Prairie Chapel

2012 PA Progressive Architecture Award
2012 AIAFL Design Honor Award
2012 NextLA Design Merit Award

2014 AIATC Design Excellence Award

The client requested that we reuse the corrugated metal panels and wood structural elements from a recently razed quonset hut that had been employed as a farm building on the rural Minnesota property for 60 years. They wanted a destination on the 40 acres of former grazing land, now being restored to native prairie. This land is open to public visitors and the extended family for observation, contemplation and rest among the hills and grasses; a non denominational chapel for all comers. It will be used for memorials, celebrations and other ceremonies in addition to the other activities. 

The basic arched form of the quonset hut is pinched, twisted, and sliced, then reassembled on a bluff top overlooking the prairie and below, the larger broad valley. The original full length arched trusses are precision recut and assembled with raw metal plates to produce the new composite curved frames. An open, continuous 2 foot wide gap in the ceiling becomes the entry in the south facing wall, leaving the interior partially exposed to the elements. When a visitor enters the weathered and small geometry through this gap, they abruptly encounter the wall of another room, a porous slatted envelope made from charred, reused cedar siding. This slatted wall system was typical to corn drying cribs widely used in the past around the midwest. 

Instead of one open room, like a standard farm shed, the tactic for this structure is to insert one type of altered farm building inside another altered building; creating a journey inside a seemingly simple form on the exterior-- like a russian babushka doll revealing further entities as you pull it apart. The wood charring is a japanese technique to provide a fire resistant outer layer to the wood, a preburned effect that tempers immediate flammability. The prairie is maintained and kept healthy by burning it every few years to allow new seeds to sprout forth and clear away dead vegetation. So in addition to this charred wood, to make the building fireproof during these burns, it is covered in corrugated metal and surrounded by a 3 foot gravel walk local limestone gravel, which is also the interior floor of the building. This produces an acute awareness of one’s footsteps moving through the space, either to the central benches for viewing the sky, or the to the side aisle where a steel window looks out over the prairie, framing its expanse into a smaller picture. Snowstorms and full moon nights are expected to be very magical nights within the space. A nearby by solar panel provides minimal electricity for LED strips that line the base of the walls, producing a faint glow in the room at night. The new materials on the project are the concrete foundations, screws and steel structural plates that bind the wood and corrugated panels together as well as to the foundation.

Building type: Chapel
Completion Fall 2012
580 square feet
Dennison, Minnesota
Primary components: 
Reused wood frame, corrugated galvanized panels, charred salvaged cedar, limestone gravel, cold rolled steel