Over Thanksgiving weekend, our son Lee and friend Amanda, both aspiring architects, visited us here in Lawrence. Amanda mentioned that she had heard Dan Rockhill speak about the Studio 804 projects that his students have been building over the last decade and more. She was both impressed with the nature of the program, which has architecture grad students design and build buildings over the course of an academic year, and a bit put off by what she heard as condescension in Rockhill’s references to the lower-income clients for the studio 804 houses subsidized by various city agencies and non-profits. So we decided to take a tour of the local 804 houses. (I’ve written previously about the latest 804 project, KU’s Center for Design Research.)
The two oldest houses, at 933 and 1144 Pennsylvania, were built in 1998 and 1999. Both are relatively contextual in style, quirky but comfortable neighbors in a neighborhood known for its quirkiness. Both look to be well-maintained. In both cases, the city of Lawrence supported the projects with Community Development Block Grant funding. As a member of Lawrence’s city commission starting in 1999, I was called upon by KU Architecture representatives to intervene on behalf of the Studio 804 program, since Rockhill’s personal style made his dealings with city hall tense, at best.
The following year, the 804 house was accomplished as a Tenants to Homeowners project. Tenants to Homeowners is a private non-profit, whose funding sources include the City of Lawrence. The house at 216 Alabama is a bit more of a departure. “What is that big overhang on the north side of the garage roof doing, anyhow?” But I remember visiting it when it was newly completed and being pleased with its openness and accessibility; I believe it was TTH’s first fully accessible house. Looking at the house today, it’s hard not to notice that the front door has been replaced with an off-the-Home-Depot-shelf model that would surely make the 804 student builders cringe. The biggest change, though, has been that the okoume boat builders’ plywood exterior has been painted.
At the time, I had assumed that boat builders would prefer wood species that were rot resistant, and that such resistance was a justification for the exotic species. Not so. In fact the stuff is used for racing boats because of its light weight and formability, neither of which are useful in a house façade consisting of simple flat panels. It is noted that, in fact, okoume has very poor rot resistance and must be carefully sealed and finished. I think wooden boat owners generally assume that a complete varnish replacement is an annual maintenance item. My guess is that annual refinishing just didn’t appeal to the owner of 216 Alabama.
The next house, at 1603 Random Road is a more radically contemporary building, and at least in terms of its exterior, a very successful one. Corten steel and weathered wood from an old cooling tower make it very maintenance-free. It still looks as handsome as it did when I first saw it back in 2001. I do remember, though, that at the time of that open house, the new owners were already employing part of the stair landing as an ad hoc storage room.
The final Tenants to Homeowners house, from 2003, is located in a recent, subsidized housing development, at 718 Atherton Court. Among the modest and conventional houses around it (one of which I confess to have designed as a pro bono effort), this project certainly speaks loudly. Unfortunately, it has held up very poorly. The corrugated metal siding finish is peeling in large flakes, painted steel railings are rusting, guardrail cables have disappeared. Like the Alabama house, the front door has been replaced with a conventional model. As far as the passive solar features of the design are concerned, the west side awning and the shades pulled completely closed along the entire south wall tell the story. (I’ve written about the issue of passive overheating in previous posts.)
The Studio 804 web site suggests that the program left Lawrence in following years due to a lack of local infill sites. There is some truth in that. But it is also clear that inconsistent results and deteriorating relations with city hall contributed to the program’s removal to greener pastures. It’s a shame. The best of the 804 houses have become good neighbors, and good models for livable, affordable, and thoughtfully architectural housing.
It would be interesting to know how well the six Studio 804 houses in Kansas City, Kansas have been received, beyond the program’s own assertion that they embody “the distinct, architecturally seductive aesthetic that has come to define the work of Studio 804.”