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The students labor for free and do most of the work themselves — a few licensed professionals hook up the water and electrical lines. And they learn that the first rule of architecture is good accounting. "The single greatest thing that never gets talked about in education is the budget," Rockhill says.
The groggy group members, taking their last sips of coffee on this Wednesday morning, feel the financial burden.
Studio 804, Foster says, is a business. "And you have to learn how to run the business," she adds.
Last year, 804 took a risk.
"It almost crippled us," Rockhill says.
Studio 804 built sustainable homes long before green became fashionable. As early as a decade ago, Rockhill and his students were using old windows from deconstructed buildings and laying water tubes under floorboards that warmed during the day and heated the house at night.
In recent years, a certification system called Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) — created by the U.S. Green Building Council — has become the yardstick for sustainable construction. To earn the designation, architects and builders must include conservation measures, such as low-flow water fixtures, and construction strategies, such as recycling odd bits of unused material. Though LEED is more than a decade old, very few buildings are so sustainable that they earn enough points for its highest rating, platinum — something Rockhill demands of his students.
"Builders are all conservative," he says. "Architects are scared. So if we don't, who does? We're in a position to take a leadership role in these issues, show what can be done."
Aside from Rockhill's salary, the university doesn't front money to Studio 804 for its construction costs. Instead, Rockhill operates the outfit as a nonprofit. The sale of each project fills the 804 bank account. If students want to build a house, they have only the money in that account — and whatever materials they can coax companies to give them for free.
In 2008, the students deviated from home building. After a tornado obliterated Greensburg, Kansas, the town needed a new arts center. Its leaders wanted to build green, but the city didn't have much money. Studio 804 agreed to design and construct the art complex for $350,000. It became the first LEED platinum building in the state of Kansas, a structure worth close to $750,000, thanks to donated materials rustled by the students.
In 2009, the class used the first installment of money from Greensburg — more than a quarter-million dollars — to build Kansas' first LEED platinum house. The distinctive home, with its vertical wood siding, sits in the middle of a ragged neighborhood just west of the University of Kansas Medical Center. "It's like a sports car," says Bob Myers, the real-estate agent for the house. "You feel that juice. It's loaded and ready to ride."
He's right. The house is nested in a stand of trees, and its array of windows barely divides resident from forest, blurring the line between interior and exterior. The black concrete floor, warmed by the ample sunlight, begs for bare feet. The stairwell to the second floor is walled in glass, and the crimson floor is Brazilian cherry wood. The sleek, energy-efficient appliances are built seamlessly into the matte-black counters. Even the tile in the bathroom shimmers.