Studio 804 Shines at 519 Indiana

Photo by Corey Gaffer Photography

Lawrence Modern has long maintained an interest in the work of distinguished professor Dan Rockhill’s Studio 804, the KU School of Architecture’s hands-on, design/build master class. Each spring we look forward to seeing what his tech-savvy students have concocted using the latest building technologies, usually from the always innovating Germans and Swedes. And while midcentury residential architecture remains our raison d’etre, the fact of the matter is if it weren’t for the Studio’s annual output in Lawrence we would eventually run out of cool modern buildings to admire and explore.

Studio 804’s latest effort, located at 519 Indiana Street in the Pinkney neighborhood is the 4th passive certified house in 804’s impressive oeuvre. Not only is it the most technically sophisticated 804 has ever done, particularly in the construction of the building enclosure, it sets an aspirational benchmark for how to sensitively introduce a hi-tech modern house into a neighborhood of mostly turn-of-the-century traditional houses. This is not easy to pull off: take a walk in any prewar Los Angeles neighborhood, for instance, and observe how rudely most contemporary homes regard their elders.

Perhaps Studio 804’s most significant breakthrough is how they have managed to make an environmentally sustainable LEED Platinum residential property highly desirable to live in, much like Tesla has for driving electric vehicles. The comparison is apropos. While still mostly viewed as a novelty appealing to a few early adopters and those who can afford them, both represent a new paradigm in living that inspires hope we can someday substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions from buildings and transportation, which percentage-wise far surpasses all other sources. And all the while do it in style.

With passive solar houses, style is mostly found in the details and the materials. Which raises a rhetorical question: are we okay with function dominating form in our housing? That’s the essence of passive design and the Studio 804 program, which continually has been the tip of the spear when it comes to experimenting with the latest energy-efficient building materials and techniques. This has led to some Studio 804 designs receiving a cool reception from the buying public.

I was planning to ask Dan Rockhill about this in May when I met him and some of his 804 students onsite a few days before the Indiana Street open house. Perhaps anticipating my slant, Rockhill addressed the criticism up front: “I know the buildings that I do are really controversial because they look different and that ticks people off,” he said, using an expletive. “I always harken back to the technology. We don’t build the way my neighbor’s houses were built because we have the capability of doing things technically that they never had available. I think universities are about ideas, and I like to be able to take advantage of those ideas and share them with the community. They can’t help but be different because they are fresh and new, and I bear responsibility for that; but I’m not going to continue with my head in the late 1800s.”

Dan Rockhill, right, meets with Studio 804 students at the Indiana Street House in May. A total of 28 students participated in designing, project managing, and building the house. Photo by Bill Steele

While Rockhill has been maligned in the past for his preoccupation with tech-driven designs, if the open house was any indication, more people are starting to warm to his ideas. About a record high 700 people signed in for the house tour, and the reception was, by all accounts, overwhelmingly positive. Many seemed genuinely interested in the green building’s tech (all seamlessly integrated), but the architecture elicited the most praise. “Really a beautiful and impressive statement,” said Jim Williams, a long practicing architect in Lawrence.

Reminiscent of Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, a modern take on the traditional French farmhouse, the Indiana Street House similarly achieves a “floating” effect for a luxurious, beautiful box that sits elegantly in the landscape. In some aspects it resembles an architectural lookout station or a treehouse, especially with the way the trees envelope the house. The living spaces are elevated and have controlled views on the east and west through massive “curtain walls” (sheets of glass in architecture-speak) that also open to balconies. A large curtain wall on the south side of the house is shaded by a louver that blocks 90 percent of summer sun but allows full sunlight to enter in winter. The result is a wonderfully open ambiance characterized by shifting light patterns throughout the day. This was achieved despite the house being on a very narrow lot, squeezed on both sides by multi-story houses.  

Photo by Tom Harper

The pièce de résistance of the design is the second floor main living area. It is, quite literally, startling. Climbing the rather long and narrow staircase that leads up to it, I was reminded of the time I climbed the stairs at a train station in rural Japan at the exact moment when a bullet train flew by at full speed. The force of the air blew my hair back and caused my knees to buckle. The analogy is a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the point. Perhaps without realizing it, the Studio 804 architecture students have done a splendid job of taking Frank Lloyd Wright’s concept of compression and release to the next higher level. They’ve made climbing up the stairs after a long, hard day’s work something to look forward to.

