Rick Sommerfeld leans with his arms crossed on a table covered in large metals nuts and bolts. He is in a workshop. Behind him are red and black wall mounted tools and storage benches.

Why not build a research facility in Denver and ship it to Antarctica?

CU Denver's Colorado Building Workshop is educating future architects while taking on its most ambitious project yet.

Tucked into the east side of Livingston Island off the Antarctica Peninsula is the Cape Shirreff field camp. Here, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientists gather data on krill populations as part of global conservation efforts.

For three to six months each year, the NOAA scientists work in a monochromatic landscape of black volcanic rock, snow and ice, beneath a sun that never sets and in temperatures as low as -5°F. After finishing this physically taxing work each day, they return to their dilapidated living quarters where they often repair the facilities, remove mold and mildew and mop up standing water.

Thanks to students at the University of Colorado Denver, these rundown facilities will soon be a thing of the past.

“Students come into our program wanting to learn about sustainability, so why not send them out to be part of the change they want to make in the world?”
– Rick Sommerfeld, Assistant Professor

In spring 2022, 28 architecture students built a new dormitory, kitchen and living room for the scientists. In August, the buildings, which feature privacy, natural lighting and low-maintenance metal cladding, were taken apart, packed into shipping containers and sent on a 7,000-mile trip to Antarctica.

Rick Sommerfeld and students stand in front of a table with several white building models placed on top of it. One student is pointing to a model while the others look on.
Sommerfeld and students discuss building models. From left to right: Antonio Valencia, Paola Larios, Caitlin Kennedy and Rick Sommerfeld.

The students who worked on this project are enrolled in the Colorado Building Workshop (CBW), a design-build certificate program run by CU Denver’s Department of Architecture that combines classroom learning with real-world experience.  

Building on the Vision of One Donor

Rick Sommerfeld, assistant professor and the workshop’s director, says that philanthropy has been crucial to CBW’s growth over the years.  

"It took one person to see our vision and to understand that the work we were doing was important,” Sommerfeld says. “Don Johnson was the first donor to believe enough to invest in the people and the infrastructure.”

Johnson is the managing trustee of the Dr. C.W. Bixler Family Foundation. Through his initiative, the foundation’s support enabled the program to hire a teaching fellow, Will Koning, who is also a workshop graduate.  

“My time as a student in CBW was the formative experience of my architectural education, which continues to this day as the Bixler Fellow,” Koning says. “We have been able to work on important projects in incredible places.”

According to Sommerfeld, the program was able to take on more complex projects after Koning joined.

“Having Will around has been a huge impact to the program,” Sommerfeld explains. “We nearly doubled the number of students we could take on, and we went from working on tiny pavilions to community centers and now the Cape Shirreff project.”

The foundation’s funding also supports scholarships, safety equipment and tools.  

Two students work on a turquoise drill press as they converse with each other. The one in the foreground is wearing a yellow shirt and has an arm sleeve tattoo. The one in the back is wearing safety goggles and smiling.
Workshop students Jasmine Jones and Caitlin Kennedy work on a drill press donated by the Dr. C.W. Bixler Family Foundation.

The students work with architecture firms, contractors and suppliers to complete projects that benefit the arts, education or the environment. After the program’s initial successes, architects began to donate time to critique student work while manufacturers provided free or reduced-cost building materials such as triple-pane windows.

“I think people are supportive because they see that we’re giving back and reinvesting in the community,” Sommerfeld says. “We’re able to take a client who has maybe $35,000 dollars for a community stage and deliver a $250,000 project. And we're trying to educate architects and make a better kind of architecture.”

The CBW ensures every donated dollar, pro bono hour and piece of equipment has a maximum impact on student education and the communities where they work.

Sommerfeld says graduates of the design-build program are in high demand from industry partners and architecture firms.  

“They call us and ask for our best graduates because they know they’re going to get that added set of skills with our students who have already seen a project through construction and dealt with budgets, developers and the bottom line,” he says.

Sustainability and Environmental Impacts  

In December 2022, Sommerfeld and seven CBW alumni will undertake the two-week journey to the Antarctic Peninsula. When they arrive at the Cape Shirreff field camp, they will camp out in tents for two months as they race against the Antarctic winter to reassemble the flat-packed living quarters.

Sommerfeld says the CBW students and alumni are personally invested in the project because they understand how the NOAA scientists’ research into krill populations impacts marine life. Krill serves as the main food source for fur seals, penguins, whales and other animals, making it a key part of the marine life food chain. Overharvesting krill by commercial fisheries can upset this delicate balance.

The NOAA scientists provide their data to the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, which works with its 26 member states to set krill harvesting quotas to protect marine ecosystems.

On a cloudy, overcast day, two grey steel cubicle-like buildings connected by a walkway are displayed on an empty gravel lot on the CU Denver campus.
In June 2022, phase one of the Cape Shirreff field camp project was exhibited on the CU Denver campus before it was shipped to Antarctica. Photo by Rob Cleary.

With this in mind, sustainability and environmental impact were also top priorities for the students. Their design substitutes photovoltaic panels for fossil fuel, utilizes 90% recycled stainless steel and features energy saving triple-pane windows. The students also had to consider how to design a building to withstand the Antarctic climate, working closely with a contractor who specializes in Antarctic construction.

According to Sommerfeld, the Cape Shirreff project was an ideal way for students to apply their classroom learning to a real-world environment, albeit one 7,000 miles away.

“Antarctica is a very hard place to be working in right now because large parts of the ice shelf are crumbling into the sea as we speak,” Sommerfeld says. “But I think it’s important that we as architects find ways to do things more sustainably. These students come into our program wanting to learn about sustainability, so why not send them out to be part of the change they want to make in the world?”

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