My New Kentucky Home

An interdisciplinary group of students proves that modern design can work in a historic area.

Located in a historic district just outside downtown Lexington, Kentucky, the Resonance House defies its conventional locale. The contemporary structure honors its neighbors with a sympathetic face—featuring a pitched roof and brassy copper sheathing that will turn green with age—but doesn’t entirely hide its bold back, which has double-height glazed windows and a flat roof, and peeks out around the sides. In addition to spurring urban revitalization, as one of the pilot projects in the new LEED program for homes, it is intended to serve as a model for domestic sustainability. But perhaps most surprisingly, the Resonance House is the work of a group of students at the University of Kentucky College of Design.

Over the course of four semesters, architect and associate professor Gregory Luhan led students from the architecture, historic preservation, and interior-design programs in the unusually ambitious project. The four-bedroom, 3,000-square-foot market-rate house—completed last spring—aimed to demonstrate innovation in sustainable design, digital fabrication, and design-build education, a complex agenda that required the students to respond to many sets of limitations. “The constraints really helped us refine the design,” Luhan says.

Take the handsome copper cladding covering the street-facing elevations: though expensive and somewhat precious, the metal has some unexpected green benefits. Over its relatively long life span—an estimated 75 years—the self-sealing material requires little maintenance. Copper also fit the guidelines for the historic district, which forbids inexpensive (and often toxic) materials like vinyl—plus any scraps can be recycled. “We actually made a small profit,” Luhan reports. The team further minimized waste by designing the copper panels digitally and cutting the templates efficiently using CNC milling.

They took a similar approach inside, precisely measuring, cutting, numbering, and assembling the wood frame, and they milled every bit of the modest leftovers from the floors into open-rise butcher-block stairs. “We had a greater sense of what was going into the project, what was being purchased, and what was going out,” says then student Daniel Ware, now an intern at EOP Architects. “The fun part was trying to use the materials to the greatest extent possible.” The result was a dramatic reduction in construction waste, a mere three tons compared to the standard 15 to 18 tons for a house of this size.

Other elements anticipate savings down the road. For example, the team designed a panelized zinc “vortex” for the living room that is both a service core and fireplace surround. By allowing easy access for plumbing or electrical work during future upgrades, the core will prevent walls from being torn apart. Additionally, the vortex—which they worked on with Zahner, the company famous for its contribution to Frank Gehry’s titanium confections—allowed the students to explore nonlinear geometries in the otherwise rectilinear house.

“In some design-build projects you can work on the sly to cover over your mistakes,” Ware says, in contrast to the level of detail and craftsmanship in the house. “Here we checked one another’s work constantly because we knew that if it didn’t look good it had to go.” The ultimate lesson for the students came in the real-world value of their work: in August the house sold for its (undisclosed) asking price.

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