The University of Kansas’s Center for Design Research (CDR) is located on the rolling hills of the former Chamney Farm property on the school’s West Campus in Lawrence. The center, part of KU’s School of Architecture, Design & Planning, was created as an incubator for innovations in building products and services, incorporating interdisciplinary studies in mechanical and computer engineering, business, design, biosciences, health and wellness studies, and the social sciences.

The site is occupied by two existing buildings that are remnants of the old farm—a stone, gabled farmhouse at the northern edge of the property and a stone barn to the east—but neither fit the bill for the center. For its new building, the CDR didn’t have to go far to find an architect: Dan Rockhill, the school’s J.L. Constant Distinguished Professor of Architecture and his 23 students in the 2010–2011 design/build Studio 804 program were up to the challenge.

“The design brief was pretty simple,” says Gregory Thomas, CDR director and a design professor at KU. “It had to serve a dual purpose as both a meeting and presentation venue as well as a working laboratory, and be a place that is shared with the public to inform about matters of sustainability.” Sustainability is a familiar sandbox for Rockhill, who notes that the resulting 1,820-square-foot pavilion is Studio 804’s fourth building designed to LEED Platinum standards and that the CDR will most likely be the first commercial certified passive building in North America.

The modest structure sits directly south of the existing farmhouse and is accessed via a concrete-and-glass ramp from a small parking area next to the barn. The exterior stonework was created from cottonwood limestone tailings—the waste product from manufacturing stone. Between March and May, several students cut each of the tailings down into smaller blocks. “I don’t know if they had done something bad,” Thomas jokes of the labor-intensive task. But the material and process are a good example of Studio 804’s strength—the ability to transform an otherwise useless scrap into an aesthetically pleasing material through a combination of inventiveness and cheap labor. “We imbue it with design and the sense of the hand,” Rockhill says.

Although the building is clad in masonry and glass, it’s framed in wood and steel. The masonry exterior walls are supported by 12-inch joists, while the roof is spanned by 20-inch joists. The cavities are filled with blown cellulose insulation. “We kept the envelope clean and taut,” Rockhill says. “There’s not even wiring in the walls in order to maximize insulation and prevent thermal leaks.” Additional roof mass, in the form of plantings around the edges and a solar array in the center, helps insulate from above.

The entrance, on the west end of the building, leads directly to a reception area and adjacent restrooms. Here, glass cases house monitoring equipment that displays the building’s energy performance in real time. A short walk down a ramp leads to a multipurpose conference area, which has a living wall that improves indoor air quality and is kept lush using rainwater for irrigation.

Natural light filters through an electrochromic, butt-glazed curtainwall that forms most of the building’s south façade. A 10-inch-thick trombe wall—composed of 6-inch-thick concrete masonry units filled with sand and clad on both sides with 2 inches of limestone—sits 2-1/2 feet behind the glass and provides much of the building’s heat during winter. From the exterior, the trombe wall appears to be just a continuation of the building’s envelope under glass, but it takes on a completely different character on the interior. Between every other course, there are thick sheets of laminated glass laid horizontally within the joints. From the meeting area inside, these give an otherwise heavy feature a glow when it’s backlit by the sun.

“We couldn’t do this based on the university’s shoestring budget,” Rockhill says of the project, which counts over 100 companies as sponsors or donors. This sponsorship allows for opportunities that might not exist otherwise. “You don’t have to take something off the shelf,” Rockhill explains. And that ability to customize materials is explicit in detail after beautifully wrought detail. From a steel-plate floor to the custom-fabricated curtainwall to the hand-hewn recycled limestone skin, the CDR plainly makes the case for an elegantly and simply composed architecture that’s also up to the highest standards of sustainable design.

Project Credits

Project Center for Design Research, Lawrence, Kan.
Client University of Kansas Endowment Association
Architect and Contractor Studio 804, Lawrence, Kan.—Dan Rockhill; Gerard Alba, Ashley Banks, Sarah Brengarth, Cade Brummer, Matthew Holderbach, James Ice, Andrea Kirchhoff, Jenny Kosobud, Michael Mannhard, Justin McGeeney, Amanda Miller, John Myers, Kirsten Oschwald, Kate Penning, Allison Pinkerton, Michael Prost, Dan Schaeffler, Ben Shriplin, Mariah Tooley, Ben Welty, Brian Winkeljohn, Andrew Younger, and Giannina Zapattini (project team)
Structural Engineer Norton & Schmidt Consulting Engineers
M/E/P Engineer Hoss & Brown Engineers
LEED Consultant Henderson Engineers
Environmental Consultants Cromwell Environmental, Lawrence, Kan.
Design and Construction Consultant Rockhill and Associates
Size 1,820 gross square feet

Materials and Sources

Structural Systems Pacific Woodtech Corp. (FSC-certified lumber)
Exterior Cladding
Lardner Stone (drystack, cottonwood ledge, limestone tailings); U.S. Stone Industries (drystack, cottonwood ledge, limestone tailings); Doherty Steel
Sage Electrochromics; Velux America
Vapor Barrier
Tamko Building Products (exterior foundation wall vapor barrier); CertainTeed Corp. (interior vapor retarder); W.R. Grace & Co. (above-grade vapor barrier)
Midwest Concrete Materials
ITW TACC (mason bond epoxy adhesive)
Carlisle SynTec (white EPDM); Green Roof Blocks (green roof)
Sage Electrochromics (glazing); Velux America (skylights)
Assa Abloy (entrances); Ezy Jamb (interior doors)
Häfele America Co. (mechanical display hardware)
Benjamin Moore & Co.
Special Surfacing
National Gypsum
Acoustical System
Onsia (in-ceiling speakers)
H.B. Fuller (self-leveling gypsum); ISC Surfaces (self-leveling gypsum); Dur-A-Flex (epoxy flooring); Fry Reglet (base reveal)
Prescolite (LED can lights); Cooper Lighting Halo (LED can lights); Sunlite Science and Technology (LED strip lights); Vibia (pendant fixtures); Tech Lighting (track lights); Five Oaks Marketing (solar lights)
Plumbing Smedbo (faucets); Caroma (fixtures); Filtrine Mfg. Co. (drinking fountains)
Building-Management Systems
Schneider Electric (lighting controls); Johnson Controls (global controller); Rainwater Technology (rainwater system controller)
Central Fiber (dense-pack cellulose); Hunter Panels (roof and cavity insulation panels)
Drought-resistant Fescue landscaping
HVAC Zehnder America (energy-recovery ventilator); Mitsubishi Electric (minisplit); Titus (grilles and diffusers); Custom grilles
Furniture Pohlenz Cucine Moderne (kitchenette and reception casework and countertop); Valcucine (kitchenette and reception casework and countertop); Haworth (stacking and task chairs)
Car Charging Station
Schneider Electric
Greenwall System
Mundo Ortega Verde
Skystream Wind Package
Southwest Wind Power
Photovoltaic Panels
Yingli Solar