As the students of Studio 804 gather in the empty parking lot on a late autumn morning, the churning sky mirrors the gray expanse of the abandoned Farmland Industries plant. Behind chain-link and barbed-wire fencing, rusted pipes snake over grass-studded railroad tracks, connecting old warehouses and corroded storage units that once held chemicals.
A few minutes after 8, architect Dan Rockhill, the director of Studio 804, pulls in and parks his truck inches from the "No Trespassing" sign posted on the front gate.
"This is a toxic site," Rockhill warns as his class — graduate students in the University of Kansas' School of Architecture, Design and Planning — gathers in front of a rickety warehouse. "In fact, some of you are glowing."
They follow him inside.
The place is a dump. He points to the bent lid of a refrigerator-sized toolbox. "A lot of crackheads and meth addicts come through here," he says, adding theft to a list of hazards and hardships endured by past Studio 804 students.
But in this grimy warehouse, often without heat, Rockhill and his students have constructed award-winning buildings slice by slice, transporting each prefabricated chunk to sites in Lawrence, Greensburg and Kansas City and piecing them together like gigantic jigsaw puzzles.
The design-build concept, which involves students in both the conception and construction of buildings, isn't unique to this group at KU. Universities across the country train future architects this way. What puts Studio 804 in a different category is its ambition. It builds each project in the span of a single semester. That distinction hasn't gone unrecognized. Last year, Rockhill's program earned the Education Honor Award from the American Institute of Architects. It also has beaten scores of professional firms to win Architecture Magazine's "Home of the Year" award — twice. Studio 804's work has been cited in publications as far afield as India and South Africa. Last summer, Rockhill lectured in Finland about the innovative program.
On this fall morning, Rockhill's newest crop of students is reaping the benefits. The university has spent $2 million to upgrade Studio 804's classroom. No more toxic warehouse. At their new work area, inside nearby East Hills Business Park, the students go from hushed to almost giddy. Inside the new, pristine space, the students' voices echo through the empty 67,000 square feet.
"Anybody got a skateboard?"
"Dude, we all need to get Rollerblades!"
"We don't need Rollerblades. We can have office-chair races."
Rockhill doesn't have time for games. He doesn't have time to wait for electricity or desks, either. By the light of a laptop projection on the wall, his crew gets down to business. They haven't been in class a full week yet, but they're already evaluating opportunities for their 2010 design-build project.
Several students have drafted letters or put together PowerPoint presentations, but Rockhill fumes. Their work is too vague. They're missing key components.
"This is not your usual tippy-tappy studio," he says. "We kick ass here."
Studio 804 is more than a class. It's a business.
And it needs a sale to get back in the black.
It's 6:55 a.m. on a Wednesday, and a handful of barely awake students lumber up the skeleton of a house in the Prescott neighborhood of Kansas City, Kansas.
The members of Studio 804 perch on the dusty ledge of what will become the garage of this two-bedroom home. One student tentatively pokes at a day-old piece of carrot cake left amid the construction rubble and then digs in to a sugary breakfast.
As they sip coffee from gas-station cups, the students glance at their watches. Because they struggle to rise in time to make the early morning meeting, many have self-imposed penalties for tardiness. One student has promised to wear a Sharpie mustache when she's late. Another has pledged to shave his hair into a mohawk.