Teaching Design/Build: Studio 804
While I greatly admire those programs that produce simple projects that don't have to stand up to real-world scrutiny, I'm pleased that Studio 804 gives students a chance to experience how complex the process of building for the marketplace actually is.
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Indeed, when they depart after five months, our alumni can actually produce a building, thanks to a comprehensive design experience that enables future architects to deal aggressively and immediately with issues they'll confront as professionals.
In fact, this approach may well represent an important paradigm shift in the way architecture schools teach studio. In the course of my 36 years as a professor, I've met with many former students who, after several years of work, expressed disappointment in the difference between the rarified environment of the studio experience and the challenges posed by practice.
While studio offers many positive opportunities to work on problems related to design, the absence of such powerful connections to reality-as-budget means that young people are deprived of the essential tools required to produce work in today's market. As many of us have come to recognize, this does a disservice, not only to our students, but to the firms that employ them, and to the building industry in general.
That's why our need to find our own funding, and the multifaceted way in which this enables us to engage with our clients, has proven so important.
Since 2004, Studio 804 has produced modular prefab homes for urban infill lots in Kansas City, which we design and build in our off-campus warehouse and truck to their sites. (Prior to that, we erected five site-built houses in Lawrence, where the university is located.)
Shifting our focus to Kansas City has delivered a number of benefits. The change has enabled us to provide much-needed housing stock for poor, underserved neighborhoods in which property values have remained depressed for decades. It has connected us with CDCs that are eager to experiment with modernist typologies that can attract the urban-hipster homesteaders who will form the bedrock of the city's future.
And it has allowed us to acquire properties for as little as a few hundred dollars and to enter into contracts that provide us with tight yet workable budgets, amounts that positively challenge students as both designers and builders. Best of all, working in Kansas City has generated gratifying results: Each of our prefabs has been sold by the CDC to an owner — before leaving the factory.
So how does it work? We begin the two-week design process in January — usually before there's a site — with each student bringing in and presenting a new three-dimensional model every day.
Within half a week, I begin to cluster designs with similar characteristics, and these groups of students work to develop and refine ideas, which are ultimately combined into a single scheme. I try hard 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.
Once the design is complete, we present it to the CDC and further refine it based on the corporation's input. Construction documents are completed within days, and we typically have a building permit in hand by the end of the month.
That leaves the students February and March to physically build the house, 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.
As for the construction process, it's a bit like building a ship in a bottle — the whole house is finished inside and out in our warehouse, with only the plumbing, electrical, and heating work subcontracted out of necessity. Prefab, I've found, imposes helpful discipline on both the design and construction processes.
When Studio 804 first began, the entire experience was more fluid and experimental, and while this encouraged the students' imaginations (and egos), I often found myself arguing with 15 or 20 Gehry wannabes about why one or another superfluous aesthetic flourish had to be jettisoned.
Now, 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. (The fact that, at the moment, prefab also happens to be hip helps make up for the perceived lack of a creative big bang.)
My students do nearly all their own sitework as well, pouring concrete, erecting garages and tornado shelters, and putting down lawns. In every way that matters, the class is truly the author of the end result.
To my way of thinking, the benefits of exposing students to the design/ build ethic are incalculable. In a conventional process, where the lines are drawn between them, responsibilities can be uncertain; in design/ build, students learn to be responsible for everything, and not to 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 the process that militates against buck-passing, of the "Oh, the builder can figure it out" variety.
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 model.
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Dan Rockhill is the J.L. Constant Distinguished Professor of Architecture at the University of Kansas and the executive director of Studio 804. The studio's 2010 project, the Prescott Passive House in Kansas City, received LEED Platinum certification in September, and is also targeting Passive House certification. The modern prefab housing created by Rockhill and his students, along with his work as a principal of Rockhill and Associates, appears in the book Designing and Building: Rockhill and Associates.
William J. Carpenter, FAIA, Ph.D., is a professor at Southern Polytechnic State University and is the founder of Lightroom, an interdisciplinary design firm in Decatur, Georgia, specializing in architecture and new media projects for commercial and residential clients. He is also the author of Learning by Building: Design and Construction in Architectural Education.
This article is excerpted from Modern Sustainable Residential Design: A Guide for Design Professionals by William J. Carpenter, copyright © 2009, with permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons.