Designing for the Wichita and Affiliated Tribes started with a comprehensive exploration of the tribe’s history, values, and current project needs. Learning about the tribe’s identity with place and space was critical in developing ideas that relayed connections to local environments and traditional architectural forms.
Historical research drove the conceptual process through studying the Southern Plains and the Wichita grass houses. The structural strategy was based on the construction methodology and system of the grass house, which was applied to a contemporary fabrication and construction workflow using a readily accessible building resource today, plywood.
The relationship between vertical and horizontal structural elements and their assembly sequence follows historic patterns. In grass house construction horizontal poles are first installed and then a grid lattice of secondary components run perpendicularly across the primary structure. This project also deployed a lattice-like structural system of interlocking structural elements to follow the historic construction logic and visual outcome of the historic grass house (adjacent image).
Historically the construction of a grass house was a community event. For me that meant the construct-ability of the project needed to be accessible to a range of skill levels. It meant a system that could be assembled like the wooden 3D dinosaur puzzles I remember as a kid. All the parts were marked, assembled in sequence, and the whole structural system could be assembled with rubber mallets, nearly everything is friction fit, minimal fasteners, everything is locked together and becomes pretty much structurally monolithic.
Usually, framing is the second most expensive construction labor cost and can take weeks to months to accomplish. For this project, the goal was to be fully framed in less than 24 hours. The reality was that framing was completed in about 6 hours.
The biggest challenge was in the programming, not in a conventional architectural programming sense, but in the computer programing. Writing a streamlined and efficient end-to-end code strategy to holistically respond to any spatial and programmatic changes made. When anything changed in the interior spatial volume, or if a window or door got moved, the code would recalculate every single project part. For example, the code would locate, size, and generate all the connection points for the waffle grid structural system, accommodate for sheet-to-sheet thickness variances in plywood, deepen structural components when there was an interaction with programmatic requirements like desks, storage or seating.
The challenge was to program (computer) the programming (architecture). This was a critical component in the design of the code for this project. Since everything is interlocked and interrelated, and with tolerances in the 1/128-inch range for everything. It would have been impossible to remain fluid and iterative with such an interdependent system without the repetitive processes being delegated to a CPU.