The main living area. Furniture provided by Rod Parks of Retro Inferno in Kansas City. Photo by Corey Gaffer
Photo by Corey Gaffer

Or maybe not? This is not a house for old people. Other parts of the plan also seem problematic, especially the bedroom and its big window facing the street. But how much do these things really matter to occupants? What’s it like to live in the house? To get some answers, I contacted the new owners, Frank “Ted” Goebel and Kelly Graf, who graciously let me into their home in mid-July.

Ted and Kelly are well-traveled paleolithic anthropologists who moved to Lawrence in May after teaching at Texas A&M University for 16 years. They were scooped up by KU’s anthropology department, where they have started teaching this fall and will research ice age archeology and how humans dispersed from the old world to the new world. A smart, chess-playing couple with good taste, they fit the ideal buyer profile for this residence. They are tech savvy, drive a Tesla, and love architecture, collecting modern furniture, and historic preservation. “We’re archeologists; archeologists are generally into historic preservation and the past,” Kelly said. “That’s what we do.”

Ted Goebel and Kelly Graf in the kitchen. The countertops are made of an eco-friendly paper-based composite material called Richlite. Photo by Bill Steele

While considering housing options in Lawrence last year, they came across Studio 804’s website. After emailing Dan Rockhill out of the blue asking about the Indiana Street House, which was still under construction, they found out it was for sale. Upon making two trips to the site and meeting with 804 students, they were sold. “We were like, ah ha, this is really cool,” Kelly said. “It’s an opportunity to own and live in a modern house with modern technology that from the beginning was designed to be a sustainable green building, urban sustainable living.”

The decision to buy the house and move to Lawrence was anything but happenstance for the couple, though. While at Texas A&M, they built a “modern farmhouse” in College Station, and ended up battling with builders to get what they wanted. “We tried to take a contemporary vernacular dogtrot of a German frontier house and turn it into something modern,” Ted explained. “They kept wanting to change things.” The house ended up compromised. To avoid similar disappointment, they spent considerable time vetting Lawrence to see if it would be a good fit. Interestingly, one of the deciding factors in their decision to move here was the Lawrence Modern website, which they stumbled on when researching local builders and architects. “We started to realize that there was an eclectic community here, in terms of the built environment,” Kelly said. “It wasn’t going to be a cookie-cutter suburban environment.”

Now three months into their new living situation, they say the Indiana house has exceeded their expectations and more than met their needs. The quality of light they enjoy is a big reason why. “I love being able to wake up in the morning and pull up the blinds and the sun is filtering in through the trees,” Kelly said. “It’s a beautiful light. The lighting is just so spectacular up here.” She singled out the lavatory for special praise: “The bathroom in the mid-morning is just beautiful because of the skylight up there. It’s just so amazing. I don’t have to turn on the lights in the bathroom until nine o’clock at night.” Ted added: “You rise with the sun rising and you sense that, and in the middle of the day the sun is focused in the middle part of the great room, and in the evening the sun is setting with you as you are having dinner and wrapping up your day. That for me is the most fantastic, the coolest part of this house.”

 “These kids, they had a real sense of design,” Ted said.

The bedroom faces east, capturing morning sunlight. Hidden motorized curtains provide privacy and shade. Photo by Corey Gaffer
The bathroom is outfitted with products made by Duravit, a high-end German brand. Photo by Corey Gaffer

Indeed, Studio 804, as a graduate program, is packed with the cream of the crop of KU architecture students, many of whom go on to fill the ranks of America’s premier architecture firms. Largely thanks to the studio experience—what Rockhill calls “the blessed sacrament of architectural education”—many of his graduates exceed the technological proficiency required in today’s firms. But not every student in 804 has the desire to make an architectural statement, and most are not equipped to do it at this embryonic stage in their development, Rockhill says. “Fortunately, Rachel Johnston and only a small number of her mates are and could ride it out, and I’m glad they did.”

Rachel Johnston, of Olathe, took the mantle of leadership for the design of the project and became its most eloquent spokesperson. An intelligent, introspective designer with a precocious grasp of architecture, Johnston, who was hired to work for the distinguished Olsen Kundig firm before she graduated, said that the students arrived at the design through appreciating and observing the site, design charettes, and thinking about the flow of how a person would use the spaces throughout the day. “I think just feeling comfort in a space, where the architect fine tunes all these decisions to make you feel intimate in a space, is what we were aiming for,” she said.

