From the drawing board to the hiking trail

Published: Nov 02nd, 2014

By Kaija Swisher Black Hills Pioneer | Posted: Monday, October 27, 2014 11:30 am

SPEARFISH — They’re used to doing the drawings for projects, but last summer, Spearfish architects Andy and Shauntel Fett had the chance to take a design through the construction process. They created a rammed earth bench that won a merit award from the South Dakota chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) for its sustainable design and materials.

“We draw it; we don’t build it,” Shauntel said of what the couple, both of whom work at Williams and Associates, is used to doing. However, both were interested in a building material called “rammed earth” that they had learned about in architecture school, but they didn’t think it was feasible in a cold climate. When Andy was returning from a conference in Denver, however, he saw a rammed earth building in Wyoming.

“Then we started investigating it more and messing around with it and decided that we wanted to do something with it,” he said.

They started researching and designing, using sustainable
building methods and materials. One thing that drew them
to the method was the fact that it uses less concrete and looks a little more natural, and they thought it would be neat to build something usable near a hiking trail or path in their community.

“A bench was an approachable size for just the two of us building something,” Shauntel said of their final decision.

They approached Cheryl Johnson, Spearfish’s public works administrator, about the possibility of placing the sculptural bench, pro bono, on city land.

“I was really encouraged when they brought the idea to us,” Johnson said, adding that it gave the city the chance to place a bench in a space it may not normally consider.

The Fetts had prepared a plan and design that they presented, and the conversation turned to placing the bench near the trail to the Thoen Stone monument, above the Lookout Amphitheater on Meier Avenue.

“I really think it suits some of the new things this community is out there trying,” Johnson said of the

bench design, adding that lately, more people are coming forward with unique ideas to complement the community and natural environment.

The city authorized the Fetts to place the bench on the space, and they started the work, putting in many hours every weekend. There is no water or electricity on or near the location, so they had to haul water and do all the work by hand.

Andy explained that to complete the bench, they used three building materials: rammed earth, local ponderosa pine, and steel.

“We wanted the whole thing to be local materials, good for the environment,” he said.

The two blocks on the ends of the bench, on which the wooden slats sit, are made of rammed earth. The Fetts build wooden forms out of ponderosa pine, then mixed asphalt crumbles, soil near the site, and sand from Lookout Mountain together with Portland cement – approximately 15 percent of the mixture, which is about half the cement content of traditional concrete – and water. They poured the mixture into the wooden forms and tamped it down in layers, building it up and then letting it cure, before removing the forms.

They cut the wood with a handsaw on site and charred the ponderosa slats, which provides a protective layer and a darkened look of the wood, which was then sealed to protect it. They angled the bench with hikers in mind, so people can sit and see the “X” on the base of Lookout Mountain, marking the spot where the original sandstone Thoen Stone was discovered in the late 1800s. A replica of the stone, with its inscription, can be seen on the monument on the hilltop above the bench.

The South Dakota chapter of the AIA also noticed the bench, awarding the Fetts a merit award during the Design Awards Ceremony of the chapter’s convention in September. Susie Wisall, executive director of S.D. AIA, explained that merit awards are given to deserving design aspects of projects.

“The projects are not to be judged in competition with each other, but rather by measuring the architects’ performance against each project’s scope and potential,” she said. “Projects of ordinary program or modest budget can merit an award based on the architects’ skill in optimizing the design opportunity.”

Shauntel and Andy estimated that they spent about $1,000 on the materials and between 150-200 hours of work on the project overall, and they are pleased with the result. When looking at the landscape, seeing the colors of the sandstone, gypsum, and limestone visible from the vantage point, the bench’s appearance and colors – made from those same local elements – fit.

The architects said through the process, they are convinced that this building design is feasible.

“We learned a lot through it, and we hope people enjoy it,” Andy said. “We know it’s not perfect, but hopefully, people can see that it fits with the environment and it’s something different.”