When Assistant Professor Rick Sommerfeld told his class they’d be building a bridge, their first response was something akin to shock. “Someone here knows how to build a bridge, right?” asked Bo Lee, a graduate student who’d enrolled in CU Denver’s Design Build Program.
Sommerfeld, director of Design Build, and Will Koning, Bixler Design Build Fellow, admitted they’d never built a bridge—but Design Build is about learning to solve real-world issues. The program, which provides architecture students with hands-on construction experience, needed to deliver a pedestrian bridge, so the team worked together to research, design, and build a bridge. “I accepted the challenge,” said student Sadie Thurston. “When are you going to get the opportunity to design a bridge in your lifetime?”
Severance Community Space
The bridge project came from Severance, a small town east of Fort Collins. Community Development Director Mitchell Nelson contacted Sommerfeld to see if the Design Build Program at the College of Architecture and Planning would design a pedestrian bridge and amphitheater. “I reached out a few years ago, and we got on the waitlist,” Nelson said. “This year, it was finally our turn.”
The two proposed Design Build projects in Severance are part of a greater development to create community open space and a rails-to-trails park (rails to trails converts unused railroad tracks to hiking/biking trails). CU Denver’s Design Build team created the pedestrian bridge this year; next year, another class will take on the amphitheater.
Landscape of Eastern Plains
The first step was to research the community. “We did a ton of research into the town and the surrounding towns,” said Thurston. “As an architect, it’s important to set aside your own needs and wants. The people who live in Severance—they will be using the bridge every day.”
Severance’s history influenced the team’s bridge design. “The students provided a narrative about how they saw the plains, the railroad, and other long objects,” Sommerfeld explained. “They wanted the bridge to be stretched along the horizon. The bridge seeks to interpret horizontal datum that really makes up the landscape of the eastern plains.”
Materials Honor Agricultural Roots
The chosen materials also reflected the town’s agricultural roots. Students chose Corten steel, which has a rectangular pattern, to represent hay bales. They used board-formed concrete and timber to recall barn siding and railroad tracks. “Severance is a big agricultural town, so we looked at the tools and machines they use and tried to relate those materials back to our bridge,” Thurston said. “The materials really did it for me,” Nelson said. “It’s a more modern design, but it does harken back to our agricultural heritage.”
Once they decided on a plan, students started building, which is the part of the process some architects never get involved with directly. Knowing how to build, however, can really benefit architects in their future work. “I joined the Design Build Program because it gives an alternative education than what you normally get,” Lee said. “Hands-on experience helps you communicate with contractors and other industry professionals. It’s important to know what you’re expecting people to do for you.”
The team prefabricated as much of the bridge as possible at the CAP workshop. Then they transported the bridge pieces to the construction site for the final build. The prefabrication and installation provided valuable experiential learning. “During the build process, everyone gained a tremendous amount of knowledge,” Thurston said. Lee agreed: “This is not working in the vacuum of a studio—people are going to walk across this. One of the great takeaways is just knowing how to move from the precision of the computer and how to implement that in the real world.”
Students, professors, and Severance residents appreciate the final product. “I personally am really proud of the bridge. I think it looks very clean and elegant, and it fits into the site nicely,” Thurston said. Sommerfeld was particularly impressed that the students extended the bridge to add seating and viewing areas: “They created amenities for the town that they wouldn’t have had if they’d hired someone who just built a bridge.”
Design Build’s bridge benefits everyone. “It gives students experience, and from the town’s perspective, it’ll be a major part of our growing community,” Nelson said. “The credit has to go to Rick and his team—they’re a highly effective group that understands the needs and wants of their clients.”