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Still, there's an air of seriousness. Laura Foster balances a notebook, crammed with receipts, on her lap. She's 804's chief financial officer, and the numbers don't look good. "We're beyond broke," she says. "We're so broke, we can't even finish."
A few minutes after 7, Rockhill saunters up and stands in front of the class in the gouged-out earth that will soon be filled for the two-car driveway. For more than an hour, they talk through the day's to-do list: Finish the interior drywall, get started with the sheetrock, pull down the scaffolding to make way for the shipment of windows. They also probe solutions to the latest minor crisis: a roofing company backing out of its promise to donate a composite deck for the porch.
Rockhill throws out a few suggestions, but he doesn't feed them answers.
These 16 students have three weeks — and virtually no money — to figure it all out. If they want to graduate, they have to finish this house.
There's resentment in Rockhill's voice when he says he never got this kind of hands-on training when he was in architecture school. "The public would be amazed at how detached architectural education has been from the reality of building," he says. Lectures and computer work dominate curriculum. Internships get students out of the classroom but generally slot them into the cubicle farms of architectural firms to grow into what Rockhill says is an entire generation of ill-prepared professionals. Because they don't understand the literal nuts and bolts of construction, they pass the buck to the contractors. "A lot of architects are basically just good at covering their asses," Rockhill says. "They don't know what they're doing."
That's why he started Studio 804 in 1995. He wanted to throw his students into the real-world chaos of a crowded construction site and the pressure of building a home that's ready to sell on the open market.
Jared Eder, a 2009 graduate of Studio 804 who now works at Ellerbe Becket in Kansas City, is among the students who have been lured to KU by the program. "I was sick of the 'paper architecture' route of the more traditional paths to a master's," he tells The Pitch in an e-mail. "There comes a time when you need to step away from the computer and all the 'photo-realistic' renderings and make something, put your money where your mouth is."
John Gaunt, dean of the KU School of Architecture, knows that Rockhill's program has become a national draw. "It's one of the shining lights of the school — and the university," he says.
Because Rockhill wants his students not only to come up with designs but also to stretch the industry's imagination, every idea gets a full analysis. Last semester, one student thought that the Prescott house would look cool wrapped in metal cladding. The class did a full mock-up. Even for the teacher, it was an exhausting process.
"But I'm not going to acquiesce because they're tired," Rockhill says. "This is a building that's going to be here 50 years at least. Are we going to do shitty work because they're tired? No. We're going to work until we have something we're all comfortable with."
The workload is a gut check for students who want to cash in on 804's reputation. Past participants say Rockhill's class was a major boon for their resumes when they hit the job market. But Studio 804 isn't so popular that it has to turn away students. And the grind can take a toll. "There are two people from the fall who are not here now," Rockhill says of the current class. "They did not make it."