Studio 804: Too Cool for School

By Trish Holder

Maybe I miss being a college student. Or maybe as the mother of a 17- and 20-year-old I’m preoccupied with institutions of higher learning. Whatever the reason, I really like writing about college construction.  

University and college projects come with certain characteristic challenges.  The buildings are usually either very old with architectural and/or historic elements that must remain intact; or they are brand new and incorporate some of the latest sustainable technologies. And there are always time constraints because come late August several thousand students are going to need a place to learn, study, and lay down their little heads.  In any case, these projects always involve little subplots that make them more interesting to write about. 

The Forum at Marvin Hall, an addition to the University of Kansas (KU) School of Architecture, Design & Planning, embodied all this and more.  It is also my favorite college story to date. 

What Made the Forum a Favorite

What I loved most about this project, which included a very unique ventilated façade design, was that architectural graduate students at KU were directly involved in every ulcer-inducing moment from design to ribbon-cutting. Students sourced equipment, consulted with design experts, and worked side-by-side with contractors throughout the entire construction process. When problems arose (as they always do) these architectural students weren't bystanders, they were part of the problem solving process. 

So often architects are removed from the daily grind of bringing a building to life. Breathing air into a building is not something that takes place in an office, but at the jobsite where unexpected obstacles have a tendency to reshape what looked perfectly reasonable on a set of plans.  These KU students, all participants in a unique study program called Studio 804, got the whole panoramic experience. And they will be better architects for it.

What Is Studio 804?

Studio 804 is unlike any college program or initiative I have ever heard about or encountered. 

Technically, Studio 804 is a not-for-profit 501(c)3 corporation that works directly with graduate students entering their final year of the Master of Architecture program at KU.  Each year these students, under the guidance of Professor Dan Rockhill, produce one building that is exemplary in sustainable design. It could be a campus building, a single-family-home, or just about any other type of real-use facility -- not a prototype or model that collapses and gets packed away when the school year is done.

Studio 804 pushes the envelope on sustainable design.  The Forum at Marvin Hall is a prime example. Its HVAC system combines both underfloor ventilation and a ventilated façade for a design that is virtually unprecedented in the United States.  The program gives these students an opportunity to test the limits of mechanical design -- something that (let's face it) doesn't happen all that much in typical construction.

That's not to say this is a grown-up playpen with no accountability. Quite the contrary, these buildings have owners with needs and preferences. KU's School of Architecture needed an auditorium for lecture courses and guest speakers so they commissioned Studio 804 to design the Marvin Hall Forum.  Studio 804 projects must comply with all the usual code and zoning requirements and most are even LEED certified.

I am a fan of KU for this extraordinary program alone.  I am also a fan of all those who support Studio 804, including my friends at Systemair, who provided the fans for the ventilated façade design and provided design support throughout the project.  Had Systemair not asked me to write about the Forum at Marvin Hall, I’d have never known this oh-so-cool initiative even existed. 

Check it out:  Student-Designed Facility Combines Underfloor Ventilation, Ventilated Façade by Trish Holder, originally published by HPAC Engineering Magazine.