Landscape Architecture Students Create Award-Winning Space for Local Elementary School

November 8, 2022

Complete transformation is a slow, arduous process—unless you’re working with CU Denver Landscape Architecture graduate students. They’ll get it done in 15 weeks.  

When the pandemic began in early 2020, Peak Expeditionary School in Wheat Ridge had a courtyard entryway with some green grass, a large honey locust tree, and a concrete walkway. Now, with the expertise of a talented group of Landscape Architecture students and their advisors, the space is a learning landscape filled with sensory experiences and immersive educational opportunities.  

The project earned the group a 2022 American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) Student Community Service Honor Award, and their work was showcased in ASLA’s magazine. This recognition brings the creativity and ingenuity of CU Denver students to the forefront, and emphasizes the university’s strategic plan goal to be internationally known for its research and creative work. 

The student team includes Finley Sutton, Claire Bulik, Anna Trexler-Varela, Sylvia Pasquariello, Ari Solomon, Alex Bullock, Eion Donelan, Miriam Hernandez Arroyo, and Victoria Hancock. Faculty advisors are Lois Brink, MLA, and Louise Bordelon, MLA, PhD.  

“When I first started school in 2019, I always looked at the ASLA Student Awards as the precedent for my projects and my graphics,” said Sutton, a dual master of Landscape Architecture and master of Urban & Regional Planning student. “So, to look up to those projects, then finally be in the magazine was really exciting for us.” 

The project began when Bordelon, assistant professor and department chair of the Landscape Architecture Department, heard that Peak Expeditionary was looking to do a capital improvement project in their outdoor space. The PreK-5 school in Jefferson County focuses on experience and adventure, gives students opportunities to go on learning field trips, and prioritizes hands-on curriculum. And a simple courtyard wasn’t cutting it. “They wanted to build a tree house,” Bordelon said. “I proposed we could do a whole lot better than that.”  

She called Brink, a professor in the Landscape Architecture Department who has experience transforming schoolyards into learning landscapes. Bordelon connected Brink with Peak Principal Tim Carlin and then with the Jefferson County School District and soon the students in Brink’s Landscape Design Studio class met with teachers and parents to determine the needs for the space, their goals, and how much maintenance would be required by the school. They proposed several concept ideas, and the teachers’ favorite was consolidated into a master plan. “From a planning perspective, it was intense,” Bordelon said.  

After the project received approvals, the studio class had only one week for the entire build. That week just so happened to be spring break—with subpar weather in the forecast. “I feel like this was really what won us the project. It was such a short timeline,” Sutton said. “We were out there probably 10 hours a day installing and planting and doing all the groundwork. And it was snowing and raining the whole time.” 

When the week was over, the 5,800-square-foot courtyard was unrecognizable. Today, visitors are greeted by a sensory garden with a pathway to a pollinator habitat. Depending on the season, students can see butterflies and bees right outside their classroom windows.  

The big, beautiful tree that was once the star of the space remains with a surrounding platform that is called “The Nest.” There’s a vegetable garden with child-sized raised beds to give students easy access. A dinosaur dig allows students to uncover 3-D printed fossils created by a local high school. Aspen trees and native grasses provide an opportunity for students to learn about the local landscape.  

While elementary students are using the outdoor space to learn now, the project also proved to be an invaluable learning experience for the CU Denver students. The space has become an educational catalyst for learners of all ages and life stages. “They were able to learn on site, to put things together,” Bordelon said. “Not just drawing and designing but learning to use a drill and a saw. It’s really important to know how to put things together.” 

Since that snowy spring, the garden and the courtyard have thrived. “From an ecological and biodiversity standpoint, the kids can see what’s happening in the garden from their classroom; there’s an abundance of life out there that wasn’t there before,” Bordelon said. “As a social space, it’s kind of been a catalyst for social gathering and community and it’s changed the face of the entrance of the school. It’s really indicative of what’s possible when we believe something is possible.” 

One space at a time, Brink’s studio classes are challenging the way communities see and use their spaces. Through their hands-on work, they’re educating our local communities and showing what can be accomplished with some academic knowledge and some imagination. “I think my biggest takeaway is that you can make a really big impact in a very small space and in a very small timeframe,” Sutton said.