‘A modern cabin’: KU’s Dirt Works Studio collaborates with Tenants to Homeowners on first-of-its-kind affordable home

May 2, 2024 | News

Source: https://www2.ljworld.com/news/2024/apr/29/a-modern-cabin-kus-dirt-works-studio-collaborates-with-tenants-to-homeowners-on-first-of-its-kind-affordable-home/

A construction site on Oregon Street in east Lawrence is abuzz with activity on a windy day in late April, but the crew — and the home it’s building — is a bit different from the norm.

For one, the workers are all University of Kansas architecture students enrolled in Dirt Works Studio, a design-build studio for third- and fourth-year students directed by associate professor Chad Kraus. And the home itself, once it’s complete, will be the first of its kind in Lawrence.

Called the Phoenix House, the home at 1140 Oregon St. is a collaboration between Dirt Works Studio and Tenants to Homeowners. It’s intended to become a transitional rental property for tenants across the spectrum of affordable housing, built with a special type of lumber designed for resilience.

photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World

Students in the University of Kansas architecture program’s Dirt Works Studio work on the exterior of the Phoenix House, an affordable housing design-build with Tenants to Homeowners, on Monday, April 22, 2024.

It’s an exciting partnership, Kraus told the Journal-World last week, and also an opportunity to make an affordable rental truly feel like a home.

“There’s a lot of evidence that shows that wood surroundings help lower stress levels for occupants, so the idea that this would be like a little ‘modern cabin’ was very appealing — reducing stress and making people feel more comfortable,” Kraus told the Journal-World.

Kraus said it will be a pretty “modest” house, ultimately coming in at around 450 square feet. But packed into that small frame will be plenty of elements that Kraus said are pretty unique, many of which have just as much to do with sustainability as affordability.

The most noteworthy of those elements has to do with the structure of the house. It’s built out of “cross-laminated timber,” a durable type of prefabricated wood panel consisting of multiple layers of lumber boards stacked in alternating directions.

It’s so durable, in fact, that it’s being used to build army barracks and other structures; Kraus said the U.S. Department of Defense has found that the material performs “extremely well” in ballistic missile testing. The same goes for seismic tests, he added, and fire safety tests. The thick wood panels even offer a heightened level of sound-proofing.

Kraus said the Phoenix House will be the first building of its scale using cross-laminated timber in Lawrence.

“Whatever we can do with the built environment to make it more inclusive and inviting to the spectrum of people we serve is what we’re looking at here,” Rebecca Buford, the executive director of Tenants to Homeowners, added.

Buford told the Journal-World that durability is part of why cross-laminated timber has been catching on with architects and now is used in most big multifamily buildings. It’s a somewhat expensive material as a result of its high quality, Buford said, but the agency wanted to be intentional in building something sturdy that will last a long time. Plus, she said the material costs are offset by reduced labor costs by merit of working with the students of Dirt Works Studio.

Using cross-laminated timber also allows for some savings in other ways, Kraus said, like reducing the need for material finishes. The interior of the home, according to renderings, will feature the bright wood panels throughout.

Cross-laminated timber also allows for some more practical benefits. Insulating between the studs won’t be viable because of the thickness of the walls, so Kraus said the home will be insulated on its exterior with four inches of “polyiso,” a type of insulation with a high resistance to thermal transfer.

“You basically have a ‘sealed envelope,’” Buford said. “We talk about ‘sealing the envelope’ (as) the biggest bang for your buck. You can have really (high-quality) HVAC equipment … but generally for affordable housing, if you seal the heck out of the envelope of the building, it’s not as expensive but it really effectively stops heat and cold from moving in and out, which means you need less systems to keep it warm or cold, right?”

That allows for more a more thoughtful approach in terms of the heating and cooling systems installed at the Phoenix House. One of them is a “mini split condenser” that will be installed on the exterior, which Kraus said extracts energy from the air to heat or cool a home. That means the system doesn’t need to create any new energy through fossil fuels and is highly efficient in general.

