Make a New Plan, Dan: Aiming for better passive-design standards, Dan Rockhill opts for a courtyard plan.

Posted on September 21, 2010


Best Green Houses

Rockhill and Associates

By David Sokol,
The well-known regional modernist Dan Rockhill is not exactly a fan of residential design-build commissions. “We give this work away; if we weren’t building it all there’s no way this stuff could happen,” the Lecompton, Kansas–based designer says of almost uniformly tight budgets.

And yet Rockhill takes on single-family projects again and again. Since its inception, Rockhill and Associates has assembled a portfolio of homes that is formally consistent: perched on pilotis, protected by shading devices, conversant with vernacular buildings.

While Rockhill has been able to use these commissions to develop a widely identifiable design vocabulary, funding restrictions have prevented him from pursuing active sustainable technologies. Rather, he and his eponymous studio have refined passive strategies, and he is particularly fond of the so-called Sensible House “because we were able to get full cross-ventilation and full passive solar in every room.” …

Photo courtesy Rockhill and Associates

…Sensible House is located in rural Douglas County, Kansas. It too, is raised on concrete piers, which in this case, Rockhill says, appeased the client’s fear of mold. “We wanted it to stay off the tillable land, which now makes the footprint of the building available for an orchard, gardening, animals,” Rockhill says. Although exposed on all sides, “You got to imagine a giant burrito. It’s just wrapped in insulation,” he explains, referring to wet-pack cellulose and soybean-based foam products…

Image courtesy Rockhill and Associates

…Predominant winds blow through the 48-acre site from the southwest, but turn northerly in wintertime. “So we try to protect the north side of every building as much as possible,” Rockhill says, adding, “Our climate is very cold in winter and very hot in summer. (The house in winter is shown at left.) …

Image courtesy Rockhill and Associates

…We need to take care of the swing months in particular. How long can you hold out until you turn on the air-conditioning? How long can you hold out until you heat the house at night? That’s where the passive attributes really count.” (The house in summer is shown at left.) …

Photo courtesy Rockhill and Associates

…Long, thin forms lend themselves to achieving the daylight penetration, natural ventilation, and shelter from the elements that prove so vital during swing months. Yet they can also subsume the central public space that provides a house with its spiritual hearth. So, for the 2,400-square-foot, three-bedroom Sensible House, Rockhill and Associates seized upon a courtyard plan. It draws sunlight into every room and emphasizes a homey core…

Image courtesy Rockhill and Associates

…Public and private spaces occupy separate wings wrapping the 400-square-foot courtyard. The kitchen and living rooms are largely open, each bedroom has a private bath, and the dining room and master bedroom can access the courtyard space itself. Southern elevations—the public wing looks toward the landscape, the bedroom wing into the courtyard—sport floor-to-ceiling windows made of recyclable aluminum…

Photo courtesy Rockhill and Associates

…Flooring is exposed concrete, achieving thermal mass that absorbs wintertime sun, and an embedded radiant system boosts that temperature. Exterior overhangs calculated to shade the building’s openings in summer helps keep the air-conditioning from clicking on too early…

Image courtesy Rockhill and Associates

…Rockhill says Sensible House did enjoy a bigger budget. The extra money yielded the commercial-grade windows and doors, a white TPO roof, and a non-vented roof assembly in which the soybean insulation was sprayed. Recyclable metal siding is another feature. “If you don’t like it, you just take it to the scrapyard,” Rockhill says, with the same unaffected Midwestern stoicism of his buildings.

Later this year, we will look at the other side of Rockhill’s practice: Studio 804 at the University of Kansas School of Architecture and Urban Planning.