Less than 200,000 people travel to Antarctica each year. So, the odds are low that you’ll get an opportunity to visit. Yet at CU Denver, top-performing College of Architecture and Planning (CAP) graduates had a chance to see the coldest place on Earth and engage in experiential work that impacts the lives of scientists working in the region. Samantha Strang, a distinguished 2017 CAP alum, was one of them.
More than 40 CU Denver alums applied for seven spots in CAP’s Colorado Building Workshop (CBW) design-build project this past year, known as Cape Shirreff. Strang—one of the finalists—was assigned a challenging role. While the project consisted of building safe, sustainable shelters (living and sleeping spaces) for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientists to conduct climate research in Antarctica, Strang was responsible for crucial logistical planning that included transportation modes and inventorying materials.
Her impressive academic performance, numerous awards as a former CAP graduate student, and career in architecture and interior design made her an obvious choice for the project. “The chance to return to CU Denver and be selected to participate in such a significant role made me feel honored.” Strang said.
A week before construction began on the shelters, Strang arrived in Antarctica to work with a contractor on transporting materials that had been shipped from Denver. “We needed to consider the extreme weather conditions, the number of materials, and the mediums used to transport them,” Strang said. “The challenge was to keep everything organized, packed, and shipped in a specific way to make building these eco-friendly homes as efficient and seamless as possible. Thinking through the sequence of everything was critical and helped minimize the chances of hitting a roadblock.”
Rick Sommerfeld, associate professor and Colorado Building Workshop director, said that once the containers were shipped to Chile, they were loaded by crane onto a boat that sailed for three days across the Drake Passage. “This was quite an expedition as it holds the roughest, scariest seas in the world, where many ships have sunk,” said Sommerfeld. “Once at Cape Shirreff, the cranes loaded the containers from the ship onto small, [inflatable] zodiac boats to land. The last step was to load ATVs with materials from the beach to the construction site. Through heavy winds, rain, and a snowstorm, this took over 300 trips to complete. I’m proud Samantha was part of the logistics team to make this happen.”
Despite sleeping in tents, strenuous physical activity, and extreme weather conditions, Strang says the experience was incredible. In just 27 days, the team of 11 CU Denver faculty, alumni, and partners finished the construction of phase 1. “If it weren’t for the partnership between the Colorado Building Workshop, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service, Bespoke Project Solutions, and OZ Architecture, this build would not have succeeded,” Strang said. “We all came together to provide homes to improve the living conditions of eight NOAA scientists conducting marine ecosystem research in Cape Shirreff, which is meaningful and rewarding.”
She added: “I owe this real-world experience and professional growth to my graduate degree in architecture at CU Denver and participation in the CAP’s Colorado Building Workshop. Over the past five years, it has supplemented my career tremendously and exposed me to numerous opportunities, including giving back to students aspiring to become architects.”
The CAP alum has won eight awards from CU Denver, including the Henry Adams Certificate of Merit. Since graduation, Strang has remained involved with the campus and taught Graduate Studio 1, a course that helps those with other degrees navigate toward one in architecture. It is a topic Strang understands well: Her undergraduate degree was in interior design, and she learned how to pivot that experience into obtaining a graduate degree in architecture.
Since graduation, she has worked at Roth Sheppard Architects and was recently promoted from project architect to project manager. “I hope to inspire students, especially women, to pursue a degree in architecture and not to be afraid to speak up, ask questions, and be heard,” Strang said. “Do not assume you graduate and must sit in an office. Exploring many applications for architecture will allow you to gain confidence in actively shaping your individual career and help to provide clarity in defining your personal goals.”
And while Strang is back in Denver, the Colorado Building Workshop’s projects continue. The last step of the two-year design-build will include constructing a lab and an observation blind for the NOAA scientists. These structures will be built on the CU Denver campus in May 2023. Each will then be disassembled and shipped to Antarctica at the end of the year and rebuilt in Antarctica in January 2024.