Rending of Safe Outdoor Spaces dwelling units.

Freedom by Design Student Chapter Designs Shelters for Safe Outdoor Spaces

May 4, 2022

Update: Monday, December 18, 2023

On Saturday, December 14, 2023, the CU Denver chapter of the American Institute of Architecture Students (AIAS) Freedom by Design received the 2023 Outstanding Freedom by Design Honor Award for their Safe Outdoor Spaces project, which has reached new heights since the project was initiated in 2020.

“This project has been the culmination of multiple generations of student cohorts, deep community engagement, and of course the school’s support,” said Sean Gatzen, Master of Architecture student and director of the CU Denver chapter of Freedom by Design. “The exciting part is we are on the cusp of mass producing these units for Colorado Village Collaborative!”

Since we last shared about the Freedom by Design safe outdoor spaces project, the student-designed structure has been observed at sanctioned campsites around Denver, and in October, received a grant from the National Council for Architectural Registration Board (NCARB) and Benjamin-Moore to fund their continued work with the Colorado Village Collaborative and the Safe Outdoor Spaces program.

Published: Wednesday, May 4, 2022

In 2020, the Denver City Council approved a measure to allow sanctioned campsites for those experiencing homelessness to be established within the city limits. When Richard McSwain, Master of Architecture student and the CU Denver American Institute of Architecture Students (AIAS) Freedom by Design Director, learned about the sanctioned campsites, he began making phone calls to see how the student organization could get involved to make the communities more dignified places to live.

Students stand beside their prototype of their safe outdoor space structure
Photo Credit: Ethan Solomon – Solodome Productions

SOS Assessments and Community Building

In December 2020, McSwain reached out to the Denver-based, non-profit organization Colorado Village Collaborative (CVC) to begin the conversation to identify elements that Freedom by Design could address, ranging from shading solutions to improved shelters. The City of Denver works with CVC to ensure sites for the safe outdoor spaces (SOS) met the City’s rules, regulations, and permitting constraints.

CVC has three temporary, operational shelter sites, and they plan to add additional sites this summer. Currently, fishing tents provide residents shelter but do little to protect residents from challenges presented by the weather.

As the Freedom by Design team learned more about the needs of the sites, they began designing to meet three goals—to address the need for heated handwashing stations, to provide a healthier gathering space, and to waterproof the shelters.

Design Inspiration for Safe Outdoor Spaces

Freedom by Design students researched different small living spaces, tiny homes, and design solutions to improve the quality of life for residents living on SOS sites. Through their research, they found inspiration from the Conestoga Hut Micro-Shelters in Oregon. The design of these huts was based on the idea of covered wagons used by pioneers during the exploration of the American West.

“Why reproduce a tent when you can just go out and buy one?” inquired McSwain. “We were looking at precedents for different kinds of small shelter structures, like the UN Refugee tents, and then we came across the Conestoga Huts that are being used in Oregon.”

Students in Freedom by Design explored using the design in three variations of size to address their goals for safe spaces. The smallest variation would house the heated handwashing stations, the medium variation would provide individuals with dwelling units to withstand all seasons, and the large variation would accommodate a community space, which would also serve as a smoking area to help alleviate secondhand smoke on site.

Students build the prototype for their safe outdoor spaces shelter.

Design Solutions for Real-World Application

In addition to finding their design inspiration, it was also important that the student group address key constraints for the new shelter design.

“We had a few major goals: to address cost, aesthetics, environmental conditions, and the mobility of the structure,” said McSwain.

Low-cost materials were considered for the student organization’s design. Plywood and canvas were used to address both material costs and ease of use. The plywood is affordable and easy to cut, transport, and lift. Canvas is used to cover the arched roof of the shelters to provide water and fire protection.

“Some of the ice fishing tents are pentagon-shaped, which is not ideal for trying to fit them on the small sites. The major failure spots on the tents are where the poles come to a point because the fabric tears and leaks along the zippers,” continued McSwain. “So, with an arch, we have a nice curve, and a canvas cover lays flat and even all the way over it. Snow and rain shed off it pretty easily. This also gives a nice height so that in the summer when it’s hot, it kind of vents the heat out of the top a little bit better. It’s also more comfortable for taller people.”

Final prototype of the safe outdoor spaces dwelling unit.

Next Steps for Freedom by Design’s Safe Outdoor Shelters

Freedom by Design built a prototype of their SOS dwelling design and presented it to the community and CVC on Wednesday, March 30, but their work has not stopped.

“Right now, we’re getting that documentation together to be able to submit it to the City, and hopefully get it approved so that CVC can use it on subsequent locations,” said McSwain.

“There is a big gap that we haven’t been able to really explore – having people actually use it, give their feedback, and experience it,” said McSwain. “We’ve had SOS site managers and client representatives review our design, and there is a lot of support in that realm, but it has not been occupied by a resident for more than a couple of hours. So, there’s still a lot to learn.”

Freedom by Design is optimistic that they will be able to place a prototype on one of the sites for a test run to gain feedback from the residents on the site, and eventually, see their design in use in sanctioned safe outdoor spaces.

Get Involved with Freedom by Design at CU Denver

Freedom by Design is a community service program within the AIAS organization nationwide in partnership with the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB). The program encourages students to provide design solutions to issues within their communities through real-world architecture and design experiences that involve working with clients and connecting with local licensed architects and contracts.

Lecturer Cynthia Fishman is the Freedom by Design faculty representative and AXP supervisor. Through participation in Freedom by Design, students can earn Architectural Experience Program (AXP) hours to bring students closer to licensure. Learn more about the CU Denver chapter of Freedom by Design.