Rachel Johnston and McKendree Mummy, Studio 804 students who figured prominently in the development of 519 Indiana. Photo by Bill Steele

A good example of that fine tuning, Johnston said, are the sliding black doors that separate the bedroom/bathroom from the main living area. Milled out of Richlite, a high-end recycled paper material, the thick and heavy perforated doors look like something you might find in a Turkish palace or a Japanese yakuza boardroom. Essentially decorative privacy screens, they provide filtered light that is quite stunning early in the morning. This see-through contributes a lot to the transparent feeling of light and space but still gives people living in the house the freedom to open up or close as they wish.

Photo by Corey Gaffer

Creative, simple and minimalist design permeates the building. Johnston, Kim Gordon, McKendree Mummy, and others on the design team pulled all-nighters trying to reduce clutter and conceal elements such as motorized roller shades, drainpipes, gutters, light fixtures, and so forth. One thing that Ted and Kelly highlighted was how the students put the baseboard flush with the drywall, so they can put furniture right up against the wall. “It’s real sleek,” Kelly said. “It’s something that you don’t think about, and the fact that they thought about that and how it would work nicely with everything being simple lines and straightforward is remarkable.”

While impressive design is the star of this effort, the prodigious engineering that went on under the hood is no slouch either. Consider this: Ted and Kelly’s average monthly electric utility bill, spanning one of the hottest summers in Lawrence in memory, was $13.63. About $13 of that is Evergy’s base charge. A big reason for the minuscule bill, of course, is high solar production during the summer. Energy data will need to be collected over a full year to get a true picture of the cost savings, but the results so far are promising. According to Rockhill, at another passive certified residence Studio 804 did in Lawrence, the New York Street House, the owner’s average monthly bill for several years has been $17 for a whole electric house, $14 of which is Evergy’s base charge. “So basically he’s spending three dollars a month in electricity,” Rockhill said.

The Indiana Street House’s energy conservation is even more astonishing when considering the substantially greater use of glass than the New York Street House. A major reason why is the building’s inner cocoon, which is sealed tighter than Donald Trump’s tax returns and affidavits. “Our walls and roof on this house, the R-value is twice what the code requires,” Rockhill said, referring to the house’s insulation. The unsung hero responsible for the air tightness of the building was a student named Emily Sanders, from Overland Park, who spent months going around the house constantly with a roll of tape and a vapor control membrane material called INTELLO to seal gaps. “It took longer than any of us expected, and it took a lot more tape than we thought it would because there were a lot more holes that needed to be made [in the structure] than originally planned,” Sanders said, somewhat wearily.  

The building’s charcoal outer cladding, made of a high-pressure laminate material called Fundermax, works in tandem with the inner cocoon to achieve the high R-factor. The cladding is physically separated by a ventilated “rainscreen,” a technology developed in Sweden. Rockhill explains: “In the old days, clapboard, stucco, or shingle was the extent of exterior finishes. Now we can pull that off the face of the building and literally have a drainage plane behind it. We can separate the two, we can have something that looks really great, lets the water through, hits the drainage plane and then comes down and drains out.”

The house is fully powered by a 6kWh solar array capable of offsetting 82% of the average Kansas home energy consumption. Photo by Corey Gaffer

All this technology is draining, no pun intended. So much tech is involved in the building of these houses that the uptake of information can be head spinning for lay people, myself included. But if we, as consumers, are to play a significant role in decarbonizing our environment and meet climate goals we are obliged to pay close attention to what Rockhill and his students are preaching. We must demand that our leaders and developers pay attention, too, and act by strengthening building codes. Doing so will increase the likelihood that high-performance passive houses can reach price parity with code-built houses. That may be a way off, but in the meantime, we are fortunate to live in Lawrence, which thanks to Dan Rockhill and Studio 804 has some of the most progressive housing in the country. Their latest work is their best to date, and while it’s not perfect, it is worthy of appraisement.

