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

One Comment

  1. Marilee Harper
    Posted September 3, 2022 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    Wow what a great article Tom ~~loved that your web site contributed to the couple wanting to live here in Lawrence !! Awesome !! I’m so proud of you !! Love you Tom

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