3-D dreams: Architect sees innovation, environmental concepts take form through projects


Dan Rockhill has been practicing what he preaches for 28 years now.

The professor of architecture at Kansas University has more homes and buildings under his tool belt through his business Rockhill & Associates than he can count. Yet he also is in the trenches with his students at Studio 804, who are working on their 10th structure.

In 1980 the design aficionado accepted a teaching position at KU, and our landscape has been embossed with his distinct architectural stamp ever since.

While walking through the older neighborhoods of Lawrence is a regular feast of design eye candy that resonates of craftsmanship and style, the study of architecture is quintessentially about moving forward.

“There is no other reason to practice architecture if you’re not interested in modern forms,” Rockhill says. “The occupation is driven by how we adapt. It’s important to me to have my toes on the edge to reflect our culture.”

And how are we acclimating as a society? What are homeowners crying out for? Here are some of Rockhill’s thoughts:

¢ Efficiency.

¢ Protecting pocketbooks by safeguarding our resources through innovative ideas such as sod roofing, which minimizes excessive heat in the summer and insulates in the winter.

¢ Incorporating recycled materials into our structural forms.

¢ Using techniques such as southern-facing windows, cross ventilation and highly reflective materials to improve the need for day lighting.

¢ Calculating roof overhangs and shades on windows that aid in keeping the high summer sun at bay yet allow the lower winter sun to shine bright.

Rockhill has been treading on this environmentally friendly path for some time now, and the inception of Studio 804 was a large facilitator in keeping both his and his students’ toes on the edge.

“I wear two hats, Rockhill & Associates and Studio 804,” he says. “Students are exclusively the work force for Studio 804. We’ve been doing this for 12 years now. I found that architectural education wasn’t as gratifying as it should be, so we evolved this Studio 804 to teach students better.”

The goal of Studio 804 is to provide architecture students an educational experience that encompasses construction and design while providing affordable buildings in less affluent neighborhoods. The students spend one semester – five months – not only designing but standing in the trenches and undertaking the everyday management of construction. The class project has fashioned a slew of homes for Tenants to Homeowners here in Lawrence, but the true feather in their graduation caps is the 5.4.7 Arts Center.

“We built an arts center and community gathering spot in Greensburg, Kansas,” Rockhill says. “We worked with the board of the 5.4.7 Arts Center, and we raised cash and material donations of about $250,000, plus we had free student labor that matched those funds. This is the first LEED Platinum building in the state. There are only 70 others in the country, and it is the highest ranking. We recycled materials; we harvest rainwater for landscapes, used passive solar techniques and geothermal heat pumps.”

When the town of Greensburg was essentially wiped out on May 4, 2007 (hence the name of the 5.4.7 Art Center), the town collectively decided to rebuild as the first “green city” America has ever seen. A caveat of that is that all city-owned buildings are LEED Platinum accreditation.

LEED stands for the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, and it is a green building ratings system developed by the United States Green Building Council as a standard for design, construction and operation of sustainable buildings on a national level.

Rockhill is not only involved in constructive and meaningful architecture with Studio 804, he and partner David Sain of Rockhill & Associates created a proposal for homes in Biloxi, Miss., which was hit by Hurricane Katrina. The challenge that was laid before hopeful architects called for elevated homes that sported three bedrooms and would sell at an affordable cost of $100,000.

“For me and my associate Dave, what really drives us is design,” Rockhill says. “We enjoy the process of design; we get our blood flowing when we come up with designs that make us really proud. The thrill is in generating the concept; it comes in many shapes translating someone’s needs in a three-dimensional form.”

Plus, in my book, it doesn’t hurt to spread some warm fuzzy feelings to those who not only want sustainable homes but desperately need them after natural disasters have plagued once thriving communities. The maverick duo loves the design but the design predicates a higher calling, sustainable housing.

“All the projects that we do we try to bring as much as we can with sustainable design and passive solar. The sun will shine and warm the concrete floor, simple techniques to minimize the consumption of energy,” Rockhill says. “Good, intelligent design shapes all our projects. To sod roofs, to the sensible house with floor to ceiling glass. It is exciting, the concern and recognition of the environment is a huge issue in the future of architecture. There are amazing materials coming out that are incredible, like smart glass that is self-shading. There are so many quickly advancing technologies; I think this is the most exhilarating time to practice architecture.”

Rockhill is not only standing on the edge with a bird’s eye view absorbing and adapting to one of our most basic needs – shelter – but he is graciously inviting us all to peek into the future of intelligent design with him.