“Some people might say, ‘Oh you know, students built that house,’” Ted said. “But for me, yeah, students built this house! They really cared about what they were doing. They were here every step of the way, and they were all engaged in everything and they were criticizing each other’s work. They talked through problems together. After the open house was over, apparently Dan gave a teary-eyed speech and said this group was ‘the best.’”

It’s hard not to see why, and we can’t wait to see what the creative minds at Studio 804 are up to next year.

-Bill Steele

Painting this old (midcentury) house

Photos by Bill Steele

Like death and taxes, painting your house is another one of those things in life that eventually comes calling. According to a cursory search on the internet, most homeowners can expect to repaint their house every 10 to 15 years, depending on the type of siding they have and other factors. Which sounds a lot like the advice you get from plumbers who say you need to replace your water heater tank every 10 to 15 years, doesn’t it? But anyway, whether you live in a house that’s sealed in a vacuum or ravaged by the elements, the exterior will eventually need repainting.

In our case the inevitable became increasingly unavoidable about four or five years ago, when I started to notice the telltale signs around our house: paint fading, cracking, peeling, bubbling; paint flaking away on window frames and sills, exposing dry-rotted wood; rotting wood along the bottom of cedar boards and cedar shingles; warped cedar siding. The deterioration was especially noticeable on the eastern facade, which endures a merciless pounding from the sun all summer long. Things were starting to look bad.

Despite the worsening situation, I held off repainting the house until this year because 1) I’m a drive-it-’till-the-wheels-come-off cheapskate, and 2) I absolutely dreaded the prospect of having to deal with the mess and hassle of repainting. (I have some very un-nostalgic memories of helping my stepfather remove layers of oil-based paint—undoubtably lead-filled—from the house I grew up in Maine during my 6th grade summer vacation.) While I considered hiring a crew of local college kids who would parachute in and likely knock out the job in a week or less, my wife and I decided it would be wise to take a more historically sensitive approach by hiring a contractor who specializes in painting historic houses.

Historic you say? We live in a midcentury house, built in 1955, that is described by our insurance company as a “tri-level ranch”—hardly “historic,” right? This dismissive categorization is out of date and culturally tone deaf, however. Some midcentury houses are approaching 100 years old and are increasingly being added to local, state and national historic registers. And despite their modest footprint many have soared in value, even ones that were not designed by modern architects. They should be treated with historic preservation in mind, i.e., with the same kind of respect and attention that is lavished on the Victorian mansions of Old West Lawrence (OWL). That is, if you can afford it.

And as you will see, it is affordable if you are willing to get your hands a bit dirty. But more on that later.

Last summer, upon a referral, we sought out the services of Rob Lacey, a lanky and dexterous 50-something who for 25 years has ensured the exterior (and interior) preservation of many OWL dwellings. After two on-site consultations, Rob provided a basic services proposal using Benjamin Moore Ultra Spec flat or satin paint for $9,480. (If we wanted to change the original color it would cost an additional $4,250.) This fit within our budget, which I estimated would land somewhere between ten to fifteen grand. As part of the deal, Rob agreed to discount the price when I offered to prep the front door for painting, handle storm window removal and reinstallation, and also clean all the windows.

The only thing left to decide was the paint color and finish type. This led to some debate as we considered the economics, aesthetics, and environmental impact of our choice. Dark paint absorbs heat, which is a problem for our poorly insulated house. I calculated, however, that the heat gain in summer was offset by heat loss in winter, practically negating each other. We decided to keep the same dark brown color the house had when we bought it in 2007, and as we later found, hadn’t changed over the years. Meanwhile, Rob convinced us to go with a flat finish for the body and satin for the trim after proving in a demo that satin would dramatically highlight the imperfections of our cedar siding, akin to applying oily makeup on acne.

Rob scheduled us for August 2022—his earliest available date—but when a client ahead of us postponed their plans we suddenly jumped to the head of the line. Rob and his crew, Daniel and Tony, arrived on site in mid-May to start work.

Daniel and Rob scraping away old paint

As in most house painting jobs, the majority of effort is spent in preparation, and ours was no exception. Two-thirds of the three-week job was spent on prep work. The first order of business was a top-down power wash of the whole building, followed by laborious scraping of peeling areas. This action revealed that we had more rotted wood around the house than I had previously thought. The equivalent of two gallons of Bondo and more, as it turned out.

