Only three materials—rammed earth, steel, and cedar—comprise this small trailhead structure in eastern Kansas. Foremost of these is rammed earth, a truly sustainable material that also provides an appealing appearance. Designed and built by students in the University of Kansas School of Architecture, Design and Planning's Dirt Works Studio, the project is indicative of an increasingly popular pedagogy that stresses learning by making, impacting students in their careers after graduation. Assistant Professor Chad Kraus answered some questions about the first project for the design-build studio.
View of the trailhead on approach
What were the circumstances of receiving the commission for this project?
The Dirt Works Studio – a materials and tectonics studio for third year students in the Department of Architecture – was inaugurated during the summer of 2011. The Kansas Biological Survey, our first client, had worked with the Department on two previous projects at their Field Station.
The idea of a rammed earth trailhead structure was proposed to honor Stan and Janet Roth, two beloved members of the local community. The design of the Roth Trailhead began in the fall of 2011 and was developed and constructed by ten architecture students in early 2012. The studio broke ground in March and completed the trailhead in late June of 2012.
View along the meandering path
Can you describe your design process for the project?
We like to think of the design for the Roth Trailhead as latent and discovered rather than imported or conceived. The gently sloping site led to the creation of a long rammed earth wall. The layering pattern of the rammed earth was loosely based on the geological formations and soil horizons present on the site, which was appropriate considering that the client is engaged in soils and biology research and education.
The wall is punctuated in a Fibonacci sequence to frame views, open passages through the wall, and recall the presence of nature. The charred cedar and steel canopy was designed to extend the dappled light and shadow of the adjacent woodland canopy. The charring of the louvers - in the shou-sugi-ban technique - serves to protect the wood and recalls the annual burning of the tallgrass prairie from which the trailhead emerges. Ultimately, design decisions were shaped by a desire to create a rich sensory experience and intensify the presence of the place.
View of cedar canopy over the rammed earth wall
How does the completed project compare to the project as designed? Were there any dramatic changes between the two and/or lessons learned during construction?
The finished construction is not unlike the design, however, there were a great many lessons learned, particularly during construction. This was a big project for a group of ten students, many having possessed little prior design or construction experience. In some respects, they were challenged to learn from their successes and failures as they went.
Several students continued to work toward completion throughout the early summer’s record-breaking heat and drought even as the semester had ended in May. It should be said that the dedication these students showed working under these adverse conditions was extraordinary.
How does the project relate to contemporary architectural trends, be it sustainability, technology, etc.?
The Roth Trailhead is not a building per se, however, its might be looked upon as a response to the sort of formal novelty and under-articulated tectonic logic seen in many contemporary works of architecture.
It relies on the innate understanding and positive emotional response that comes of the connection between man and nature. It resonates with the people of Kansas. Ultimately, principles of sustainability are engrained in every aspect of the project. Rammed earth, using local soils, was chosen due to its incredibly low embodied energy; canopy cedar and a significant portion of the formwork for the rammed earth wall was reclaimed from old utility poles.
This is a student-designed and constructed project done under the supervision of Chad Kraus, assistant professor of architecture at the University of Kansas. His pedagogical method reflects a philosophy within the School of Architecture, Design and Planning that seeks to deconstruct the artificial boundaries that have grown up between designing and making. KU has lead the way within this growing trend in architectural education with other classes such as its Studio 804
Are there any new/upcoming projects in the studio that this building’s design and construction has influenced?
The Roth Trailhead was the inaugural project for the Dirt Works Studio; as such, it has significantly shaped the trajectory of the studio. The next project, currently under construction, takes several cues from the Roth Trailhead in terms of material and tectonic expression. Most importantly, however, the idea of latent design has continued to shape the discourse of the studio.
How would you describe the architecture of Kansas and how does the building relate to it?
The vernacular architecture of Kansas features a rich agrarian tradition, evident in barns, silos, grain bins, and other utilitarian structures. Some of the most inspiring work in the region takes cues from this honest expression of materials, tectonics, and form. These works of architecture tend to be resourceful, making much of very little. Many of these structures were design-built, reflective of the hands-on, not-afraid-to-get-dirty mentality synonymous with the American Midwest.
Kansas’ agrarian tradition values weather patterns as an extension of the land. People are sensitive to climate change, from seemingly endless droughts to sudden flood-inducing rainfalls. In recent years, already prone to violent thunderstorms and tornados, the region has witnessed several severe tornados devastate local communities. In the face of these disasters and in recognition of Kansans’ dedication to the land, architects hold sustainability as a principle motivation in their work. The honest and straightforward expression of materials, tectonics, and form; a rugged design-build approach, and a deeply rooted concern for the environment are central to the mission of the Dirt Works Studio and our inaugural project, the Roth Trailhead.
Email interview conducted by John Hill.