Breaking ground: CU-Boulder environmental design students get real-world experience

March 27, 2013 •

In class one recent Monday, a group of CU-Boulder undergraduates in environmental design met with a city of Boulder official to review their building plans, soon to be constructed by the students at the local Admiral Burke Park. That’s when they learned of a hitch.

The student team can’t build on certain parts of the grounds—those that aren’t owned by the city, which is supporting the project.  

“As our instructors had warned, the project got very real very fast,” said Erin Mapes, a junior in environmental design.

Within a few hours, some of the students revamped the layout of the designs—including an outdoor classroom structure among other new elements for the park—to steer clear of non-city property.

Meanwhile, other students were calling companies to source materials like cement, estimating quantities and costs. They also discussed commandeering their instructor’s own cement mixer, which had been offered, so they could make the material themselves.

Two days later, the group met at the park to create mock layouts of their designs, rigging nylon lines, stakes and flags, only to learn of three more obstacles on site:  a water main, a fiber optic line and an electrical line that they can’t build near.

“It’s been a lot of moving forward and then taking steps back and reworking, which is good in a lot of ways,” said Cole Cleland, a senior in landscape architecture. “I’ve learned that there’s a whole other process in the real world compared to studio work where it’s mostly just theoretical drawing.”

The students have been working on the real-life project—from collaboration to creation and construction—since January, with plans to complete installations by the end of the spring semester.

The outdoor classroom will be a deck-like structure with a cutout in the center and parts that fold, transforming flat surfaces into seating. Plans also are slated to develop an arboretum with mounds—an educational area allowing tree identifying, for example, as well as play and shade. Additionally, a set of mini biomes, or microcosms of natural habitats found in Colorado, will be part of the redesign. The biomes will display grassland and mountain ecologies.

Two CU-Boulder classes of students have joined forces for the project, including 10 seniors completing a capstone course and 15 juniors fulfilling the environmental design program’s praxis requirement. The mandatory praxis curriculum is customizable and incorporates practical experience into the coursework of each student. Co-instructors David Kahn and Brian Cook are leading the group.

Many communities have been involved in the process as well, including Horizons K-8 School, the Frasier Meadows retirement community, Growing Up Boulder, the Mountain View United Methodist Church and surrounding neighborhoods. Members of these groups, including children, have met to facilitate discussions, share ideas, review the students’ plans and provide feedback.

Kahn says the client-like aspect of the project is highly valuable to students heading into careers.

“A lot of times, students are used to designing the coolest thing they can think of,” said Kahn. “But when you’re doing real work, like these students, you have to think of the coolest thing you can think of that directly responds to your client’s needs and budget in a very respectful and sensitive way.”

Once the students’ design and construction work is completed, maintenance will be carried out by the city. There also could be further development of the park, possibly led by future CU-Boulder environmental design classes.

The possibility points to a budding partnership between CU-Boulder and the city of Boulder, enlisting student creativity and skills in return for real-life experience and resumé building.

“We’re very impressed by the quality ideas and work that we’re seeing from CU-Boulder students,” said Jeff Dillon, superintendent of parks for Boulder Parks & Recreation. “We’re thrilled to partner with them in what is a growing process both for them and the community.”

The class’s involvement in the Burke Park re-visioning was spurred in part from the success of another CU-Boulder environmental design class. Two summers ago, twelve students and Senior Instructor Marcel de Lange designed and built a storage and restoration facility at the historic Columbia Cemetery in Boulder. Their project won a historic preservation award in 2012 from the city of Boulder.

For more information about the Burke Park project visit For more information about CU-Boulder’s environmental design program visit