“This is going to involve quite a bit more work,” Rob said, climbing down his ladder to inspect the latest rotted wood discovery.

Soon enough, restoring and repairing these decayed areas became a subordinate project that lasted nearly a month, longer than the main project. As often happens, the full scope of the project is not known until you dig in, and cost estimates (which tend to be overly optimistic) butt up against reality. Still, despite a 25 percent increase in estimated labor and material costs, the project stayed within our original budget. And in the long run, doing it the right way was well worth the added expense. Tony, who filled the house’s cavities with the precision of a highly accomplished cosmetic dentist, not only preserved the architectural integrity of the structure but actually improved on it.

Another major issue was the condition of the cedar shingles, many of which needed to be replaced because of warpage, shrinkage, and rot. This was not factored into the scope of the project at the outset. A costly error on my part; in the past year or so the cost of cedar shingles has tripled in price, and the right material has become difficult to source. I spent a week looking online, calling lumberyards in Lawrence and Kansas City, and visiting places like Midway Wholesale and Menards looking for the single course siding that matched ours at a reasonable price. When I finally found what I was looking for, in Topeka, I was nevertheless shocked at the price: nearly $350 for a six-pound, 20″x18″x18″ box of shingles. But far worse than the cost was the knuckle-breaking labor required to replace each one, a job which I took on to keep costs from spiraling out of control. Rob helped remove some shingles and prime new replacements early on, but when it was all said and done I ended up replacing about 40 shingles myself.

I was fortunate in that Rob was very accommodating and open to having me participate in the project. “I actually prefer having the homeowner get involved,” Rob told me. “It allows me to more easily get to other jobs I’m working on, and they [the homeowner(s)] get to appreciate what’s being done to the house.” Some contractors may not welcome homeowner involvement, however, so it is a good idea to discuss it with them before they show up to start work on your house. If you have the time and inclination, though, it is worth the effort. You will save some money, acquire new skills, and importantly, learn more about your house than you thought you knew.

For example, while removing the storm windows, I noticed something I hadn’t noticed before about the large window in our basement mechanical room, where we keep our washer and dryer. To my surprise, it was an awning type that swung out but had been frozen solid by layers of old paint. It also included a screen window but the screen had been carefully cut out of the frame. Voila, after restoring all this we had fresh ventilation in a space that is usually damp and musty. Another thing I discovered, while in house restoration mode, was that one of our heating and air conditioning return air vents was not working in our kitchen area, lowering the efficiency of our HVAC system. Someone, years ago, had stuffed the vent’s throat with fiberglass insulation. The only way to pull it out was to remove a section of exterior cedar siding to gain access. A very messy job, but since we were repainting the house anyway the timing was perfect.

Aside from the cedar siding, by far the most labor-intensive aspect of the project was the windows. Including every single painted window in the house and garage, I counted a total of 383 that Rob and his crew were responsible for. (This does not include the storm windows.) Almost all of them are framed by wood, and many needed to be reglazed and carefully prepped for repainting. The work required was painstaking and meticulous. And this is where I tie back to my earlier contention that midcentury houses should be treated as historic houses, because it is in the window detailing in particular that you often find the distinction and greatest need for preservation. How many midcentury modern houses have we seen that have been seriously marred by retrofitting the original windows with vinyl replacements that frankly don’t merit either the cost or energy savings? Too many.

Overall, we are extremely happy with the project results. Rob and his crew were very thorough, they completed their work on schedule, and (despite some unforeseen additional costs) he billed close to the original estimate. Most importantly, the quality of the workmanship is outstanding. Everything was done by hand the hard way—the right way—and it shows. The facelift has restored the house’s youthful glow. Rob advised that since most of our house is well-shaded, we should only need to repaint the front facade about every 8 years. The rest of the house will last much longer. That should save us a lot of money over time.


Here’s the breakdown of project costs:

LaborLacey’s Painting & Restoration8,857.00
Extra laborWood replacement, restoration & repair2,826.25
PaintSherwin-Williams Super Paint & Resilience* 359.65
Cedar shinglesMcCray Lumber327.45
Primer (5 gal. bucket)Menards*164.00
Extra materialsBondo, hardener, brick mold*152.44
Sandpaper, putty, calkSherwin-Williams store101.35
Window glass Cottins Hardware65.58
Box nails, screwsWestlake Hardware/Home Depot43.39
WeatherstripCottins Hardware26.19
Window screen repairCottins Hardware26.11
Window reattachmentOwner labor-775.00
*Contractor supplied. Note that Sherwin-Williams figures are not retail. Contractors get discounted prices.

