Colorado Building Workshop team

Students Design the Research Lab and Utility Space for Scientists in Antarctica 

June 28, 2023

Imagine being admitted to a program that offers a unique opportunity to design and fabricate efficient facilities that cater to the needs of dedicated scientists working in the extreme landscapes of Antarctica. For Master of Architecture (M.Arch) students who participate in the Design Build Certificate program through the Colorado Building Workshop at the College of Architecture and Planning (CAP) at CU Denver, this was their spring semester.   

The Colorado Building Workshop offers ambitious experiences like the Holt Watters Field Camp project year after year, where students from the 2021 and 2022 cohorts had the once-in-a-lifetime experience of designing and fabricating a research space, shelter, kitchen, and bathrooms that will be constructed in Antarctica for use by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fishery scientists. 

The Holt Watters Field Camp Design Build Timeline

The Colorado Building Workshop completed the first phase of this two-year design build project in February 2023. Students who participated in Phase I, during the Spring 2022 semester, designed and fabricated the dwelling unit and the living and kitchen quarters for the scientists on the CU Denver campus near the Tivoli Quad. Later that year, a team of 11, including CU Denver faculty, alums, Bespoke Project Solutions, and NOAA scientists, traveled to Antarctica and, in only 27 days, constructed the first two structures.

On May 28, 2023, the on-campus design build for a utility space and research lab was completed as part of Phase II of the project. Later this year, the project’s construction crew will return to Antarctica to install the final two buildings.

The Student Design Build Experience

We reached out to students who participated in the second phase of the Holt Watters Field Camp project to learn more about their experiences designing for the harsh Antarctica climate to create comfortable spaces for the scientists living and working there.

Mohammad (Mo) Zaina

Mohamad “Mo” Zaina
Hometown: Sydney, Australia
Project Role: Client Communications Team and Cladding Team

Q: What inspired you to complete the Design Build certificate?

A: Antarctica is a desert. It morphs parts of my upbringing between Qatar and Colorado by bringing the lack of precipitation with the frigid. One can only imagine it through images, as not many people have set foot on its land.

As a student designer, it was a humbling experience to know that I contributed to a built structure that passionate NOAA scientists could utilize to develop their professional research. It is where they have decided to dedicate themselves, and I wanted to help them accomplish what they have worked their entire lives on. Plus, who can say no to pinnipeds? The Design Build certificate allowed for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that brought in such a complex real-life challenge into a studio. 

Q: What was your favorite part of your experience with the ColoradoBuildingWorkshop? 

A: To think that a group of students with limited professional knowledge of architecture could pull off such a project alone is beyond comprehension, because that was not the case. Special thanks must be given to Erik “Rick” Sommerfeld, William “Will” Koning, and Brandon “Shaggy” Neahusan, along with everyone else involved, who have worked restlessly and consistently to teach us what was needed to make this project stand up elegantly.

Without overlooking all the challenging lessons learnt, from smaller group dynamics to larger manufacturer orders, I am immensely grateful for the chance to have been part of such a transformative endeavor. The ColoradoBuildingWorkshop provided us the platform to explore our potential and prove that we can accomplish remarkable feats. It was a journey filled with growth, camaraderie, and a deep appreciation for the power of teamwork. 

Q: How does it feel to know that your work will be constructed in Antarctica and used by NOAA scientists? 

A: Knowing that my cohort’s and I’s work will be constructed in Antarctica to be used by NOAA scientists is incredibly fulfilling and awe-inspiring. Antarctica, with its extreme conditions and pristine beauty, represents a unique and challenging environment for scientific exploration. Being able to contribute to designing a structure that supports the vital research conducted by these passionate scientists is a profound honor. 

To me, it is more than just a design project; it is an opportunity to make a meaningful impact on the advancement of scientific knowledge. I am thrilled to have had the chance to investigate ways to enhance the scientists’ experience, allowing them to dedicate more time to their research and less time to mundane tasks like scraping mold.

By creating a functional and efficient space, I hope to have enabled the scientists to focus wholeheartedly on their critical work and to have supported the dissemination of their invaluable knowledge to the rest of the world. 

Willa Hendler

Willa Hendler
Hometown: Glen Ridge, NJ
Project Role: Scheduling and Budgeting Team and Windows and Doors Team

Q: What inspired you to complete the Design Build certificate?

