Architects played with tiny building blocks while designing Wichita’s most-talked-about new development.
The blocks were a stand-in for the giant shipping containers actually used to construct Revolutsia, the city’s first shipping-container development. They helped again with plans for a second phase, which will start construction next week on the west side of the development where parking spaces currently are.
“We sat around for hours just trying to figure out how this would work,” Michael Ramsey of Bokeh Development says of the initial 36 containers at Central and Volutsia.
Ramsey says most plans start with sketches on napkins that progress to designs on a computer, but for Revolutsia, he wanted modeling blocks.
“You lose a lot of creativity when it’s done on a computer,” he says.
And Bokeh and Shelden Architecture had to get creative to incorporate existing trees and an early 1900s gas station — a quaint stone building with a fireplace — with an eventual 45 shipping containers that would be converted to 12,000 square feet of stores and restaurants.
“We don’t do models very often,” says Shelden designer Martina Trifonova. “We were excited. It was like back in school.”
Project architect Daniel Gensch says that “part of the advantage of us using blocks is that we intentionally were playful because it wasn’t just aesthetic to be attractive.”
The goal also was to extend the seasons with the help of cantilevered containers that provide shade in the summer and block wind in the winter. There’s a central courtyard space for visitors to enjoy beautiful days.
“The model was useful for both phases,” Gensch says. “It’s a quick way to visualize it. . . . You really do get a feel for what it’ll feel like.”
He says stacked containers created “very dramatic” almost 16-foot ceilings for the restaurant Prost. An upended 40-foot container holds an elevator. Some containers are open on both ends to create natural light.
Ramsey says modeling was helpful for what was “a terribly difficult process.”
He says he wasn’t looking to do a development with shipping containers. Ramsey says he had been looking for a space for Little Lion Ice Cream when the stone building came up for auction.
“Just to plop down shipping containers just because this has been popular I don’t think is probably a good thing.”
Bokeh is known for repurposing downtown properties such as the Lux, Broadway Autopark and Zelman Lofts. Rather unusually, Ramsey and his team decided some low 1950s buildings on the property wouldn’t work for the development and demolished them.
“We were trying everything we could do,” Gensch says. “There was a lot of code issues that we were up against.”
For instance, fire separation requirements were an issue with the buildings, but multiple containers count as one building and alleviate that problem.
“It’s the constraints that inform the project,” Gensch says, “This is an organic result of what we thought should be there.”
Ramsey says he worked with the city and the neighborhood to create a “really walkable” destination that was respectful of its surroundings.
The city sped up its plan for a new crosswalk for nearby bike trails, and now there’s a light in front of Revolutsia that Ramsey says connects the neighborhood around the development to the one north of it. The city’s Bike Share ICT bicycles are also now there.
“They’ve been a great partner with us,” Ramsey says of city officials. “They do see this as a walkable, bikable destination.”
Ramsey and his team studied shipping-container developments in Tulsa, Oklahoma City and Denver to glean ideas — and study what not to do.
Some of them “didn’t feel like a place you want to hang out,” says Ted Farha of Farha Construction.
He said they had a lot of off-putting concrete, so he, Bokeh and Shelden concentrated on making Revolutsia organic and inviting with the existing mature trees, gravel, wood and a courtyard fire pit.
“This one, you just want to be there all the time,” Farha says.
Part of reducing concrete involves using more street parking instead of traditional parking spots in front of the development like a strip mall would have.
“Which would have actually killed the entire feel of this,” Ramsey says. “It would look like it needs to be someplace on Rock and 21st.”
Parking is a bit of a sensitive issue with Ramsey.
“If this project doesn’t . . . work without having to have parking five feet away from the spot, then I need to be going someplace else,” he says. “I mean, I don’t understand this about Wichita. It’s just so foreign to me.”
Ramsey admits some education about it may be in order, but he says the dozen shop and restaurant owners at Revolutsia so far don’t think it’s a problem.
He says they “understand that the key to their business isn’t close parking.”
Ramsey says he and J.P. Weigand & Sons broker Krista Racine were extremely intentional about selecting tenants and, in a quest for the right mix, turned away a number of businesses.
Younger entrepreneurs, women and people of color were “the mix that we went after,” Ramsey says.
“They’re supporting each other,” Racine says. “It’s really cool to see that.”
Ramsey says that “there’s a certain mindset that is associated with . . . older white guys that probably think parking is the most important thing. These older white guys I think — myself — have been running Wichita way too long.”
The second — and last — phase of nine new containers will be able to hold up to eight tenants.
“There’s a lot of flexibility and adaptability . . . for a variety of tenants,” Gensch says.
Ramsey says there are vacant spaces in nearby strip centers.
“We needed a hook that people would understand, that would bring excitement to this area. We needed to have something different. We needed to have something where people would say this is so cool that I don’t mind walking across the street because I’m going to park my car half a block away.”
Ramsey says he planned a second phase from the beginning but didn’t want to build it right away.
“I was scared,” he says, adding with a laugh, “because I’m not right all the time.”
Ramsey says there’s a misconception that building with shipping containers is cheaper.
“It’s about 20 percent more expensive . . . because of the modifications you have to do.”
There are payoffs, though.
“This one has created the most buzz beyond Wichita,” says Jeremy Luginbill of Lifeboat Creative, who is promoting Revolutsia mostly through social media.
“It’s just creating a little more exposure to make Wichita less behind and more to the forefront,” Luginbill says.
“We’re becoming more like what we should be as a city, and I think Bokeh is pushing that tremendously.”
Revolutsia, which combines Volutsia Street and the revolution of a new kind of development, is larger than any of the similar developments Ramsey and the others visited.
“I’m so proud of these guys because it doesn’t feel that way,” Ramsey says. “The density’s important.”
Gensch says that’s what makes a popular, lively bar a comfortable experience for guests.
Similarly, he says that’s why Revolutsia is already “a neighborhood, family-centric easy place to go.”
“It’s been busy, and it’s been miserably cold and wet. Just wait until the spring comes around.”
Gensch says retail customers and diners have accepted they’re at somewhere unconventional with, for instance, two sets of common-area restrooms instead of ones located within businesses.
“They’re just going to roll with it. It’s part of their experience,” he says.
“A lot of times in Wichita we don’t give people the benefit of the doubt that they’ll accept things, and this is a perfect example of not only accepting it but embracing it,” Ramsey says.
Despite Revolutsia’s early attention and success, that doesn’t mean Gensch and Trifonova have been using the modeling blocks for other projects around the office.
“We pull them out when someone’s kids come.”