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A rendered model of the team's home for the 2023 Build Challenge.

The University of Kansas

Team Name: Dirt Works Studio

Build Location: Lawrence, Kansas

This project focuses on local, low-maintenance, bio-based materials that reduce embodied carbon in a 500 ft2, one-story demonstration home with panelized design for flexibility in scaling and construction.

Project Summary

Dirt Works Studio at The University of Kansas (KU) designed Haven, a two-bedroom, net-zero energy home, in fall 2021 and spring 2022. Due to extenuating circumstances, this project had to quickly pivot to a new community partner, a new site, a condensed scope, and a new funding strategy; the redesigned project is called Haven Studio. The design of Haven Studio retains much of the original design, demonstrating how its design principles are scalable and versatile. Haven Studio will be an interactive, full-scale, teaching tool and learning environment to benefit current and future generations of architecture and design students at the University of Kansas as well as our broader community.

Design Philosophy

Dirt Works Studio has created a multifaceted project – Haven Studio – that will demonstrate best practices for the design and construction of sustainable, net-zero energy homes for future architecture and design students, community partners, and the broader community. Since it has been built adjacent to our KU Designbuild Center, it will demonstrate these values as a teaching tool and living lab for years to come. In addition to serving as a demonstration net-zero energy home, Haven Studio will function as a clean and quiet space for design collaboration and meetings with outside partners or clients engaged in collaborations with KU Designbuild. The living room cabinetry wall will also serve as a materials library, and the main studio space will be outfitted with flexible furnishings to allow the space to easily shift between a residential mode (dining table and sleeper sofa) to a classroom mode (conference table and bench). Finally, the exterior street-facing north façade of the house will serve as a surface to mount signage to, which will finally and appropriately identify East Hills as the home of KU Designbuild.

The basic design concept draws from the historic fabric of local neighborhoods as well as archetypal ideas of home. The east and west facades, with their simple gable forms, are relatable while demonstrating sustainable practices. An emphasis on wood creates an atmosphere of warmth, further reinforcing the concept of home and community.

The Kansas climate is characterized by constant and dramatic change; from hot, humid summers to cold, dry winters, and everything in between. Select passive strategies have been adopted as a basic approach to address this mercurial climate, specifically a highly insulated and airtight building envelope. To achieve this, Dirt Works Studio partnered with Build SMART, a local company that prefabricates highly insulated, airtight wall systems. The construction of the wall assembly combines a traditional light-frame wood construction with continuously insulated layers, integrated windows and doors, and liquid-applied flashing. The prefabricated panel’s precision reduces air infiltration and reduces on-site construction time. These panels can provide an R-50+ thermal envelop, far exceeding the code-required minimum.

The home’s narrow footprint is relatively easy to naturally light, reducing artificial lighting use during the day. The roof slope was chosen for its optimal angle for fixed solar panels on its south-facing side. The well-insulated north facade is free of openings that might contribute to energy loss during the large number of heating degree days, while the south facade is characterized by a large, quad-pane glazed surface, protected by an overhang, to take advantage of passive solar heating while avoiding overheating in the summer.

This project focuses on low-maintenance and primarily bio-based materials that function well in its climate while reducing embodied carbon. Low and no VOC materials were selected to ensure good indoor air quality, which is important in a home with relatively few air changes per hour. The exterior walls are clad in thermally-treated ash rainscreen while standing seam metal panels cover the roof and north wall to protect the home at its most vulnerable surfaces.

While the intention is for this home to be net positive, it will be connected to the electrical grid. Even when drawing electricity from the grid, 44% of the energy produced in Kansas comes from renewables ( A heat pump mini-split system will control temperatures throughout the home, while an energy recovery ventilation (ERV) system with an integrated HEPA filter will help to efficiently draw in fresh air while reducing energy loss by pre-conditioning supply air with heat and humidity extracted from exhaust air. The highly insulated walls will also protect from infiltration of exterior noise.


    Market Analysis

    Lawrence, Kansas is currently experiencing a housing crisis. Families are becoming priced out of the area and can no longer afford a typically sized house. In the last few years, Accessory Dwelling Units have been approved for certain areas of the city. As a result, there is a huge and quickly growing demand for 500 square foot homes. The design is not just a scaled-down version of a traditional home, however, but a scaled-right solution that meets the specific needs of our community. The overall concept for the design focused on right-sizing all elements for their needs. This typically translated into keeping things to a minimum size necessary to achieve the intended purpose, which reduces the resources required to achieve the project’s goals and creates a more efficient final product. The narrow footprint of the home provides comfortable, multipurpose rooms while avoiding unnecessary energy loads and embodied energy resources.

    The housing solution proposed by Haven Studio can meet the needs of individuals who are looking to become homeowners in an increasingly expensive market. The previous iteration of the design, the two-bedroom Haven, demonstrates scalability of the design principles to meet diverse needs of different families. This project has already become a catalyst for a new partnership to design and build several homes over the next few years with Tenants to Homeowners, a local organization that provides affordable housing for our local community. The non-profit plans to build over one hundred homes in total.


    Key Features:

    • Campus research
    • Prefabricated wall systems
    • Bio-based materials
    • Local industry participation.