Photos by Jesse Kuroiwa and Chris Casey.

You know a project is special when students happily keep working when almost everyone else has cleared out for spring break.

That’s the case for Sidney Aulds, a student in a Design Build studio class in the College of Architecture and Planning at the University of Colorado Denver. Aulds and 27 classmates are hard at work designing—and building—14 cabins for staff members of Colorado Outward Bound School (COBS), an outdoor leadership program for youth, in Leadville.

“This has been surreal for me,” Aulds says. “I’m from Louisiana and I came to Denver for this program. It’s very selective.” Aulds is completing the Design Build Certificate Program as part of his two-year Master of Architecture program.

For him, a wilderness outing typically means traveling deep into swamp country. Here in Colorado, Aulds and his classmates earlier this semester took a trip to 10,000-foot Leadville to meet with Outward Bound leaders and begin the process of designing and building cabins as part of a renovation of the Leadville Mountain Center.

“I’m very excited about this project,” Aulds says. “It’s why I’m here (in the CAP second-floor studio, where an actual-size cabin prototype has been built) on the Friday of the beginning of spring break. We’ve got work to do, and I’m excited to be a part of it.”

Students grouped into teams of four to work on the cabins, which will provide roomier and more personalized living spaces for COBS staffers. Currently, the counselors and other staff members reside in bunkhouses along with Outward Bound students.

“The way we’re designing them, each cabin is similar but unique,” Aulds (pictured at left) says.

Rick Sommerfeld, senior instructor and director of the Design Build Program, says the project is representative of how students learn in the program. “We treat it like an architecture firm and a construction company,” he says. “We are basically running a design build firm inside the university.”

And partnerships are the norm. For example, Design Build students every fall contribute a design-build project to the Navajo Reservation in southern Utah, which has been featured in The New York Times. Another studio class recently designed and constructed a 600-square-foot outdoor performing arts stage in Hartwell Park in Ridgway, a small town on the Western Slope.

The Ridgway project, along with a former Design Build student, led to the Outward Bound cabins project. J.D. Signom, a graduate of the program and former COBS instructor, brought the cabin idea to Sommerfeld. “It’s a perfect example of how much former students believe and value the DB education,” Sommerfeld says. “Also, Outward Bound heard about the work we had done in Ridgway. They mentioned the students were very professional and that they loved the stage. They highly recommended to COBS that they work with us.”

Sommerfeld says the logistics of building something this complicated—students had to figure out what staff members preferred in housing as well as tailor each cabin to slope variations and room for two to four people—makes for a great learning experience. “It takes a lot of organization and collaboration to get it done,” he says. “This type of work goes way beyond the typical contact hours of a class. It takes real commitment.”

On the COBS website, Executive Director Peter O’Neil says, “To partner with a world-class program like CU Denver, to involve our staff in the design process, and to know we’re going to have responsibly-built cabins for generations to come—it’s amazing.”

The cabins will be used year-round, Sommerfeld says, but mostly during the summer months. Outward Bound expects to need six more cabins next year.

Meanwhile, the Design Build Program’s international reputation continues to grow. Two of the program’s projects were recently featured in a exhibit entitled “Grey Matter” at the Pavillon de l’Arsenal in Paris. The exhibit highlighted how ingenuity in architecture is fueling the reuse of existing materials for building projects.

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