockhill. But those who get through it seem to understand what they’ve accomplished. “I have a hard time putting into words how much I learned being put through that trial by fire,” says Jared Eder, who is now with the firm Ellerbe Becket in the other Kansas City. Asked about Rockhill, Eder says with something like awe that the man who runs the program “knows more than he’ll ever let you know that he knows.”

“It’s the most valuable class I’ve ever had at KU,” says Frank Lindemann, who spent seven years at Kansas earning undergraduate and graduate degrees, culminating in the Springfield Street project, before joining H3 Hardy Collaboration Architecture, in New York. “Without the experience at 804,” he adds, citing the impression it made at his interview, “I probably wouldn’t have a job.”

Like most Studio 804 projects, the Springfield Street house was built at breakneck speed—around three and a half months. Lindemann, who was the designated concrete guy, had little knowledge of the unforgiving stuff and anxiously studied up, gathering tools and consulting with a helpful old pro who was available to answer questions. He recalls that students argued over the shade of white they would use for the interior walls. “You get beaten down to your core,” he wrote in a Studio 804 publication, “and you rebuild from there.” John Gillham, another Studio 804 alum, could have been speaking for many when he described his time in the program as “the most difficult and frustrating period of my life” as well as “the single most rewarding experience of my life.”

For Rockhill, the Springfield Street project has had its frustrations as well. “What I have learned from Springfield,” Rockhill says via e-mail, “is basically, despite the housing downturn, that the second tier of housing—as opposed to ‘entry level,’ where we have had considerable success—may be a distant target for us in the future and we should stay within the confines of what works. With Springfield we were ahead of the curve, and it may take some time for the market to see the benefit in our area.”

So he’s taking the program back to its roots and, this year, emphasizing great design and sustainability in affordable housing. He’s already got the site picked out—a lot in the city’s Prescott neighborhood—and an ambitious target price of under $180,000 for the finished house, despite an environmental profile far superior to that of a conventional home. “As I tell my students,” Rockhill says, “if we don’t, who does?”

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