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Fast Wolf House
Pine Ridge, SD 2000

The Fast Wolfs are a couple in their sixties who like many older members of Northern Plains tribes are raising most of their grandchildren because the children’s parents have fallen victim to social problems. When we took on this project they were living in a seriously overcrowded manufactured house on their own property. They sought a second house adjacent to the first in which they could essentially create an extended home for their grandchildren.

In response to what we learned during the Peggy White project, AIHI made two major program adjustments for this second year. To avoid some of the difficult weather we had at Peggy White’s, we planned the build for the summer rather than the spring. In addition, we used a preceding spring seminar to further refine the straw bale demonstration house prototype students had begun the previous year after learning important lessons in the construction of Peggy’s house.

During this seminar the students approached the refinement of the prototype with two major parameters in mind: standardization and reproducibility. They confirmed that the most efficient way to build with straw bale on the plains was by keeping the house a single story, as the previous studio had suggested. They further simplified construction by developing the concept of a minimalist utility core in the center of the building surrounded by a straw bale shell. The walls of the core would be typical stick frame and gypsum board construction, while the bearing and exterior walls would remain straw bale. Building the core as a separate, modularized unit allowed the plumbing and utilities to be kept away from the straw bale walls. To make the wall-raising process more systematic, students and faculty developed a more detailed set of construction drawings. Construction schedules and illustrative workshop handout materials were also created for the project with the specific goal of achieving a forteen-day completion time.

At the beginning of the build students were asked to break into groups and take control of a specific aspect of the construction process such as wall assembly or stick framing. As that particular stage of construction neared, the group met with the professors to plan the upcoming task. Then, when the time for that task arrived, they trained the rest of the students and volunteer labor group. The process worked so well it has been used on most of our subsequent programs.

Thanks to the amount of time spent planning the project, the build itself went quickly and efficiently; the walls, central utility core, and roof of the single-story, two-bedroom house went up in fourteen days as planned. In the end the design improvements decreased costs and increased the use of community and volunteer labor by limiting the technical steps in the construction process. Volunteer labor provided by Red Feather Development Group and a church in Connecticut proved not only helpful to our team but rewarding to the volunteers themselves because the construction process was so clear that the work always had an obvious purpose and effect.

In terms of physical conditions the build couldn’t have differed more from that of Peggy White’s house the preceding year. Scorching heat replaced rain and wind and made the construction process challenging in different ways. The critical stucco application was hindered because the hot sun dried the stucco before it was spread properly. In response, students worked in the dark of early morning to stucco the building. Once the process got back on track, the Fast Wolf’s grandchildren joined students on site and created murals in the stucco by molding it with their hands, telling the story of the migration of the Dakota Sioux across the plains to this part of South Dakota.

At the conclusion of the project, students met for another short seminar at the university. They proposed further changes and improvements to the design. These included increasing the size of the home to match the average needs of families on reservations, maintaining the concept of the core, and generating additional drawings and specifications to describe the design to the various lay-groups that take part in community-built projects. This year’s build developed what became a continuous cycle in our AIHI program that we repeat yearly—learning about the technology, building the technology, reflecting on the build, and refining the prototype. Straw bale technology is under-researched and in many ways it is a system that needs to be built and designed, rather than designed and built. Students inverted our mantra and coined the phrase build/design for the AIHI studios.