Somewhere along the diminishing fringe of the Ozarks, but still well east of the flounder-flat plains typically associated with Kansas, lie the rolling hills that tumble between Topeka and Kansas City. Call it Dan Rockhill Country.

In Dan Rockhill Country, there's not much room for pretension. Pragmatism built this agricultural region, and pragmatism still rules many of the decisions made here. “It's about frugal methods and Spartan aesthetics,” notes Rockhill, who came to the Sunflower State 26 years ago to teach at the University of Kansas (KU) in Lawrence and now also runs a busy design/build practice from a cluster of outbuildings on an old cattle farm in Lecompton.

Along the way, Rockhill decided his students would benefit from a dose of practical knowledge too. Eager to teach them how to build, he started small. Eventually the idea grew to become Studio 804, a nonprofit developer of affordable houses built at the rate of one per year, with graduate students providing the design skills and labor. Now, as head of an innovative practice in the nation's heartland and founder of the widely recognized studio at KU, Rockhill is being honored with the residential architect Top Firm Leadership Award for 2006.

ingrained work ethic Life on a farm is nothing new to Rockhill, who grew up getting his hands dirty on Long Island, N.Y. His father was a farmer; mom's family raised ducks. “People were always fending for themselves,” he says. Then Rockhill went off to college in the Midwest, enrolling in the architecture school at the University of Notre Dame. Even then, he was uncomfortable with the gap he saw between architecture and building.

Rockhill returned to his home state for graduate school at the University at Buffalo and taught there after earning his M.Arch. He continued to be fascinated by the making of things and discovered someone worth admiring in artist Wharton Esherick, who pieced together his own house in the Pennsylvania mountains. “I developed a reverence for craft at that point,” he says.

In 1980 Rockhill was hired to teach building technology and design at KU, but it didn't take long for him to realize he wasn't getting the job done. “I was discouraged because students would come back after graduation and say, ‘Why didn't you tell me?'” They convinced Rockhill that the difference between architecture education and the practice world outside of the design studio was the difference between night and day. That provoked him to make a change.

The current Studio 804—a literal name adopted from the course number—evolved from a graduate course students take during their final semester. Although Rockhill expected the students to be preoccupied with getting out of school—“You were the last thing in the way of their graduation,” he explains—he discovered instead that they were completely engaged by the simple roofing project he assigned them. The next year he took it a little farther, and before long, they were building entire houses.

Rockhill believes the 11-year-old studio is a perfect complement to the students' background, because most of them have limited life experience. “Young people today have often never even held a hammer,” he says. “They've grown up in suburbia. Most have never even built a treehouse.” Almost without exception, he adds, they are hungry for firsthand experience.

And an intense experience it is, beginning with the first class meeting in January and ending in mid-May with an open house in the completed building. “We have never had a site selected before class begins,” Rockhill points out. “It adds to the madness and to their collective experience.” He keeps the pressure constant by assigning one student a skill area and making that person ultimately responsible for the completion of the task. “Others pitch in and are part of the team,” he adds, “but I need someone to build the fire under.”

The 20-or-so people in Studio 804 are responsible for every aspect of the project, notes Amanda Langweil, a 2006 KU graduate. “We design and build every detail and are also responsible for finding financing, choosing a site, obtaining a building permit, meeting with the neighborhood, and marketing the house for sale,” she says. Rockhill participates as a coach might, from the sidelines, allowing the students to make mistakes and learn from them.