CAP design build in Nicaragua

'Life-changing' trip to Nicaragua produces preschool

CAP students spearhead partnership project – from fundraising to (lots of) shoveling

January 31, 2018

It’s been a while since Sarah Vanderpool put down her shovel to cap a two-week design build project in Nicaragua. But for the architecture student, the experience remains fresh in her mind – even a little in her muscles.

“This trip is life-changing. It’s amazing, incredible. There are so many adjectives you can use for this,” said Vanderpool, an undergraduate studying architecture in the College of Architecture and Planning (CAP). “Jo VandenBurg (CAP instructor) and Maria Delgado (graduate part-time instructor) are incredible teachers and they work so well together – be it with the students or the community. They complement each other.”

Better every year

The International Design Build-Nicaragua class launched three years ago and each year, the student-driven projects in the Jalapa Valley grow in budget, ambition and integration with the appreciative communities they serve. Collaborating closely with the community in Nicaragua – taking into consideration the region’s economy, environment, culture and the available materials – a structure is designed and planned each fall. The process takes several months and is followed by Winterim, when a group of students from the class travel to Nicaragua to construct the building. The trip spans 17 days, 10 of which are spent on the construction site.

“The class is perfect for the design build (curriculum) because it’s intense and it nicely complements the learning that takes place in classroom,” Delgado said. VandenBurg, her teaching partner (the pair also recently spearheaded a pop-up park near Coors Field), added, “It forces decision-making. You’ve got to make a decision and go with it, because there is only so much time.”

Partnering with communities, nonprofits

A photo taken at the end of construction shows the 15 CU Denver students, shovels in hand, standing beside Jalapa Valley residents who will benefit from the project. As is typical in Nicaragua, the public building is multi-functional; this one will serve as a preschool, medical center and community meeting hall.

“It’s a great partnership because it’s really integrated,” said Delgado, who is close to completing her PhD in Design and Planning. “The students rely on learning from the community folks and really work hand in hand to make the project materialize.”

CAP student in Nicaragua
John Bonet, a student in the International Design Build-Nicaragua class, sits inside the multipurpose building the CAP students and teachers constructed along with partners in a Nicaraguan community.

Each year the class works with the nonprofit Boulder-Jalapa Friendship City Project (FCP) to identify a community need and possible projects. This year, an even wider network of collaborations laid the foundation for an especially successful project. A representative of Pueblo Unidos, a nonprofit that works with the FCP, worked through many of the building logistics in advance. Because the representative secured the construction materials ahead of time, in cooperation with a vetting branch of CU Denver, the CAP students were able to start building from day one.

Big help from Milo’s Crowd

Those materials couldn’t be secured without money. The class took advantage of Milo’s Crowd, CU Denver’s official crowdfunding platform offered through the Office of Advancement. This year, the class was able to raise nearly $16,000 – four times the amount raised for the initial Nicaragua design build project three years ago.

With Milo’s Crowd, 100 percent of the money raised goes directly to the project. Being able to use the crowdfunding platform “was significant,” Delgado said. “We’re learning more every year, so the course development gets better and better.”

Vanderpool helped launch a website and social media campaign about this year’s project, which spurred student engagement and served as an information clearinghouse to others, including prospective crowdfunding contributors. Several local architectural firms, as well as the Rocky Mountain chapter of the Design Build Institute of America, partnered with the class. The cyber and social-media aspects “insurmountably helped with engagement on the project. People across the nation have donated to our cause,” Vanderpool said. “Some of our students, wanting to keep tabs on the project, have kept in contact with the people we worked with in Nicaragua.”

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Sarah Vanderpool, a CAP undergraduate studying architecture, has found her passion within her discipline. “This experience in Nicaragua has helped me want to be a part of Design Build.” She is applying to the ColoradoBuildingWorkshop, a program for students in CAP’s Master of Architecture program. Vanderpool already works in the field, as she has a job with Denver firm Bonsai Design + Build. “It’s stair steps,” she said with a smile.


Because so much more headway was made before the CU Denver contingent’s arrival, VandenBurg said, “our students got to see the project progress further this year.”

Rewards are many

Still, students spent plenty of time digging the preschool’s footprint of 6 meters wide by 12 meters long. The trip is definitely not a vacation, Vanderpool noted. “Lots of shoveling,” she said with a grin. “I wanted to bury my shovel afterwards, but that would have required more shoveling.”

The rewards for the work are many. For one, public buildings aren’t generally built by the Nicaraguan government. The government provides services once a structure comes on line, but it can’t be counted on to spur land acquisition and construction. So, efforts like the CU Denver design build class are essential to bringing public services to areas desperately in need.

Local contractors – from building materials suppliers to lunch vendors to laundry services – benefit from the construction process. Also, once a structure is built, it raises the property values of all nearby homes.

“People in the communities there said they’ve been praying for this building for 10 years,” Delgado and VandenBurg said. “It’s a huge positive impact to their community.”