When Dan Rockhill was a young boy, he’d go down to the local tire shop to get an inner tube to take to the shore. He and his peers understood the connection—that inner tube of the tire also happened to serve as a superior floating device.
Today, kids get a fake inner tube made of plastic designed to look like the real thing.
That memory exemplifies a dearth that Rockhill, an architecture professor at Kansas University, says has permeated the design and construction of just about everything in our modern world.
“Kids who end up in architecture have been denied the kind of tactile experience of doing much of anything,” he says in a recent visit to PROSOCO headquarters in Lawrence, Kan. “You can’t even have a kid build a tree fort in a subdivision now. You have to buy these obnoxious, snap-together, plastic kind of things. The whole world is very different.”
Twenty years ago, Rockhill developed a program to change all that—to offer his students that tactile experience, one class of future architects at a time. Instead of a studio-only education, his graduate students go through Studio 804 (or what Rockhill endearingly calls bootcamp), a class that gives students the real, down-and-dirty deal. They build a structure from start to finish in one school year.
“We find the project, get the funding, do the construction documents, pull the permits, build a house and have it completed by graduation,” he says.
Alex Wolfrum (pictured applying FastFlash), a fifth-year architecture student who graduated from KU and went through bootcamp, is quick to point out how Studio 804 is unlike some other, less intensive programs at other colleges around the country.
“We’re one of the only ones that do a building from start to finish in its entirety,” says Wolfrum, who came to KU in large part because of Studio 804. “We’ve done everything from the concrete to mechanical, electrical, plumbing, all the finish work. There’s rarely something that we subcontract. We’re doing it all here. Everyone’s sort of got their own section and takes charge of something, so it’s like we have 16 subcontractors in the group.”
How It All Began
Studio 804 originated when Rockhill was teaching a graduate design studio (with a course number of 804). He had a little project of putting a roof on an old schoolhouse out in the country and asked his students to help. He couldn’t believe their reactions.
“It was like black and white, between what I described in terms of the typical studio setting versus their being outside and getting a little hands-on experience,” he says. “It was very successful.”
The next year, he took students out on a similar, small-scale project, and saw a similar response from his students—overwhelmingly positive.
“I thought that I ought to at least make an effort to try and expand that concept,” he says. “I went to the city of Lawrence and said I have a group of eager builders and you have an affordable housing initiative. Why don’t we get together? And they said yes.”
It started with houses—five of them over five years in Lawrence. Then they moved about 40 miles to the east to Kansas City, where the class completed four houses over the next four years.
Then Greensburg, Kan., became a nationally recognized name via a tremendous tragedy in 2007. An EF5 tornado pummeled the city, leveling an estimated 95 percent of the town and killing 11 people.