One example is the Platform House, which was built for a client who is sensitive to mold. To eliminate moisture beneath the house, Rockhill lifted the entire structure above grade on piers. “If you look historically at what people do in these agricultural regions, you elevate buildings,” he explains. “So it's a very simple concept we used for this house.”
Another case is the Newton House. For its exterior walls, Rockhill borrowed the color palette of the small terra-cotta structures built for milk storage on many Kansas farms. The same project also drew inspiration from the machinelike pumping stations that dot the landscape—simple structures that are wrapped in metal and punctured with factory window sashes.
“I think Dan is important nationally because of the quality of work he does,” says Frank Harmon, FAIA, who included Rockhill in a conference he organized for Harvard University's Graduate School of Design Executive Education program. “His work has great content in terms of innovation, form, and materials. But more importantly, it's very rooted in the plains of Kansas.”
Harmon says the landscape around Lawrence gave him a new appreciation for the pioneers who settled this region. And, in a sense, he sees Rockhill as a kind of pioneer. “Out to Kansas comes this kid from Long Island, a guy who grew up knowing how to fix anything. He comes out there with his know-how and his Yankee ingenuity. And what does he use? Scraps of steel, slabs of limestone.”
Rockhill says stone is most useful to him when doing restoration work, of which he has done quite a lot. In his new projects he tends to favor modern materials, such as steel, concrete, and glass. He likes their durability, he says—and the fact that steel and glass are recyclable.a breed apart
Rockhill's propensity to marry design and construction, in both his teaching and his practice, gives his design studio a structure that sets it apart from many programs that build low-cost housing. And the process has resulted in buildings that are receiving national attention, based on their design merit, in competitions that include seasoned professionals.
“We are trying to create architecture in a setting that more students will face when they start to practice—real budgets, mean clients,” Rockhill says. “I think what distinguishes us from programs such as Habitat for Humanity is that we are strong on design. I attribute that to my insistence on raising the bar of design.”
Rockhill also keeps a keen eye on the overall process because he believes the finished building is not the be-all and end-all. “There are so many things—the engineering, the electrical panel, the plumbing—that make a comprehensive experience only a house like this can give you,” he says. “It's more than swinging a hammer. We take responsibility for the smallest detail.”
That depth of accountability, he insists, is the signature characteristic that distinguishes Studio 804 from other comparable programs. And, when you get right down to it, it's also what distinguishes Rockhill and Associates from most other firms. After all, how many architects build their own windows?
Vernon Mays is Curator of Architecture + Design at the Virginia Center for Architecture and Editor of Inform, the magazine of the Virginia Society AIA.