At its core, Wei-Han Vivian Lee’s research project Hair, Spikes, Cattail, and Turkeyfoot poses a radical question: Is the ubiquitous construction drawing still relevant in an age of digital fabrication? Constructing a digitally fabricated structure often requires a set of information that a drawing of a completed structure cannot convey, namely a carefully annotated kit of parts, where every fabricated piece is labeled in order of assembly, and every connection point identified. A lecturer in architecture at the University of Michigan’s A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, Lee tested her hypothesis that design is transcending documentation by analyzing an unexpected architectural throwback that likely doesn’t have a standard CAD or BIM object in any database: thatch. And while thatch and digital fabrication may seem anachronistic, juror William Massie praised the overall analysis as “extending thoughts of materials and the history and science of building.”

Lee consulted with William Cahill, one of the few master thatchers in the U.S., and researched the thatching vernaculars of Britain, Scandanavian countries, Laos, Indonesia, and Vietnam before digitally fabricating a series of combs—a tool used to thresh the grasses and reeds—from 14-gauge steel on a water-jet. These combs were used to create neat bundles of the fibers, and also became the steel support structure for the test structure: a pavilion formed entirely from thatch bundles. After the bundles were formed—from grasses such as cattail, phragmites, and turkeyfoot (the title of the project is, in fact, more literal than whimsical)—they were jammed down onto the spikes of each comb. The combs were then assembled into a wall structure and the ends trimmed to achieve the final result.

“What I really liked about this was this notion of digital fabrication and handcraft coming together,” juror Sylvia Smith says. The ultimate product may be the pavilion, but Lee’s study focused more on examining different forms of representation that could take the place of a traditional construction drawing for the project. She settled on three: axonometric documentation, a sequence of instructional drawings, and a catalog of parts. In short, a new form of representation for a new era of design. “Are we all going to run out and start building this way?” Smith asks. “No. But is it an interesting integration of old methods and new ways of thinking that could, in fact, overlap to other aspects of craft and building? I think it could.”

Project Credits

Project Hair, Spikes, Cattail, and Turkeyfoot
Client Robert Grese (director, Matthaei Botanical Gardens); David Michener (associate curator, Matthaei Botanical Gardens)
Primary Investigator Wei-Han Vivian Lee (assistant professor, University of Michigan A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning)
Research and Design Assistants Tarlton Long, Peter Yi
Fabrication and Construction Assistants Patrick Ethen, Rennie Jones, Tarlton Long, Nate Smalligan, Jon Swendris
Structural Engineer SDI Structures—Andy Greco
Master Thatcher Custom Roof Thatch—William Cahill (principle)
Photography Anya Sirota, Alex Watanabe
Hair, Spikes, Cattail, and Turkeyfoot is funded by the Research Through Making Grant, University of Michigan A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning