Net-Zero in the Heartland

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Students enrolled in Studio 804—a graduate-level architecture design course—build net-zero-energy homes from the ground up.
Studio 84 students all pitch in to build these special homes
NY St. -- Studio 804 designs emphasize using simple materials, and renewable and durable products, such as the Alaskan yellow cedar and standing-seam metal roof featured in this Passive House.
NY St. -- A vaulted ceiling and inset porch give this home’s simple rectangular footprint more visual appeal.
NY St. -- Bamboo flooring and LED lighting work with the modern environmental aesthetic.
NY St. -- A 6 kW PV array comprised of 20 Renogy 300 W PV modules enables this home to produce more energy than it consumes.
NY St. -- All of Studio 804’s homes built in this mixed-humid climate include tight, superinsulated envelopes. In addition to designing the home, Studio 804 students perform all aspects of construction—from foundation to finishing.
Brook St. -- Constructed with repurposed insulated metal panels and floor-to-ceiling glass, this modern-style house is tucked into an older established neighborhood.
Brook St. -- Floor-to-ceiling glass blurs the lines between the living room and protected outdoor space.
Brook St. -- A 4.8 kW ballasted PV array comprised of 16 modules offsets utility electricity use.
Brook St. -- An open plan promotes daylighting and accessibility in this 1,460-square-foot home.
Penn St. -- The house wraps around a south-facing courtyard that serves as the focal point—nearly every room connects to it visually through full-height windows.
Penn St. -- The siding is low-maintenance, 100-year-old western red cedar reclaimed from dismantled railroad bridge trestles.
Penn St. -- Salvaged marble slabs from the lobby of a demolished 1920s office building serve as kitchen countertops and backsplash.
Penn St. -- Clean, spare design and large expanses of glazing lend a visual spaciousness to Studio 804 homes.
Penn St. -- The home’s batteryless grid-tied PV system.

Three new houses stand out in the older, tree-lined neighborhoods of Lawrence, Kansas—and not just because of their decidedly modern style. These high-performance, PV-powered homes were designed and built by students enrolled in Studio 804, a practicum for aspiring building professionals in their final year of the Masters in Architecture program at the University of Kansas.

Dan Rockhill, professor and owner of the design-build firm Rockhill and Associates, started Studio 804 in the 1980s after recruiting students to help him finish restoring an old schoolhouse. “I was stunned by their enthusiasm,” he says, recalling how students would park their cars strategically outside the building so they could work at night by the headlights’ illumination. “These students were hungry for that kind of hands-on experience.”

After a second similar project, he petitioned the university to implement a formal program into the curriculum, giving rise to Studio 804. Since the schoolhouse restoration, Studio 804 classes have completed 22 projects, 10 of them Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum-certified, and three Passive House-certified.

The projects have ranged from modular and site-built homes to research centers and campus facilities. But, says Rockhill, homes are ideal because of their smaller size, and because they give opportunities to design features that aren’t always included in commercial projects.

Net-Zero for Empty Nesters

Common between the three most recent projects is that they target a specific demographic: downsizing empty nesters with enough equity to afford the homes, which sell for between $250,000 and $350,000. The Studio 804 homes occupy well-established neighborhoods characterized by large, mature trees and small, older homes. They’re within easy walking distance to grocery stores and other amenities in Lawrence’s thriving downtown, which gives them extra cachet toward the goal of greater sustainability.

The Studio 804 homes range from 1,300 to 2,000 square feet. They include built-in flexibility, with spaces that can function as bedrooms, dining rooms, or offices as needed, and ADA-compliant bathrooms. The homes must sell at enough of a profit to fund the following school year’s project, including the acquisition of land and the costs of construction. Studio 804 receives no university funding, though the program does accept donations—such as the discounted bamboo flooring featured in the 1301 New York Street project and donated microinverters for the home’s PV system.

In a mixed-humid climate zone, the Lawrence area experiences cold winters and muggy, hot summers. While each project is different aesthetically, all share strategies to ensure superior energy performance in a tough climate. The homes’ high energy performance translates into low utility bills—a plus for retirees on fixed incomes. For example, the average monthly bill for the New York Street house is $17.58 per month, which includes the $14 flat-rate base charge.

Promoting Sustainability

Rockhill salvages a lot of materials himself and encourages students to research and acquire salvaged materials. This stretches the budget and demonstrates responsible resource use. “We live in a throwaway culture. I’ve come back to the job Dumpster and pulled out two-by-fours,” says Rockhill. “When students see that you can repurpose materials, it opens their eyes. I think [the salvaged materials] also add to the uniqueness of projects.” For example, the red cedar siding that defines the Pennsylvania Street project was salvaged from old railroad bridge trestles.

A 70,000-square-foot warehouse serves as storage for materials that might be used later. “I end up with a lot of commercial materials,” explains Rockhill, who says he likes to bring a commercial architecture aesthetic—flat roofs and the use of metal, for example—to the residential sector.

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Comments (1)

Robert Pollock_2's picture

Kudos to everyone involved, but really, this is just common sense and what we should have been doing all along. We use so much 'stuff' that our landfills are full. The 70,000 ft2 warehouse is likely the central component of this program. If it's not, it could be by combing America's detritus to clean up the mess, re-purpose existing resources, and reduce the amount of 'new' stuff we have to manufacture.
My wife and I build a "net zero" house in 'bama in 2002, that was mostly concrete and anti-seismic, (anti) hurricane/tornado, termite and mostly anti-fire(proof). The house had almost 200 tons of Thermal Mass inside the envelope, and a natural ventilation system that let out hot air, (replacing it with cool air from under the slab) and pre-heated incoming air, if there was a fire burning in the Chimney/Air exchanger. None of that meant anything in Alabama's real esate market, in fact the house was hard to sell due to a lack of "trey ceilings" and such.

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