Earlier this year Langweil worked on a team that completed the studio's eighth house. Much has changed since the first house was built in 1998. At the time, Rockhill says, the City of Lawrence was equipped to channel federal funding to low-income housing, and city staff helped locate sites close to campus. But in a booming college town, lots were hard to come by. And frankly, Rockhill admits, the student work was a little too challenging for the town's conservative tastes. In the past three years, Studio 804 has collaborated instead with community development corporations in Kansas City, Kan., where residential lots are freely available. Says Rockhill: “You go to Kansas City, and it's like, ‘How many blocks do you want?' Then they apologize because they have to charge you $300 for the lot.”
The 40-mile distance between Lawrence and Kansas City also has transformed the Studio 804 experience into an exercise in prefabrication. Working inside a 10,000-square-foot warehouse in Lawrence, students build the houses in sections and then truck them to their sites for assembly. The modular houses, which average about 1,200 square feet, have varying widths of 10 feet to 12 feet and lengths of 18 feet to 21 feet. The components are built of 2x6 wall construction with engineered lumber floors and roofs.
Studio 804's early houses, which were traditional in style, sold to families in dire need of housing. The recent houses are edgier—unabashed modern boxes with crisp detailing—and are being scooped up by what Rockhill calls “young hipsters” who don't care about curb appeal and have no objection to living in racially and economically mixed neighborhoods. Rockhill admits he finds the shift in demographics somewhat troubling and says he would prefer to do something that has a greater social agenda.
For now, he takes comfort in knowing that he's doing good things for his students. He's not saying they should exit the program insisting they build all their own buildings: “I'm more interested in giving them the opportunity to see how hard you have to work to produce a good product, how determined you need to be to realize good design,” he explains. He also hopes to offer a wellspring of experience that will round them out and give them the vision to make a difference in their own lives.
In the short run, the practical experience is invaluable. Langweil, for instance, says she learned tons about the business side of architecture—how to interact with the city building department, how to manage a budget, how to keep the client and neighbors happy. She had a B.Arch. and five years' experience before coming to Kansas for graduate school, and she says she chose KU expressly for Studio 804. “Now that I'm back working at an architecture firm, I look at construction documents in a different manner,” she says. “I understand what I'm looking at and I can picture how the construction workers will put it together.”back to business
When he isn't overseeing his college-age charges, Rockhill tends to the demands of his own practice, Rockhill and Associates. Working alongside colleague David Sain, his associate of 18 years, Rockhill shepherds his practice on a 40-acre farm about 12 miles west of campus. The complex includes a granary, machinery shed, silo, barn, and milk house. All Rockhill had to add was a workshop.
With a staff of seven and a fleet of at least a dozen trucks (Rockhill's not quite sure of the exact number), the practice focuses primarily on residential work. Other current projects include the conversion of a Colorado grain facility into artist studios and the renovation of a Lawrence storefront into a small church. This summer Rockhill was one of 12 nationally recognized architects invited to participate in Architecture for Humanity's Biloxi Model Home Program, an initiative to solicit ideas for replacement housing along the Gulf Coast that pairs hurricane-affected families with architects.
Rockhill has embraced design/build so fully in his practice that, until recently, he could claim he built everything he designed. He does all the concrete work on his projects. He has a steel workshop. And his company builds the windows it designs. In truth, he started as a builder when he first landed in Kansas. “I couldn't just come here and hang out a shingle,” he allows. So he developed a reputation for taking on challenging construction projects, and as word spread, he was able to get work that included design.
Having so many resources at his disposal also gave Rockhill a competitive advantage. “Being a one-stop shop, we can always produce work for less money than anyone else can,” he says. “And that's the way you get a client base when you are in Kansas. You don't have people in this region who are that interested in design. And you don't have the moneyed people who are building big vacation houses. So I sell my kind of work by attracting their pocketbooks.” The firm's custom houses are typically completed for $200,000 to $300,000—a bargain in many markets.
Rockhill has exhibited his work in the context of the Kansas vernacular, but he bristles at the suggestion that he is a regionalist. And he is quick to point out that his work is widely perceived by the public as having little to do with Kansas. “We are good at forming neighborhood associations, because what we do is so different that it really irritates people,” he quips. “But all we're doing is taking something from the landscape and making something that we think deals with being in Kansas.”