Through the creation of a simple shelter, students gain new skills, community

August 16, 2013 •

A group of 15 CU-Boulder environmental design students can look back on the summer and say they built a building -- from foundation to roof, from insulation to siding, from caulk to paint.

Though they previously had little construction experience, the students had their hands on every aspect of the project including pouring concrete, installing windows and hammering hundreds of nails both by hand and with a pneumatic or air-pressured tool. While their building sits tiny -- a 9-by-12-foot structure -- the impact from the process is substantial.

“Building something this small has really affected how much I see the beauty in little details,” said Lauren Patnoe, a junior in environmental design and part of the student construction team. “Rather than looking at amazing skyscrapers or metropolitan areas, I can look at any hut now and say, ‘there’s some love in that, there’s some effort in that,’ and I think that’s going to be kind of monumental for me.”

The hut is simple, durable and made with recycled and sustainable materials like beetle-killed wood, refurbished doors and bamboo flooring. It’s adorned with colorful mismatched hooks, a whimsical wall etching, exposed trusses and a tiled mandala figure -- a geometric symbol of the universe -- on the floor.

The students built the structure for a client, the Lama Foundation in Questa, N.M. The nonprofit, which is still recovering from a 1996 wildfire, is an ecumenical spiritual retreat and educational center nestled in a mountainside near Taos, N.M. The location is about 300 miles south of Boulder.

“The Lama Foundation’s been around for about 45 years and they have some people who’ve been coming here for that long,” said Jade Polizzi, CU-Boulder environmental design instructor and leader of the project. “While they ask everyone to camp out, it’s hard for some people who are aging, so they wanted to build a small shelter.”

An earlier spring-semester class of students created a number of designs for the shelter. The final selected design was passed along to the summer class of students for construction, which began at the state-of-the-art CINC facility and design fabrication lab on east campus before transporting pieces to the Lama Foundation.

The coursework for both classes -- led by Polizzi and adjunct instructor Stephen Eckert who also are principals of the Eckalizzi Design architecture firm -- was part of the environmental design program’s “praxis” requirement. The mandatory “praxis” is a semester of off-campus work on a project that integrates practical experience into each student’s curriculum.

“This course is a huge deal to me -- it’s so different, it’s so real, it’s so hands-on,” said Patnoe. “We’re taking everything we’ve learned in all of our studios, in all of our classes and making it happen. Instead of just putting it on a board and imagining it, we’re actually creating and physically being here.”

Both groups of students made trips and camped at the Lama Foundation for about 10 days each stint. They attended activities and interacted with the community, which added a unique and beneficial immersion component to the project.

“They’re so communal as a body,” said Kyle Plantico, a CU-Boulder senior in environmental design and part of the summer crew. “So for us to actually have the design fulfill their needs, I think we have to kind of do everything they do and figure out how they live.”

The process also parlays into important understandings about the architectural work that many of the students plan to pursue in their professional careers.

“They’re realizing that when you build something, every decision that you make is going to start to affect the others,” said Polizzi. “Sometimes we make a mistake and we have to think about the repercussions all the way down the line, and think about how we can turn that mistake into an opportunity.”

But ultimately, the artfully and skillfully created hut from a dedicated bunch of students has profound implications for all.

“I’ve had so many community members from Lama come up to me and say, ‘Thank you for making this. This is just going to make such a difference,’” said Polizzi. “And I’ve had so many students come up and say, ‘This is the best class I’ve ever taken. I’ve learned so much, and I’m putting in a lot of hours, but it doesn’t feel like work.’”

Jordan Levan, a senior in environmental design and part of the summer crew, notes the bond that’s developed among the students and instructors while part of the special project.

“We’ve all become great friends from working on this together,” said Levan. “I think this is going to be one of the most memorable things that I’ve done in my years at CU. It’s definitely going to be the biggest project that I’ve worked on, and it’s also my favorite so far.”

Visit the students’ project website at For more information about CU-Boulder’s environmental design program visit