Why CU Denver students designed a rock wall in a flood site

November 5, 2019
Rock wall in RiNo

Chris Reidl was unhappy with the lack of parks and community spaces in his RiNo neighborhood. He previously worked on the rebuild of the World Trade Center and thought one space in particular—a flood site to funnel excess water—was the perfect area to start.

Reidl, a developer by trade, worked with local architects on preliminary designs and then came to CU Denver in hopes of collaboration. Erik “Rick” Sommerfeld, assistant professor of architecture and director of Colorado Building Workshop, the design-build program at the University of Colorado Denver, connected Reidl with Matthew Gines, director of CU Denver design fabrication labs.

Gines didn’t hesitate. “What I love about architecture and design is that every project has new challenges and it’s all about problem-solving. I knew it would be a good fit and experience for our students,” Gines said.

Why a rock wall?

The original concrete area was not being utilized by community members and was an eyesore to many. The idea was to make the blank space more welcoming with a public rock wall.

CU Denver students got to work by researching rock wall codes, crash pads, materials and more. They had to take into account the wall would be exposed to Colorado’s environments year-round and it couldn’t block water if an overflow does occur. They also didn’t want it to be exclusive, ensuring the space accommodated multiple users of all ages and backgrounds.

Close up of the rock wall showing the steel subframe, plywood and double-skin system.
Close up of the exterior grade materials the class used. Photo by Jesse Kuroiwa.

The class decided on exterior-grade materials, including steel subframe, plywood, and a double-skin system. The structure is inspired by our personal playground—the mountains. Thinking it would be too easy to design a standard climbing wall, the class designed the crevices to act as traditional hand grips.

The project spanned across two semesters (fall ’17 and spring ’18) of Gine’s digital fabrication class. Roughly 40 students contributed to it.

Reidl—the project champion

Reidl worked for a year to get a permit for the wall, which was only supposed to be up for six months, but then he got it extended to stay for an entire year. The whole goal was to use this as a case study to show the importance of parks in the area in hopes of prioritizing them in the future. Throughout the entire process, the class would work through Reidl who was working with Public Works, Denver Parks and Recreation, and a RiNo group.

“RiNo currently has no parks, just one in the works, so it was definitely a void in the community,” Gines added.

Rockwall along an entire side of the flood site.
The wall extends along one entire side of the flood site. Photo by Jesse Kuroiwa.

The future of the rock wall

The wall was officially installed in August 2018 and has been up for over a year now. The mayor helped celebrate the new activation in the space.

“The feedback has been great. The architecture firm that originally did preliminaries was very happy with where the College of Architecture and Planning took their work and the community has used it for events, such as concerts and food truck days,” Grines concluded.

The project was mutually beneficial for all because CU Denver was able to directly help the RiNo community, with students tackling real-life design challenges and the neighborhood got a community space they desired.