Student-Designed Building Embraces Desert

Community hub offers a place to meet, share meals, and enjoy beautiful surroundings.

Confluence Hall, as its name suggests, is at the confluence of sustainability, flexibility, and efficiency, mitigating the harsh sun and wind while celebrating the unique beauty of its environs. Photos: Jesse Kuroiwa

The desert landscape of Moab, UT, is a study in contrast: rugged yet beautiful, unforgiving yet inviting, and serene but teeming with adventure. This iconic desert is home to the Southwest branch of the Colorado Outward Bound School (COBS, outwardbound.org), a non-profit outdoor educational organization that offers classes for all ages. After a large donation allowed significant renovations to the dormitories, school officials realized the need for a community gathering space. Called to the challenge, students at the Univ. of Colorado Denver’s Colorado Building Workshop (coloradobuildingworkshop.cudenvercap.org) were able to design a unique building that reflects and embraces the nature of its surroundings.

Confluence Hall was designed as the central community hub for the Moab branch of the school, offering a place to meet, share meals, and enjoy the beautiful surroundings. The building is truly at the confluence of sustainability, flexibility, and efficiency, mitigating the harsh sun and wind while celebrating the unique beauty of its environs. Built to maximize the stunning views of the iconic Moab desert, the building also acts as a buffer against solar exposure as well as visual and auditory distractions from a nearby parking lot.

A non-profit that teaches survival, life, and leadership skills through outdoor adventure programs, COBS has offered courses at its Moab outpost for more than 50 yr. Executive Director Peter O’Neil, a former field instructor at COBS Moab in the 1970s, recalls the rugged living conditions. “To call it substandard housing would be an understatement,” said O’Neil. Although conditions improved over time, a recent donation from Shell Oil allowed significant improvements to the dormitories. Although the new living quarters solved the housing issue, it underscored COBS’ need for a community gathering space and cooking facility.

Assembly of the project was completed by students at the Univ. of Colorado Denver’s Colorado Building Workshop over the course of just two trips to Moab during a three-week period.

Students at the Colorado Building Workshop rose to the challenge, designing a flexible 3,300-sq.-ft. indoor-outdoor space that fit the budget and site requirements. The Colorado Building Workshop is a unique and prestigious design-build program at the Univ. of Colorado Denver that has earned international recognition. Director Rick Sommerfield heads the program, and since 2010 his students have worked on a wide range of projects including award-winning micro cabins in Leadville, CO, and the Boulder (CO) Museum of Contemporary Art.

The Confluence Hall project, however, introduced a new, larger scope than other projects. The complex, budget-conscious project was designed and built by 27 graduate students, many of whom had no building experience. In addition to the limited budget and a shortened timeline of only 19 weeks, students were also working from the Denver campus, eight hours away. Successful completion of the ambitious project required incredible collaboration, ingenuity, and creativity.

After an initial site visit to gather information, project requirements, and insight from clients and contractors, the students established a set of core principles to guide a decision-making process challenged by atypical design and building constraints. A shoestring budget necessitated the use of salvaged materials and the use of an existing doublewide trailer foundation. “Because there were so many students, there were a lot of opinions and we wanted to immediately filter out the opinion of architecture and let it be about what the client needed and allowed,” said graduate student Kelsey Wotila. Those core principles included flexibility, sustainability, climate, structure, program, materiality, light, and environment.

Flexibility was a core design goal of the project, and the objective was partly achieved through the use of a large opening glass wall from NanaWall systems, Corte Madera, CA (nanawall.com), in the light-filled dining room. The 12-ft. span of opening glass connects the interior and exterior dining, meeting, and cooking areas. Incorporating a built-in thermal barrier and weather-resistant sills, the folding glass walls can withstand harsh, snowy winters and blazing hot summer heat. The systems also facilitate interaction with the grandiose beauty of the desert, allowing the interior space to flow into the exterior when the wall is opened, inviting the magnificent view indoors when closed.

Students transformed donated insulated metal panels, otherwise bound for landfill, into a staggered performative canopy that provides much-needed shade in summer and sunlight in the winter.

A second set of opening NanaWall window systems in the kitchen open to the outdoor area, while a partition wall pivots down to create distinctive, private areas and pivots up in plane with the ceiling for flow. Vonmod (vonmod.com), a design-manufacture cabinet company also based in Denver, granted use of their state-of-the-art computer numerical control router (CNC) equipment to create custom walnut cabinetry for the kitchen. Raw Creative (rawdbf.com), a Denver-based design-build firm founded by two program alumni, also donated tools, time, and space for students to create glass fiber reinforced concrete (GFRC) benches, tabletops, countertops, and an oversized monolithic sink for the bathroom facility.

Climate and environment were two driving principles, and the harsh Moab desert necessitated a steel shade structure. The structure covers 2,000 sq. ft. of patio–more than the interior of the building. One of the central challenges in designing the canopy was to create a self-supporting span that could cover a large area while simultaneously acting as a louver. This potentially expensive and challenging feat was accomplished for pennies on the dollar when a telecommunications company donated excess stock of new insulated wall panels.

Students transformed the insulated metal panels, otherwise bound for landfill, into a staggered performative canopy that provides much-needed shade in summer and sunlight in the winter. Using the software program Grasshopper, students determined the exact spacing between the panels to account for shade and light requirements, while accommodating a fire pit and the entry into the building. A similar feat of engineering, the steel staircase leading to a rooftop deck hangs entirely from the structure above, with no part of it touching the ground. With dramatic views of the surrounding mountains, the rooftop deck increases the useable community space, providing a place to meet or commune with nature.

Flexibility was a core design goal of the project, and the objective was partly achieved through the use of large-opening glass NanaWall systems in the light-filled dining room.

The ingenuity of the project, borne out of necessity and severe budget constraints, is perhaps its most defining aspect. A doublewide trailer was sold to help finance the new building, but that left a footprint, foundation, and patio to which the new design had to conform. Structurally insulated panels (SIP) provide necessary insulation and allowed the team to base everything on a module system, using factory edges to minimize the number of on-site cuts. The SIP module created a grid for the project, a novel approach that allowed faster, easier production and assembly.

Material selection also played an important role, and students used only what program director Somerfield calls, “honest materials in a virgin state.” The students avoided new, untested products and selected concrete, wood, and steel for their proven durability and reliability. Rusted steel cladding relates the building to the rusty red of the desert surrounding.

Assembly of the project was completed over the course of just two trips to Moab. The team set out from Denver during spring break and completed the building over a three-week period in early May. Students and their instructors worked more than nine hours every day, seven days a week, to complete the build. The experience is valuable to students who will enter the workforce with a unique perspective on the entire building process, from ideation to completion. “The majority of the students from our program won’t necessarily build anything again. They’ll wind up in more traditional architecture offices. But this gives them an empathy for the trades, and maybe more importantly, teaches them to work collaboratively with engineers, consultants, clients, and contractors, to meet needs and exceed expectations,” said Sommerfield.

The multi-purpose building was awarded the AIA Utah Honor Award–the highest architectural honor in the state. It was also cited as among 2017’s best student design-build projects worldwide by ArchDaily. Most importantly, the client is thrilled with the resulting gathering place. “It’s simple, very functional, and it draws people in,” said COBS executive director O’Neil. Located between the Wingate Cliffs and the La Salle Mountains, Confluence Hall achieves harmony with its environment as a result of the material selection and the ultimate goal of sustainability at the project’s core.


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— Peruse the Colorado Building Workshop portfolio.

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