Launch Slideshow

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Sustainable Residence

Sustainable Residence

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    Studio 804

    Eastern facade with garage door.

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    Studio 804

    South and East facades

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    Studio 804

    Environmental systems

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    Studio 804

    Kitchen and living space

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    Studio 804

    Living room from the North

The house at 3716 Springfield is one of the most unusual spec houses in the United States. At 2,640 square feet, it is not particularly large or imposing. But in the midst of the sedate environs of Kansas City, Kan., its contemporary lines are startling—it looks like a rendering that has been magically Photoshopped onto its site. And, unlike most spec homes, it was designed to be a net-zero-energy house, with rooftop photovoltaics (PV) and a 25-foot-tall wind turbine in the backyard.

Studio 804, based in the nearby city of Lawrence, has been practicing those sorts of optical illusions since the late 1990s. Founded by architect Dan Rockhill, the nonprofit is a partnership with the University of Kansas’s School of Architecture, Design, & Planning, in which students help design and build one house over the course of a semester. Studio 804 has become known for its prefab houses, which are a beacon of design not only for the Midwest but for the country as a whole—a testing ground for that inspiring-but-rare mix of sustainability, affordability, and modernism. In the past, its projects have been funded by local community-development corporations. In 2009, after doing over a dozen such projects, Rockhill decided to try something a little different. “I did the project as an independent developer,” he says. “I wanted to see if we could produce a house that would have all the bells and whistles and also provide a good return.”

But for Rockhill and his students, “bells and whistles” were about top-notch sustainable elements, not granite countertops or moldings. Part of their agenda was to create the first LEED Platinum–certified house in the area. So the house had to be very energy-efficient in its design, and it had to take advantage of the latest technological advances. The team used passive strategies, such as high-performance glazing, screening the house on its west side, and creating a chimney effect by adding low windows on the bottom floor to push hot air through the top floor’s operable skylights. They also installed a geothermal heating and cooling system with an energy-recovery ventilator, supplemented by radiant floor heating. And they put in a 4.8-kilowatt photovoltaic array, whose production capacity was calculated by taking 70 percent of the total wattage that the house would use if it was running all of its electrical devices at once.

As for the wind turbine, it “does very little in comparison to the PV, but it’s an icon in that location,” Rockhill explains. “It says a lot about the house and the intent of the house, and we loved the way it looks. Sometimes it’s not all about numbers and formulas.”

Studio 804 gave the house a pitched roof and barn-inspired shape to tie it in with the neighborhood, updating the classic form with clean lines and expanses of glazing. Since it was a two-story design, they went with traditional stick-built construction instead of going the prefab route. They picked FSC-certified cumaru for the siding, and wrapped the South American hardwood over the garage doors and the standing-seam metal roof, veiling the house in the rich-hued material. The wood is finished with Penofil, a penetrating oil, to bring out its color and improve its durability. The frame also incorporates 70-year-old reclaimed lumber from the nearby Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant, a federal property now being rehabilitated for public use.

On the roof, the solar panels are set flush with the cumaru, the type of detailing that separates great contemporary architecture from the good. Windows at the peak highlight the long open ridge of the house. Inside, there are very few walls, and the central stairwell is enclosed in glass, allowing natural light to flow through the space. In the kitchen, two undercounter refrigerators are tucked into the kitchen island, minimizing the bulky appliance.

When it was time to put the house on the market, Rockhill ran into a familiar problem: difficulty in getting a fair appraisal. “In my experience, it’s very hard, if not impossible, to account for the sustainable features,” he says. “The appraisers’ formulas are all about standard construction. There are checklists for amenities, but not for PVs, super insulation, and high-performance windows, so you’re essentially not credited for those things that you’ve brought to the table.” In the end, the house sold for $265,000, about half what Rockhill estimated its real value to be, but enough to cover the cost of materials and help fund Studio 804’s next project. “It’s one of the crown jewels of all of our projects,” he says. “We accomplished everything we wanted to—to build a high-performance, high-quality design. I pride myself in being able to show, year-in and year-out, that you don’t have to give up design quality for sustainability.”

The couple who purchased this house, Jenilee Borth-Iiams and John Iiams, knew they were getting a good deal. “We know you couldn’t build that house for what we bought it for,” says Borth-Iiams, a tax accountant. “We are big fans of everything that Studio 804 has done in the past, and we fell in love with this house. It’s wonderful to live here and be able to put our environmental ideals into practice.”

Lydia Lee writes about architecture, design, and sustainability from Menlo Park, Calif.