Urban lots are not for the faint of heart, especially when surrounded by existing dwellings that predate zoning codes. Such was the case for Studio 804’s 519 Indiana project, one of several the design/build student group led by architecture professor Dan Rockhill has completed in this desirable neighborhood near the University of Kansas campus.
The Studio 804 program has built dozens of homes and other buildings over its nearly 30-year history, each more polished and impressive than the last. Although entirely student built with Dan at the helm, they are indistinguishable from the work of veteran residential architects and custom builders.
“If it’s not perfect I’ll make them take it all out and do it again,” says Dan. “I tell them, if it’s not done perfectly, you will embarrass me, the program, and yourselves.” Instead of embarrassing anyone, the program has won many national design awards in competition with seasoned professionals.
Part of how they achieve this high level of execution is by keeping the forms straightforward, and by designing and building multiple mockups before they tackle the real thing. Dan does not encourage them to design amoebas and then try to figure out how to build them. After all, these are speculative projects that require a broader appeal—they have to sell for a fair price to fund the next year’s project.
“I prefer something that is minimal and stripped back and that’s how I guide them,” he says. “And I’m not going to work on a building I don’t like.” Apart from aesthetics, many of the design decisions here were dictated by the constraints of the lot. It has two neighboring buildings impinging on its setbacks, which had scared away opportunistic developers without the vision to conquer the flaws.
The challenge was to gain breathing room for outdoor entertaining space on the ground level, along with requisite parking. The team’s solution was to build the first level smaller than the second. The upside-down plan carves out enough space on site for a covered patio, parking, and a detached garage. Partially pushed into the 11% slope, the smaller first level contains two flexible rooms, a bathroom, and a mechanical room for the home’s sophisticated systems. The entrance is several steps below grade.
Hovering over the patio space, the second level comprises an open living/dining area, a commodious deck, and main bedroom suite with a walk-in closet and a smaller deck perfect for two. During the course of the day, the sun tracks from the east-facing main bedroom to the west-facing great room, ensuring that all the spaces optimize their solar exposure, while remaining shaded by their deck overhangs.
Although the main bedroom faces the street, the orientation “puts the living area in the canopy of trees,” Dan explains. “It was an orphan lot, but a beautiful site three blocks from downtown. You can walk to the university and, at the end of our street, you’re able to access the Lawrence Loop, a 20-plus mile walking/running trail.”
As Dan and his fifth-year architecture students have perfected their formula, one area that has benefited greatly is the interior fit and finish of the houses—an aspect of homebuilding that challenges even the professionals. Yes, the forms of the houses are fairly straightforward, but the interiors do not lack ambition.
Custom light maple veneer cabinetry lines the entry-level walls, offering plenty of storage and streamlining the entertaining spaces on the upper level. The warmth of the wood, also applied to the stairs, balances the practicality of budget-minded polished concrete floors. Upstairs, the custom cabinetry reappears, along with tongue-and-groove maple plank flooring, in contrast with dark Richlite kitchen counters and custom metal railings and passage doors.
Lower-level siding, soffits, and decks are sassafras and the upper-level siding is phenolic, high-pressure laminate from Austria. Solar panels supply most of the power needs of the house, which is heated and cooled by mini-splits, and an ERV replenishes fresh air in the super-insulated house. Stormwater is managed with a green roof on the garage, permeable surfacing for the driveway, and a rain garden.
Given all these high-performance features, the sophisticated design, and the proximity to the best aspects of intown living in Lawrence, it’s no wonder 519 Indiana sold before the open house—to experienced buyers. “Our demographic is no longer first-time buyers—there are plenty of programs that support that. Our demographic is usually a second- or third-time buyer. Sometimes they’re looking toward retirement,” says Dan.
“519 sold to two faculty who came here from Texas—a co-hire for the university. They already had a house in Texas that had solar collectors, so they knew about what we were doing and were happy to jump right in. Their August heating bill—our heaviest load here—was 83 cents.”
Architect/Builder: Studio 804, Lawrence, Kansas
Project Size: 2,060 square feet (house); 400 square feet (garage)
Site Size: 0.13 acre
Construction Cost: Withheld
Photography: Corey Gaffer Photography
Appliances: GE Café
Bath Ventilation: Broan
Cabinetry: Custom by Studio 804
Cabinetry Hardware: Linnea
Decking: Robi Decking
Doors/Door Hardware: Masonite, TownSteel
Fasteners: Simpson Strong-Tie
Faucets: Elkay (kitchen), Duravit
Foundation: Stego vapor barrier
Garage Doors: Amarr
Humidity Control: Broan ERV
HVAC: Samsung mini-splits
Lighting: ConTech Lighting
Lighting Control: Convergence
Paints/Coatings: STEEL-IT, Sherwin-Williams, Minwax
Roofing: GAF, Stellar, OMG Roofing Products
Roof Windows/Skylights: VELUX
Vanities/Lavs/Sinks: Duravit, Elkay (kitchen)
Windows: Quaker Commercial
Window Wall Systems: Archon Fenestration Technology