Studio 804 takes on a new project every school year. How did this particular commission come about?
Dan Rockhill: This is a small part of a larger expansion by the School of Engineering—they’re going to start construction on a giant engineering testing facility and the EcoHawks were initially going to be part of that development. Studio 804 did the Center for Design Research two years ago on campus, and I convinced everybody that we might be a student-based organization but we’ll design and build faster than professionals and deliver without a lot of whining—I know the rules of the game. So they sliced off this little EcoHawks space and said: “This might be something you’d be interested in.”
Who are the EcoHawks?
The EcoHawks are part of the mechanical engineering program in the School of Engineering, and their research focuses on finding alternative methods of charging electric vehicles. The vehicles you see have been converted from gasoline to battery power, and the EcoHawks research charging systems. For instance, they’ll mix propane and glycerin to run a synthetic gas engine and use that to charge the vehicle. It’s all high-tech stuff.
Who were the Studio 804 students who designed the EcoHawks facility?
We had 20 this year, and I’m very proud of the gender mix—nine women and 11 guys. Maybe half came to KU to get a masters degree after spending six years in the program. The rest chose to come to KU, I like to think, because of the Studio 804 program, so I have graduates from all over.
How does the design process for a Studio 804 project begin?
I start design the first day of class in late August. The goal is to lock down the design as soon as possible, begin construction documents, and get consultants involved. We’re required to have consultants—we’re not treated differently than any other professional firm working on a project on campus. I start by asking every student to declare an area of interest. So somebody will rather meekly say “I’ll sign up for structure” or “I’ll sign up for siding”—basically you take Master Format and dice that up. But it’s not as though if you signed up for structure you sit back in your lounge chair after we get the frame up. Everyone is a part of everything.
And how did the design for the EcoHawks facility develop?
I joke that I can teach anybody how to weld, but dealing with these fragile young egos is the art of doing this. It is their baby, and the genesis is obviously from them. But I will let them swim around in the design sea for a while and then I’ll bring something in and show it to them—the form of it will come through [my firm] Rockhill & Associates. The design studio experience drives me mad, because the whole idea of doing something simple is not in their DNA. We get these complex, convoluted, ridiculous designs that they cling to—but we’ve got to build this! And so I’ll show them something simple and say: “I guarantee you if we start with something simple like this, when we’re done, it’s going to be your building completely. You’ll never think that there was some intrusion on my part.” Again, I’ve got to be very delicate in the way I handle this. So I turn them loose. These are smart kids. They start doing research and somebody finds an image of a woven screen. It went through easily a half dozen iterations and soon we’re building a full-scale mock-up and then there’s another half-dozen iterations and we’re finding sources for the material. It evolves.
How do you build a project like this in the second semester of the Studio 804 program with only 20 students?
They all know that they signed up for a gauntlet. As you understand, it’s not easy, and I’m a monster. You’ve got to meet me at 7:00 every morning, six days a week, and you’ve got to be ready to work. It takes them three or four weeks to figure out, first of all, that their mother’s not going to do it for them. In this case, I broke ground on a Monday after Thanksgiving, and we had all the foundation walls in before they left for Christmas. On the third of January we started doing all the concrete flat work. I don’t sub any of that. I do the excavation. I’m on a lot of equipment—I have to do something while I’m there. They joke about it being Dan’s toys, and they’re absolutely right. It’s in concrete work where I can just see the wheels turning in their minds, like “Oh my God, this is real.” Right after that, we started framing—everybody is part of that. There’s always something to do and it’s large scale, and so that helps bring the group together. Working together and collaboration are very unique aspects of this.
This is expected to be Studio 804’s sixth LEED Platinum project
in a row, with the certification process already underway. How do you
engage the students in the process?
I introduce LEED the first week of studio and encourage them to see the importance of it. I think the seeds of change that need to be planted in this profession are going to start with these young people. The students I did this with at Greensburg, Kan., six years ago, now they run the sustainability aspect of the offices where they’re working. That’s how we’re going to bring about change. So I am very adamant about the need for everybody to try to participate. I send them all to Greenbuild, which just blows their minds. You walk out on that exhibit floor and you realize the scale of this effort. I think it’s really important. So like everything else, I casually harass them, making sure they understand the value of it. Fortunately, they follow through.
Studio 804 began with houses and has recently started designing more public projects. Is that a conscious progression?
I would prefer to keep in the public arena. When I did the Center for Design Research, we purposely made that a building that would be available to everybody in the community, and it has become that. We have to keep a schedule for that building. It has a living wall with 10,000 plants that’s the talk of the town. And that rubs off on people. And so in some way we take a leadership role in the conversation about sustainability. Little by little you start to convince the public of how important it is. And it’s through these public buildings that we’re able to do this. —Katie Gerfen
UPDATE: A previous version of this article incorrectly
cited the Hill Engineering Research & Development Center’s LEED
status. While the Center anticipates LEED Platinum certification, it has
not yet received the official designation.