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For 26 years, University of Kansas architecture professor Dan Rockhill and his Studio 804 class have been creating modern, sustainable architecture around campus and throughout Kansas.
The Studio 804 website sums up its mission this way: “Studio 804 is a yearlong, comprehensive educational opportunity for graduate students who are entering the final year of the Masters of Architecture program at the University of Kansas School of Architecture & Design. During each academic year, students enrolled in this full-time class design and construct a building of great technical sophistication.”
As a Realtor and founder of Lawrence Modern, I have taken special interest in Rockhill’s work. Each year I look forward to the latest project, visiting the site and conversing with the students. The project culminates in a public open house that is a fantastic way to experience their work and give the students the praise they are due.
This year, the open house will be held on Saturday, May 15, when Studio 804 will show off the results of an unusual assignment: turning steel shipping containers into 12 tiny homes, each just 160 square feet. The structures will provide additional noncongregate shelter for the Lawrence Community Shelter on an acre of ground just south of the shelter’s location in eastern Lawrence.
Early on it was determined that the project would include a community garden with a waystation for monarch butterflies, so the 12 tiny homes have been named Monarch Village.
“This is a magical gift that Dan is offering us,” said Renee Kuhl, executive director of the shelter. “Gifts like these don’t fall into the laps of homeless shelters. Without Studio 804’s generous offer of design services, labor and construction costs, we couldn’t possibly afford a much-needed addition like this.”
I have seen shipping containers clustered together to house businesses in vacant lots in large cities, and I am also familiar with them being repurposed for homes. But that idea seemed challenging for our community shelter. My first thoughts were that they would be cold, hot, uninviting, confining and dark inside. I’m sure you can add to the list of thoughts that would make living in a shipping container unappealing.
Debunking these thoughts is exactly the type of problem Rockhill loves to take on. He has always built on challenging sites. It’s how he teaches: Identifying a problem, reframing into an opportunity, designing a solution, implementing the idea to completion and ultimately creating a beautiful, sustainable and modern building.
In July, while Studio 804 was finishing up a home in North Lawrence, Rockhill became aware that the shelter was having difficulty providing safe spaces to quarantine amid the pandemic. He told leaders at the shelter that he was looking for a project for the 2020-2021 school year and asked how he could help. From these conversations with staff and the shelter board came the idea for the 12 tiny homes.
Steel shipping containers were found to be an economical option. But how could Studio 804 design turn the austere containers into a village of 12 tiny homes that would feel safe and pleasing to people who are experiencing loss and uncertainty and who also need privacy in the midst of a pandemic? This was the problem Rockhill’s 2020-2021 class set out to solve.
The 12 tiny homes have the capacity to provide housing for 12 families and enable them to safely quarantine. They may have started out as conventional shipping containers, but the Studio 804 units have added many touches to make them more home-like and welcoming.
Each unit has three windows and an entry door that provide natural light. There is a kitchenette with a sink, microwave and hotplate. A sliding door separates the living area from the bathroom, which contains a modern vanity, toilet and shower. There is a sprinkler system in case of fire and solar panels to generate electricity and to power an efficient heating/air-conditioning unit. One of the homes meets Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards for accessibility. And each home has a patio with a trellis that will enable freshly planted vines to crawl up and soften the appearance.
The students designed and built all the furniture and fixtures to maximize functionality in the remarkably small space. There are bunk beds and a trundle bed. The interior walls are finished with wood veneer paneling. The floors are made of a rubber material that is durable and easily maintained. The windows, along with LED lighting, make the small space bright and pleasing. It was a challenge to design and build everything into such a small space, but the students got the job done, keeping form and function in harmony.
Shipping containers have been used in this manner in other cities throughout North America, but Rockhill says he is not aware of any that contain a bathroom. This was important in light of the pandemic to provide privacy and safety.
Outside, there are concrete walking paths and a large covered open area with picnic tables for people to gather. The 12 tiny homes are clustered between two parking lots east and south of the community garden. It will be a village, a place for people to live, develop a plan and gain resources to move on to permanent housing. In other words, just as the community garden serves the monarch butterflies, the Monarch Village is a waystation – a stopping point on a journey.
Studio 804 worked closely with the City of Lawrence to meet guidelines for safe housing. Partners included Action Plumbing, Scott Temperature Heating & A/C, R. D. Johnson, Cromwell Environmental and Lynne Electric. McCarthy Building Companies Inc., of Overland Park, generously donated the 12 new shipping containers. Forty percent of the project costs were donated by Studio 804. The project also has received donations from community members.
It’s important to acknowledge the design skills and labor of 18 earnest Studio 804 students who have propelled this project to completion. We are fortunate to have LCS and Studio 804 in our community, working hard to provide safe, private and temporary homes for people who are experiencing a housing crisis.
I hope you can attend the open house on May 15 to see Monarch Village in person, meet and praise the students for their hard work and feel inspired to donate to help address the ongoing housing crisis in our community.
The Monarch Village open house will be held from noon to 3 p.m. Saturday, May 15. There will be a ribbon-cutting ceremony at 1 p.m. Face masks are required, and safely distanced tours of the 12 tiny homes will be offered.
If you cannot attend, it will be livestreamed on Facebook. Monarch Village is behind the Lawrence Community Shelter at 3655 E. 25th Street.
About the writer
Tom Harper is a Realtor at Stephens Real Estate helping people in Lawrence and Douglas County buy and sell real estate. He is the founder of Lawrence Modern, a group whose mission is to raise awareness of midcentury and modern architecture. You will find him posting frequently on Instagram under @lawrencemodern, sharing his daily observations of his favorite place on earth: Lawrence, Kansas. Read more of Tom’s writing for The Lawrence Times here.