Project by Studio 804

Photo courtesy Studio 804

Studio 804, which takes its name from the final design studio within the graduate architecture program at the University of Kansas, compresses every aspect of a design/build practice into an intensive, five month experience. In the twelve years since the studio began, we have progressed from small-scale projects to creating affordable housing for the city of Lawrence in which students design, build and install prefabricated homes for entry-level buyers in Kansas City. This experience paved the way for the most recent string of projects, the Studio’s first commercial building that has also achieved the highest standards for sustainability, LEED Platinum and one LEED for Homes Platinum. Another LEED Platinum house, as well as Passive House Certification, is pending since the completion of our most recent work in 2010. Although we are a not-for-profit corporation and are clearly associated with the university, our projects are funded independently; each year begins with nothing but the bank balance left by the previous graduating class and ends with a completed building, a satisfied client and an invaluable learning experience.

If there’s a difference between Studio 804 and most other design/build academic programs, it’s that Studio 804 is truly a comprehensive experience. We start with the tiny seeds of ideas and end with a very tangible, ready-to-be-lived-in result. That means the students work not only with clients, neighborhood associations and community development corporations (CDCs) but with uniform and international building codes, structural engineers, inspectors, trades people, appraisers, real estate agents, etc. While great admiration goes to those programs that produce smaller-scale projects, Studio 804 gives students a chance to experience the complexities of building for the contemporary marketplace, preparing them for issues they’ll confront as young professionals engaged in practice.

In fact, this approach may well represent an important paradigm shift in the way architecture schools teach studio. Previous to Studio 804, many former students, after several years of work, would return expressing disappointment in the difference between the rarefied environment of the studio experience and the challenges posed by practice. I often give a personal example; in my own practice, the first question I ordinarily ask of prospective clients is how much money they have for the project they are inquiring about, which is in marked contrast to the educational studio experience, in which the one item never, ever mentioned is the budget. While studio offers many positive opportunities to work on problems related to design, the absence of such powerful connections to reality means that young people are deprived of the essential tools required to produce work in today’s market. As many have come to recognize, this does a disservice, not only to students, but to the firms that employ them and to the building industry in general.

Project by Studio 804

Photo courtesy Studio 804

The process has been the same for all Studio 804 projects: Beginning with a two-week design charrette in January (usually before there’s a site), each student brings in and presents a new, three-dimensional model every day. Within half a week, designs with similar characteristics are clustered, and these groups of students work to develop and refine ideas which are ultimately combined into a single scheme. Great care is taken to keep the process democratic by not favoring a particular student or concept; if irreconcilable proposals emerge, the class takes a vote and all commit to the outcome.

Construction documents are completed within days, and typically a building permit is acquired by the end of the month. That leaves the students February and March to physically build the building and six weeks for site and finishing work after the modules (typically there are five or six of them) have been moved and assembled in early April. The Greensburg project varied slightly from this schedule. Due to the distance from the university, the class moved to the Greensburg area for over two months, going home only for the celebration of the university’s NCAA National Basketball Championship.

As for the construction process, the entire building is finished, inside and out, in a warehouse in Lawrence. Prefab imposes a helpful discipline in both the design and construction processes. The restrictions imposed by such immutables as the size of the warehouse door, the length and width of the flatbed truck and the dimensions of the infill lot leave less room for argument and help to focus and mature the students’ abilities. Students do all their own construction, including site work—pouring concrete, connecting to utilities and sewers, controlling storm water, etc. In every way that matters, the class is truly the author of the end result.

A mainstay of the Studio 804 approach has been common sense building. I have always adhered to this model in my own practice and apply it willingly to the 804 model. As an example, cross ventilation and adequate shading on a building’s broad south exposure keeps the volume of space from overheating in the summer, while concrete floors absorb the sun in the winter, helping to warm the space in the evening. Although passive attributes can provide for the majority of thermal comfort within the building, there is still a dependence on a forced air system. Studio 804 has built a reputation by analyzing typical building systems and modifying them to optimize energy consumption. The sustainable prototype and the houses that followed encompass all aspects of the passive energy gain, but they also attempt to introduce active systems.

The benefits of exposing students to the design/build ethic are incalculable. In a conventional process, the lines drawn between responsibilities can be uncertain; in design/build, students learn to be responsible for everything and to not make excuses. Similarly, Studio 804 alumni find themselves strongly connected to nearly every aspect of the design and construction industries, with a deep-seated understanding of process that teaches accountability. Most of all, students learn the value of working and communicating with others to achieve a result—which lies, of course, at the heart of the design/build educational model.

The synthesis of design and craft achieved by the students is gratifying and impressive, and hopefully my goal of ultimately making them better architects by this process is achieved.