There will also be an important element for sustainable air conditioning inside the home: an energy recovery ventilator, which solves the problem of circulating fresh air through an airtight home. Kraus said the ventilator brings in fresh air while simultaneously re-circulating most of the air that’s already been conditioned, thus conserving energy.

Sustainability extends to how the home is powered, too, via six solar panels installed on the roof.

photo by: Spencer Landis

A rendering shows what the interior of the Phoenix House will look like once complete.

In terms of its layout, the home can be split into three parts, all separated by an entryway that links the front and back doors. A small bedroom is one of those parts, located across the entryway from an ADA-accessible bathroom. That’s where washer and dryer units, a hot water heater and a system to heat the home’s concrete floors will be housed.

A combined kitchen and living area will make up the largest open space inside the home, split up partially by a kitchen peninsula. Those spaces are in a room with lofted ceilings, creating a more open feeling despite the smaller square footage.

photo by: Morgan Kimes

A rendering shows what the kitchen area of the Phoenix House will look like once complete.

photo by: Morgan Kimes

A rendering shows what the living area of the Phoenix House will look like once complete.

With the end of the spring semester around the corner, Kraus said he’s been pleased with how the students in the class have approached the project.

“We’re looking forward to the next one,” Kraus said. “…For me, it’s just always so gratifying to see the students start off not knowing how to do very much of anything in the construction field and then by this point, besides a few questions, they’re very self-sufficient. They learn fast, pick up things, and for me that’s the most gratifying thing, just to see them really take ownership of the project.”

On top of the collaboration with Tenants to Homeowners, the Phoenix House has also been a vital practical experience for the dozen or so students who make up Dirt Works Studio. Kraus said besides pouring the concrete foundation, the students have done most of the work to design and build the home.

photo by: Chad Kraus

The members of Dirt Works Studio sit on the foundation of the Phoenix House.

Students designed the home during their fall semester, and it’s something of a departure from the studio’s usual fare. Kraus said a project of this scale is atypical at this point in the architecture degree program; Dirt Works Studio enrollees tend to design prototypes or, at the largest, a pavilion.

“Pavilions are great projects for this studio level, but anything bigger than that becomes really challenging because of the scope and also going through all of the permitting process,” Kraus said.

When the Journal-World visited the site, many of those students were working to install a wood rain screen on the home’s exterior, while some milled about inside taking care of other tasks. They’re aiming to complete the home in time for an open house on Saturday, May 11, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. The class typically works on the construction site five days a week.

photo by: Morgan Kimes

Students enrolled in Dirt Works Studio work on the frame of the Phoenix House.

A pair of them, Grace Beirne and Samantha Weidner, spoke with the Journal-World about the experience. Both said the project has required the class to be really considerate of how to make a safe, welcoming space, while simultaneously being mindful of it being an affordable home both to build and maintain.

“We actually have to make this affordable, we have to make it work,” Weidner said. “That real-world experience was really important.”

At the same time, it’s been a very technical process. Beirne said the students hadn’t even taken their technical classes in the degree program when they started the project in the fall, so the concepts they’ve learned about beforehand — about energy recovery ventilators and more — have given them a leg up.

“I feel like all of us feel that way,” Weidner said. “Our lecture classes are supposed to be teaching us all of the stuff that we’ve already learned in designing this and are constantly learning on-site. It feels repetitive, but at the same time the reinforcement is really good.”

Beirne added that the project felt akin to the experience of working at an architecture studio in terms of the whole group’s collaboration, especially compared to the more solitary experience being a full-time student can often be.

About three weeks out from the open house, Beirne said the group was feeling good about its progress.

“I think everyone’s been super excited this past week,” Beirne said. “We’ve been putting up the rain screens, so we’re able to see our exterior cladding and it’s really coming to life. …It feels like there’s little wins all the time.”

photo by: Samantha Weidner

As of last week, students in Dirt Works Studio had made some progress on constructing the exterior of the Phoenix House.