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How Coast Salish Indigenous Architecture Informs Our Work

We’re in the business of placemaking. To inform our work, we look to many different types of architecture from all around the world and across time. 

We’re especially mindful of this when we’re working with local tribes. We’re honored to work with The Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation and are grateful for our ties to the Nisqually Indian Tribe and Squaxin Island Tribe, as well. We value tribal development and the impact they have on this, their native land. 

When we work with tribes, in particular, we seek to help them make the best design and business choices possible. And we do that, in part, by understanding the heritage of this land. 

Some of the most profound lessons we’ve learned come from learning about the Coast Salish plank house, which was the most prevalent type of pre-colonial structure in this geographic region.

Figure 1: Plank house, circa 1850, by John Rohrer. Image courtesy of Museum of Natural History, Seattle, WA. MOHAI shs2892

A single building material helped Coast Salish people thrive.

These structures were the largest in North America at the time. The roughly 1,200 square-foot rectangular structures were constructed entirely of Western red cedar posts, beams, and rafters with walls of two-inch-thick overlapping removable planks that could be as long as 30 feet in length. Shed roofs were made of notched beams and large planes of cedar designed to easily shed water.

Plank houses were constructed and maintained so well that single structures lasted for generations. Due, in part, to the abundance of cedar, indigenous people lived for millennia in villages along the Salish Sea. 

The villagers knew to use cedar as their construction material of choice because of many generations of experimentation and knowledge-sharing.

As a building material, cedar was unmatched. They used it for its durability, its sound-dampening qualities, its cleavability, and for the ways it resisted warping and shrinkage, among other qualities. They used this material almost exclusively, presumably because it helped them ensure that their dwellings would last.

Today, builders still recognize the value of cedar. “Historically, native peoples of the Pacific coast prized cedar for its long lasting qualities and used wood and bark from cedar trees for most of their building needs,” notes the author of this article. “Evidence of cedar’s durability are the many cedar artifacts [that are] still in good condition today.”

Coast Salish building design was deeply intertwined with their culture and social framework. 

The plank house tied residents together as a community and shows us, today, what their communities valued:

Multi-functional. Most indoor activities, from sleeping and cooking to ceremonies, happened in one place. Each plank house was divided into sections for families and included spaces for storage, food preparation, and food preservation. They cleared the space for larger meetings and rituals.

Flexible design for expansion and disassembly. Plank houses were designed in a way that made it simple to expand them as the population of a community grew; by removing the planks on the short end of the house they could lengthen the entire structure. The design also allowed them to disassemble the dwellings in the summer by removing the horizontal planks so they could use them as parts of temporary shelters near salmon-harvesting sites.

An extension of cultural identity. We learn from their structures that the original Coast Salish people valued togetherness and utility. Every part of these structures served a specific need. Though they were at times adorned with decorative elements, the structures themselves were not statements of individuality or uniqueness.

Architectural unity. Multiple tribes and diverse groups utilized these materials and methods, pointing to their success.

What can we learn from the longevity and utility of the plank house?

The plank house teaches us to look at the materials, utility, and flexibility of our own built environments and to ask ourselves deeper questions about the spaces we inhabit:

As architects, how can we incorporate more local and natural materials and support efforts to make them more accessible, more affordable, and more desirable? And how can we help shift the narrative so these outcomes are more likely? 

How well do our built environments work in the real world? Do our spaces serve every function they can? How might we reorient our designs to reflect not only where we live but how we want to live? How can our spaces help us live more sustainable, connected lives?

Instead of creating brand new spaces when our needs change, how might we design spaces that are adaptable to new phases of life and changes in our environment?

These are just a few of the ways that the plank house is challenging us to think in a more directed way about the designs we’re creating and the impact they’ll have for — we hope — generations.


  1. Architecture of the Salish Sea Tribes of the Pacific Northwest
  2. Characteristics & Properties of Western Red Cedar
  3. Exploring Indigenous Wisdom: A Journey through Architecture Rooted in Tradition and Community
  4. Traditional Coast Salish Plank Houses