LEADVILLE – On a sunny afternoon, the whisper of pines outside this small mining town gets interrupted by the bwaap! bwaap! bwaap! of a nail gun and the whir! whir! whirrrrr! of a circular saw. Springtime gusts sweep down from snow-blanketed peaks, carrying the sporadic reports on thin mountain air toward Leadville and the Mosquito Range.
This is the sound of music to outdoor guides who spend a few months or even most of the year living at Colorado Outward Bound School (COBS) headquarters – elevation 10,200 feet. Their home here on a forested hillside, previously dotted with a smattering of tent pads, has transformed into a community of 21 comfortable and weather-resistant cabins. The functional-yet-elegant village – which has already won prestigious awards in global architectural competitions (see inset) – is the creation of College of Architecture and Planning (CAP) students at the University of Colorado Denver.
For the past two springs, CAP Design Build students have donned hardhats, boots and goggles – and employed ingenuity, craftsmanship and hard labor – to construct clusters of cozy and space-efficient cabins for COBS, a nonprofit outdoor leadership school for youth. Collaborative on-site meetings with COBS officials, where students learned about COBS’s employee and lodging needs, kicked off each campaign. The projects then shifted into a design phase in CAP classrooms, and finished with on-the-ground teams building cabins over a period of several months.
The projects exemplify the kind of hands-on, community-serving experiences that students receive across disciplines at CU Denver.
Student Tyler Whaley views the high-altitude project as a way to take his architecture career to new heights: “This is why I wanted to return to school,” he says while walking between two nearly-completed cabins during Maymester. “I wanted to empower myself further so I could do this sort of thing.”
CAP Design Build students constructed the group of 14 micro-cabins – designed for summer and fall use – last year, followed by seven fully-appointed structures this year. The latest dwellings are fully insulated, employ flat rooftops (the better to capture snowfall for added insulation), and offer spacious interior and exterior living quarters.
The CAP students get as much out of the project as the COBS employees who, after years of sharing dormitory quarters with COBS students, now get to enjoy private and wilderness-inspired dwellings.
‘Amazing, immersive, intense’
“It’s been amazing, it’s been immersive, it’s been intense,” Whaley says. He is among the 28 students in the Design Build studio class who spent the semester designing and building the seven new cabins, including one for COBS Executive Director Peter O’Neil. During Maymester, the students work on the cabins full time and live on-site – either camping, residing in one of the units built last year, or in the dormitory for COBS students.
The entire process is incredibly educational as well as rewarding, according to the students.
“These projects are very much focused on the sites, and you learn about every single aspect (of a design-build project),” says Andrew Baur. “It’s really cool just being able to live up here while we build the cabins and getting to know the site. I’m camping 100 feet away.”
The award-winning Design Build Program, for students who are on track for a Master of Architecture degree with a Design Build Certificate, serves the broader community by partnering with nonprofit organizations on a variety of innovative projects. This work is aptly called Colorado Building Workshop. Last year’s 14-cabin project for Colorado Outward Bound won an AIA Colorado Honor Award and the 2016 Architizer A Plus award, a prestigious global competition, in the category for Extra Small Housing.
A team of four student workers is devoted to each cabin. Each unit has about 200 square feet of interior space and about 100 square feet of wooden deck. Three cabins are built to house two people and four are single-occupancy. Baur and teammate Amanda Gonzales work on a double-occupancy cabin on the edge of the village. It is built so smartly into the hillside that the entryway extends directly into the slope, while the exterior deck space is elevated about 7 feet off the ground – a pleasant aerie of sorts for COBS guides looking to unwind in woodsy splendor.
Sanctuary for introverts
During a post-occupancy evaluation of the 14 seasonal cabins built last year, CAP students learned that many of the COBS staff members are introverts who value personal time and space. “After they’d be out guiding with a bunch of people, the employees wanted to come back and have their own quiet, private space,” Gonzales says.
She enjoyed seeing the detailed drawings done in class come to life in the field. “You get to touch it, feel it, and get an understanding of how it is in real life,” Gonzales says. “I’ve never built anything in my life other than the small models we’ve done at school, so it’s really cool to do this.”
The attention to details paid off. COBS staff members toured the cabins, which blend into the forest with their rolled-steel exteriors, at an open house and barbecue on the last night of Maymester. “Living in any of these cabins would be nicer than any apartment I have ever rented,” one senior staff member said.
The fact that two CAP instructors on this year’s project are Design Build alumni – Will Koning and J.D. Signom – speaks to the program’s enduring power.
“The students get a ton out of it – it’s very hands-on,” says Koning, who received his MArch degree in 2012, working on the Skow Residence in Utah and the WEEP (Waterton Environmental Education Pavilion) near Chatfield Reservoir. “As a whole class they came up with the formal language of this set of buildings. From there, they sort of made it their own and reacted to the site.”
Fluent in details
Signom notes that the hands-on nature of the Design Build experience makes students fluent in the minutia of a project. “Details,” he says, “are sort of this mysterious thing when you go through architecture school.” Unlike last year’s cabins – which featured angled steel platforms set aloft from the roofs in order to bear the weight of snow – this year’s project includes LED lighting and heating in each unit. “The construction is a super-tight, really efficient, insulated wall system, so you can use just an incredibly small heater to heat the space,” Signom says. “Up here, it pretty regularly gets down to 20 below in the winter.”
And he should know. Signom, also a 2012 graduate of the Design Build Program, spent 15 years as a COBS instructor, and brought the cabin idea to Rick Sommerfeld, assistant professor of architecture and director of the Design Build Program. “Myself and (COBS) Executive Director Peter O’Neil started talking about building all these cabins four or five years ago,” Signom says. Aware of the strong reputation of the program, O’Neil hired the CAP students and was so pleased with the 2015 outcome that he signed the students on to expand the village this year.
Now COBS is planning to work with CAP’s Design Build students on a base-camp improvement project in Moab, Utah, next year. “They’re a good organization,” Signom says of COBS. “The partnership has been good for both of us.”
‘So much more control’
Samantha Strang, a second-year student in Design Build, runs wiring into the walls of one of the cabins. She loves hands-on experiences as well as seeing the full-scale results of all the planning and design work.
“I’d rather not be in an office where I’m just in front of a computer all day. I’d like to have a combination of being out in the field and in the office,” she says. “In design-build, you feel like you have so much more control over all the aspects of a project versus handing it off to somebody else.”
As another afternoon gust bends the lodgepole pines that enfold the cabin she’s working on, Strang says, “With this, you’re taking care of everything.”