A: I wanted to complete the Design Build certificate because I felt that it was a great opportunity to get an experience that I would be able to directly carry to the professional world. I was also drawn in by the idea of having my work go to Antarctica. I’m not sure if this opportunity will ever arise again so I had to take it!

Q: What was your favorite part of your experience with the ColoradoBuildingWorkshop?

A: My favorite part of the ColoradoBuildingWorkshop was being able to see my work come to life. It usually takes a while for architects to see their work completed so it was really special getting to accomplish that so quickly and early in my career.

Q: How does it feel to know that your work will be constructed in Antarctica and used by NOAA scientists?

A: It feels surreal but also super exciting. It’s unbelievable that I get to be a part of a very small pool of people who get to say they made a building there and that the building is being used to conduct the important research that NOAA scientists are conducting. Although I don’t know when/if I’ll be able to visit Antarctica and see the buildings being used and interacted with, I am reassured by the fact that I know everyone in the program put in 110% and that those buildings exist as a culmination of all that hard work and dedication.

Cristian Gomez

Cristian Gomez
Hometown: Denver, CO
Project Role: Interiors Team

*The Interiors Team sourced the Meranti marine plywood, sanding and staining it, and assembling cabinets and wall cladding.

Q: What inspired you to complete the Design Build certificate?

A: What inspired me to be part of Colorado Building Workshop was a curiosity to understand how our design decisions impact the actual construction process, but also being able to work collaboratively with other people in a way that was hands-on, which was a very important experience for me to get from the master’s program.

Q: What was your favorite part of your experience with the ColoradoBuildingWorkshop?

A: My favorite part, honestly, was getting to know all these great designers and being able to work collaboratively with them to create these buildings! Also, the fact that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity was really a highlight.

Q: How does it feel to know that your work will be constructed in Antarctica and used by NOAA scientists?

A: Although we may not ever be able to visit the structures, there is a since of pride that I carry with me in know that these structures will ultimately help NOAA continue their ongoing research, which will impact a great number of things.

Sean Gatzen

Sean Gatzen
Hometown: Idaho Springs, CO
Fabrication and Build Role: Structures Team 

*The Structures Team was responsible for the design layout (roof, walls, and floors) of the structural insulated panels (SIPS), the foundation (drop beams, posts, footers), and the decking structure.

Q: What inspired you to complete the Design Build certificate?

A: I have a huge interest in hands-on work/learning. I am also very interested in prefabrication and modular construction. So, this was the perfect opportunity to experience hands-on learning in both modular and prefabrication.

Q: What was your favorite part of your experience with the ColoradoBuildingWorkshop?

A: It was so great watching how fast we, as a class, could get things accomplished once we had a plan in place. It’s pretty incredible what you can do as a large team.

Q: How does it feel to know that your work will be constructed in Antarctica and used by NOAA scientists?

A: That is just cherry on the top. I don’t think we could have asked for a more patient, kind, and intelligent client! What they do in Antarctica is extremely valuable, and the environment they work in is as challenging as it is beautiful. I am incredibly grateful for this opportunity, and I can’t wait to see the pics of our buildings down in their final location!

Myah Gifford

Myah Gifford
Hometown: Kankakee, IL
Project Role: Windows and Doors Team

*The Windows and Doors Team oversaw the sizing and placement of windows and doors, found solutions for ensuring each feature was waterproof, and managed the orders for each and every bolt.

Q: What inspired you to complete the Design Build certificate?

A:  I’ve heard that a lot of contractors and architects struggle to get along because architects always have unrealistic expectations to what can be built. I’ve always wanted to break the barrier between construction aspect and architecture by knowing both. When I found out we were building two research facilities in Antarctica, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

Q: What was your favorite part of your experience with the ColoradoBuildingWorkshop? 

A: My favorite part of the experience was being able to come out of my comfort zone with using different tools I’ve never used before as well as learning that you can make anything with some wood and some screws.

Q: How does it feel to know that your work will be constructed in Antarctica and used by NOAA scientists? 

A: I feel extremely honored to be able to say I helped contribute to the NOAA scientists work down in Antarctica. It was really a once-in-a-lifetime, wonderful experience. My classmates and I worked really hard to get this to a completion, and I am so thankful it was for as wonderful people as the group of NOAA scientists.