Key stats:

  • 1,720 sq. ft. midcentury house with attached garage
  • Year built: 1955
  • Previously painted in 2003
  • 419 windows (all-inclusive)
  • 36 storm windows
  • 22 double-hung windows
  • 8 gallons of Sherwin-Williams Super Paint Exterior Acrylic Latex (Flat) – body
  • 1 gallon of Sherwin-Williams Resilience Exterior Acrylic Latex (Satin) – trim
  • 1 gallon of Sherwin-Williams Resilience Exterior Acrylic Latex (Satin) – 3 doors
  • 1 quart of Sherwin-Williams Resilience Exterior Acrylic Latex (Satin) – front door
  • 4+ gallons of Zinsser Peel Stop, Triple Thick primer
  • Project duration: May 17-June 17, a few workdays interrupted by rain
  • Total project cost: $12,174.41

Some advice & lessons learned:

  • Choose a reputable paint contractor, preferably someone who works on midcentury houses. “Some contractors who work on newer houses don’t know what they are doing, or cut corners,” Rob says. “I’ve seen plenty of houses where the painter didn’t prepare thoroughly enough and sprayed it, and when you get up close to it, it just doesn’t look right.”
  • Calk and seal all gaps, cracks, nail holes, etc. Rob says this is extremely important in our climate.
  • Make sure you backbrush if you spray paint the house. “A lot of contractors spray siding without backbrushing,” Rob said. Backbrushing essentially means brushing over freshly sprayed paint, getting into the gaps and crevices that are oftentimes missed by spraying.
  • Make sure you wear the proper protective gear if you plan on painting the house yourself. Tony wore a special chemical respirator when he worked with Bondo, for example.
  • Book well in advance. The best painters are in high demand.
  • Be flexible, and ready to go when the painter calls.
  • Be open to the painter’s suggestions. At the outset I was dead set on a satin sheen for the body paint. I’m glad I took the painter’s advice.
  • Don’t get too hung up on brands or so-called superior paints. “I had one customer who insisted on going with Benjamin Moore’s top-of-the-line paint, which I did, but when I went back to look at it after a number of years it was performing about the same as their midline product,” Rob said.
  • Don’t assume you can get a quote over the phone or the internet. “There’s so many variables with painting,” Rob says. “Some [houses] require not much prep at all, and some require one to two weeks of prep work, which is pretty common for midcentury houses.”
  • Have a contingency budget. A good rule of thumb is to budget an extra 15-20% over and above the project estimate cost.
  • Prepare to make a lot of runs to the hardware store.
  • Make plenty of space in your garage for the contractor to store tools, paint, and materials.
  • Don’t cheap out on paint brushes. They do make a difference.
  • Rob’s final advice: “Often in painting an older home you get what you pay for.”

A constructivist appreciation

On May 1st, Lawrence Modern gathered for its first event in nearly three years at the former Zimmerman Steel building in east Lawrence. A veritable Sunday buffet of architecture cogniscenti were guest speakers, including the Lawrence Preservation Alliance’s Dennis Brown, architect Stan Hernly, our own Tom Harper and Dennis Domer, as well as the principals from Mar Lan Construction, who seized an opportunity to buy the property a few years ago, promptly fell in love with it, and went through a lengthy and painstaking process of refurbishing this vital piece of Lawrence industrial history. What started out as a hardware store with a steel fabrication shop on Mass. St. after WWII continues to serve the Lawrence construction community, and thanks to Hernly is now on the historic registers as a significant example of midcentury modernism.

The interesting thing about the Zimmerman Steel building is that it appeals equally to the left and right brain: to the Mar Lan construction team, the building is an attractive and functional workspace; in the eyes of experts like Hernley and Domer, an unadorned manufacturing facility with a folded plate (aka, “zig zag”) roof. Hernly said the aesthetic is defined by utilitarian parts and pieces of steel and metal, akin to Russian constructivist architecture. Domer said when he looks at the Zimmerman Steel building he thinks of automobile dealerships from the 50s and 60s, and when he looks at the zig zag roof he sees a 1958 Dodge with big tail fins. “The beauty is the design of the building, but the structural pieces are what make it beautiful,” Domer said. Praising Mar Lan’s renovation effort, he summed up the proceedings: “You really understood what you had, and now you’ve preserved it for another generation. The next generation is going to adore this place, if not already, like we do.”

