wood cabin

Architecture students get hands-on experience building camp cabins

November 8, 2019

Architects don’t typically know a lot about construction. Historically, even some internationally recognized architects have frustrated engineers with blueprints for supposedly unbuildable creations. For example, in his design for the Johnson Wax Headquarters building in Racine, Wisconsin, Frank Lloyd Wright included his now-iconic “lily pad” columns—which measured an improbable nine inches in diameter at the base and eighteen feet in diameter at the top. Some architects have projects in their portfolios that exist in only two dimensions, because nobody can construct their visions. ColoradoBuildingWorkshop aims to change this paper-architect trend.

lily pad columns in the Johnson Wax Headquarters; via Dezeen
Frank Lloyd Wright included his now-iconic lily pad columns in the Johnson Wax Headquarters.

Led by Professor Rick Sommerfeld, ColoradoBuildingWorkshop is a design build certificate program offered through the College of Architecture and Planning (CAP). What is design build? It’s an all-encompassing industry model wherein one entity is responsible for the entire project, from conception to construction. At CU Denver, students have to apply to the program, and those accepted then work to design and construct a project from start to finish, regardless of any previous building experience. The students brainstorm ideas, consider client goals, examine site-specific issues, design blueprints—and then build the project with their own hands.

Students and faculty who participated in the cabin project
Group who participated in the design-build project included students with no previous construction experience.

Where Kurt Vonnegut went to camp

The latest project emerging from the ColoradoBuildingWorkshop is Cottonwood Cabins, which includes six cabins and one outdoor kitchen. Created for Cottonwood Gulch Expeditions, which offers outdoor educational expeditions for campers age 10 – 18, the Cottonwood Cabins project came through a referral from Professor Austin Troy, Chair of the Urban and Regional Planning Department. Troy was a Cottonwood camper and currently sits on the organization’s board of directors. 

Sommerfeld had to seriously consider the viability of the project, because the camp’s location outside Thoreau, New Mexico is an eight-hour drive away. But there were a couple of advantages to recommend the project. Building multiple cabins would allow students to work in smaller collaborative teams. Plus, “the camp has a rich architectural history,” said Sommerfeld. “Kurt Vonnegut, Sr., an architect, designed the first set of cabins, which allowed Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., the author, to go there.”

Sommerfeld might have had doubts, but Tori and Matt Baker-White, the camp’s program directors, did not: “Our team was never concerned about the abilities of the students—from a design or build perspective.” Why were the camp directors so confident? “The students were professional, responsive, and really invested in the project … we were truly delighted to work with ColoradoBuildingWorkshop,” they said.

interior of wood cabin
The floating beds discourage rodent activity.

Keeping the mice in mind

The project had a very specific set of constraints—starting with designing with the mice in mind. Student Morgan Young, who is working toward a masters of architecture degree, recounted learning about Hantavirus, a family of potentially fatal viruses spread by rodents. The camp director and staff wanted the cabin design to discourage rodent activity. “Learning about this safety hazard helped inform our design from the beginning,” said Morgan. “We were able to limit the amount of nooks and crannies where mice would have the potential to hide.”

Sommerfeld worked with the students, “looking for construction that mice couldn’t get into.” The solution? “Raised cabins, beds hanging from the ceiling, no corners, no places to hide.” The students ended up choosing tongue-and-groove Douglas fir wood in order to avoid a cavity wall rodents could get into. Heavy timber was not a material Sommerfeld had experience with, so he and his students sought advice from Rocky Mountain Joinery Center in Lafayette, Colorado, the team responsible for building a life-sized model of Noah’s Arc. Morgan admits the material was challenging: “Some of the wood warped between when we pre-fabricated on campus and when we brought it to the site … Some of the teams had to rebuild walls several times to get it right.”

detail of tongue-and-groove Douglas fir wood
ColoradoBuildingWorkshop decided to use tongue-and-groove construction for the project.

And one of the teams had it harder than the others, thanks to an L-shaped cabin design. These students had to contend with the difficulties posed by the mass-timber construction—at an angle that’s tough even for a master carpenter. The work was worth it, according to the Baker-Whites: “One of our favorite parts of the design is the ceiling that’s angled in one of the cabins—It was a real challenge for the students to get an L-shaped cabin and ceiling put together, but the result is really artistic and beautiful!”

L-shaped cabin
The L-shaped cabin posed more difficulty than the other cabins, especially given the mass-timber construction.

Porch culture highlights shared spaces

Besides the construction material, ColoradoBuildingWorkshop had to consider who would use the cabins. Cottonwood Gulch Expeditions has a rich “porch culture,” with campers and counselors using transitional spaces to gather together, sing songs, and generally enjoy the view. The student architects kept this in mind when they created the cabin designs. Bunkhouses are connected by a shared roof, which created a shared porch to enhance the camp’s sense of community. 

Reme Shipley, a master’s student who worked on the project, admits she’d forgotten what it’s like to be a kid. “Working with the camp to learn more about this project helped me understand how a kid might see these spaces and want to use them. I think what I forgot most was the strong desire for autonomy,” she said. This led the team to design platforms that were larger than the beds, so campers could use the space in different ways.

students building on site
ColoradoBuildingWorkshop students working on the Cottonwood Cabins project.

On site insight

Sommerfeld and the design-build students agree that the most challenging part of the Cottonwood Cabins project was its location. Reme described working on such a remote site: “There was a narrow road up to where we were building, but the trucks that brought in all the wood were too big to get up there, so we had to unload all of it at basecamp, load it onto a smaller truck, drive it up the hill, unload it again, and then carry it all into the woods by hand.” Sommerfeld said, “They did the concrete too … 66,000 pounds of concrete total,” transported by wheelbarrow.

But it’s possible the difficult access actually made the build more fulfilling in the end. The finished project, Morgan said, “highlighted the fact that even a group of students with little construction experience could produce something amazing with the right teachers and strong teamwork.” 

Cottonwood Cabins earned a 2019 AIA Western Mountain Region Honorable Mention Award.

Students working on building a roof
Students work on a roof.