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.
Dan Rockhill started teaching the terminal graduate studio—which was assigned the course number 804—at the University of Kansas more than 20 years ago. It was conceived as a conventional design studio, a format that Rockhill found uninspired. “I hated it,” he says. To alleviate his frustration, Rockhill began introducing construction projects. “The students reveled in the opportunity.”
Lawrence, Kan., saw a construction boom in the 1990s and a growing need for affordable housing. Seeing an opportunity—and armed with his own design/build experience—Rockhill took the course in a new direction in 1995. Since then, the now-yearlong class has produced a building each year.
“I do whatever comes through the door,” Rockhill says of choosing the projects. “But it needs to be a holistic experience—from idea to building.” Last year’s opportunity to design the Center for Design Research (CDR) was serendipitous—especially since the program’s mission coincided with Studio 804’s commitment to sustainability. “We need to engage others in this … [green movement], but you have to plant the seeds in young kids,” Rockhill says. It also presented a different challenge for the students: The CDR’s public program was a departure for Studio 804—which until now has focused largely on single-family houses (with the exception of the 5.4.7 Arts Center in Greensburg, Kan.).
Yet, despite the studio’s impressive portfolio of built work, “He [Rockhill] prides himself on the design and the details more than the construction,” current student Seamus McGuire says. But it’s also about imparting lessons about real-world architecture. “They’re so used to doing projects that are moving and gyrating,” Rockhill says of students’ predilection for the swooping forms of parametric design. “The subtlety of an elegant box needs to be understood.”