Zig Zag love May 1st

Chris Millspaugh

For our first event in more than two years, we are excited to offer fans of midcentury modern industrial style buildings—count us among them—the opportunity to tour one of the most noteworthy examples in Lawrence, the Zimmerman Steel building, now owned by Mar Lan Construction. Built in 1959 (an office designed by the local architecture firm of Robertson & Ericson was added in 1963), for decades the building’s corrugated metal siding and zig-zag roof design clearly communicated its intent: custom steel fabrication. The only one of its type in the immediate area, Zimmerman Steel in many ways resembled a German mittelstand, a small family-owned business that occupied a niche market in manufacturing. “[Owner] Lee Zimmerman didn’t do gigantic steel fabrication jobs, he would pick up the small pieces,” said Mar Lan Construction’s Kevin Markley. “He did tons, just miles and miles and miles of handrails and guide rails, bollards, trash gates and things like that, and sometimes he would fabricate all of the steel.” Some of the most significant buildings the company provided material for included the Hallmark production facility; the expansion of Kansas University Memorial Stadium; the new Frasier Hall on the KU campus; the rebuilding of the Kansas Student Union; the Varsity Theater; and the old Lawrence Public Library.

Mar Lan Construction purchased the property in 2019 and spent a year carefully refurbishing the exterior, remodeling the interior office, and significantly upgrading the landscaping. They have done a fantastic job of preserving the building’s architectural integrity, feel, and history. In 2020 architect Stan Hernly of Hernly and Associates spearheaded a move to add the Zimmerman Steel building to the National Register of Historic Buildings, noting that it “expresses important design principles of modern architecture through its use of distinctive design, form, and construction techniques.” The building was added to the Register as locally significant in April 2021.

Join us on May 1st to see and learn more about the preservation of this historic modern building. Presentation by Mar Lan’s Kevin Markley (principal and vice president of marketing) and Stan Hernly. Architectural context and expert appreciation from our own Dennis Domer, fresh back from his winter haven in Arizona.

Don’t miss this special architectural experience!

Modern meets the levee on May 11

Lawrence Modern Open Houses May 2019

Tim Hossler

The fusion of vernacular and modern is not unique to Lawrence but so many interesting examples abound here—Dan Rockhill’s contemporary prairie designs come to mind—that they have become a kind of regional architectural dialect. Nowhere is this more evident than in North Lawrence, where cues from the surrounding landscape and architecture—broad, flat floodplain with grain elevators and chicken coops—have been applied to a cluster of homes near the Kaw River levee. The resulting small farm industrial look is interesting architecturally and geographically, if only because it’s hard to imagine these structures belonging anywhere else. Many of them have been design-built by Scott Trettel, including the first home on our tour (226 N. 6th Street) owned by Becky Harpstrite. A modern take on the so-called “dogtrot” style common in the south, the house has two separate living areas connected by a glass-enclosed breezeway. It also features the traditional Japanese Shou Sugi Ban treatment on the exterior siding, where the wood has been charred with blowtorches to achieve a rustic look. The result is stunningly beautiful.

The second home on the itinerary, located at 718 Ash Street, fuses shed-roof modernism with a native Rockhillian feel. (Indeed, owners Steve and April Evans owned Rockhill’s “Kansas Longhouse” for six years before moving into town.) The house is a design collaboration between Steve, a retired architect, architect Dan Hermreck, and builder Kenn Peters, who together have created a house responsive to the long and narrow site with views toward the levee. A house that is modern architecturally, but vernacular in nature.

We look forward to sharing these special homes with you in North Lawrence. Please tread lightly because it is a residential neighborhood and the streets are narrow. Parking will be challenging. Please carpool, or park near the parks. Do not park on Walnut or Ash Streets. Consider walking from 226 N. 6th St. to 718 Ash St., it is only a few blocks away.

Tom Harper, Tim Hossler, Dennis Domer & Bill Steele


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