Firsthand Experience : Learning Through Design-Build

Ever wondered why the University of Colorado Denver’s Design-Build Program, “Colorado Building Workshop,” is so popular amongst students, faculty, and Colorado residents?  Aspiring architect and graduate student Samantha Strang provides us with a guest post this week regarding her experience as an active participant in a project to design and build year-round cabins in Leadville for the Colorado Outward Bound School.  Read ahead to learn about what she aptly describes as a “layered design process.”   

Thanks Samantha!

-Beth R. Mosenthal, AIA, LEED AP BD+C



Photo credit: Rachel Koleski.   Description: Students presenting during the final design crits with the client, Colorado Outward Bound School

As a developing architect, I aim to approach all projects with a committed contemplation for detail, place, time, material, craft, and people. I hope to always represent those who will use the space through an informed design process based on sensorial and emotional understanding as well as environmental and regional components. These powerful elements invoke a timeless relevance and open direct lines of communication between people and the architecture that surrounds them.


My participation this semester with the University of Colorado Denver’s Design-Build Program, Colorado Building Workshop, has given me (as well as many collaborators) the opportunity to utilize this layered design process to achieve a built outcome. Working and learning from our clients, Colorado Outward Bound School, while helping to build their community is a unique opportunity to enhance and contribute to the school’s sense of place and identity. As opposed to generating a theoretical design problem, I’ve found that CU’s Design-Build program allows students to develop key skills to explore the integral relationship between architectural design, people, and building construction.


Photo credit: Samantha Strang.  CU-Denver Design-Build students in Leadville conducting Post-Occupancy evaluations of the fourteen cabins from the 2015 build.

This semester, twenty-eight students are designing seven year-round accommodations. The housing, which includes three single occupancy units, three double occupancy lodgings, and the Executive Director’s cabin, will be built in Leadville during the CU-Denver Maymester. Expanding upon last year’s build of fourteen summer-use cabins, these seven units will be roughly 300 square feet, fully insulated, and will include electrical. Working in teams of four, my classmates and I have worked intensely throughout the design process to personalize our particular cabins to our sites and project concepts. Simultaneously, we have had the challenge of relating to the previous build while creating works which are individual to our class’s design sensibilities.

Working much like a professional studio, we have come to rely on one another’s strengths. Aside from our design teams, students work within other groups including areas such as Logistics, Structure, and Budgets which serve to keep the project focused as a whole. This ensures communication exists between the seven cabins while promoting a cohesive design approach relating to the architectural language and techniques employed in the fourteen cabins built last year.

Within the program, every student has the potential to bring unique insight to challenge and improve the architectural design. I have learned not only how to deal with structural issues and budgetary restrictions, but also the importance of efficiency, on-site problem solving, and adherence to deadlines. I’ve noted the clarity of communication necessary to maintain organization and the intricate detailing of construction assemblies required to fully understand how a project comes together. Needless to say, it has become exceptionally clear that one’s understanding of every detail matters.

As an aspiring architect, I want to experiment, pose questions, be questioned, and collaborate to create unique works. Learning and readjusting after each step through an iterative process is part of the Design-Build program. This is where I can bring all of my skills and put them into practice, learn from students with other backgrounds, and potentially teach others as well. This in-depth experience promotes the ability to comprehensively design, define career goals, and affords students the potential to be a more informed, valuable member of a professional studio in the future.

Guest Post: What (and Who) is the Emerging Professionals Committee?

Looking to get involved more involved in Denver’s extended architectural community?  Avik, YAF Chair to the Emerging Professionals Committee, provides a primer in what the committee is and how to get involved.   – Beth Mosenthal, AIA, LEED AP BD+C

You may be asking yourself, what is the Emerging Professionals Committee? According to our Statement of Purpose: The Emerging Professionals Committee is the intersection of representation for Student, Associate AIA, and Young Architect members. Its purpose is threefold: to improve knowledge sharing, expand outreach, and advocate on behalf of emerging professionals at all levels through collaborative efforts and direct communication.

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Emerging Professional’s Symposium, 2016

As the YAF Colorado Chair on the EPC this year, I know this by heart- but if you haven’t heard of the EPC or know about our events, that’s an issue regarding “direct communication” we are working to change in 2016. Our hope is to foster a rich design community with eclectic people by providing diverse opportunities. In February we had our first-annual Emerging Professionals Symposium held over a half-day at the University of Colorado Denver. Over 100 attendees joined us for six sessions and a keynote followed by a happy hour, and we cannot wait to expand upon this Symposia in upcoming years.

Cynthia Fishman of the EPC is leading the planning of our next big event- On May the 4th be with you day, AIA EPC will be partnering with over 15 other professional organizations again for the 4th annual Meet the Dark Side interdisciplinary networking event at Stoney’s Bar and Grill from 5:30-8pm.  It will be free to attend and the first 150 people to show up will get two free drinks. We are expecting 300-500 people for this Star Wars themed event (costumes encouraged) and attendees will have the option of playing ice-breaker bingo for amazing prizes in order to meet the next generation of leaders in architecture, engineering, construction, graphic design, marketing, sustainability, real estate, and more!

Katie Finnegan and Max McCloskey of the EPC are organizing the Young Architect Awards Gala on Friday June 3rd at Gensler Denver’s office; entry registration is now open and submittals are due by noon on April 22nd. In between we’re having smaller events including build days with Habitat for Humanity, Happy Hours, Building Tours, and Firm Crawls. Our hope is that our weekend events allow folks from other parts of the state to join in too. Down the line we also hope to have more collaborative events with other disciplines, such as Urban Planners, Landscape Architects, and Interior Designers (and if you’re in one of those disciplines and want to join forces for an event, let us know!).

If this all sounds like something you’d be interested in, consider joining our EPC list-serv! This is not a commitment to join the Committee, but the opening of a direct line of communication with the EPC- you’ll receive infrequent emails with all the upcoming events and opportunities without any worry of your email being distributed, and you can unsubscribe at any time. If you have ideas for an event, such as leading a building tour of your project, please send those ideas to us- we’re all ears! And if you do want to join us as an active committee member, just contact us. For whatever reason, you can find us at

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EPC Build Day

EPC Chair Adam Harding, myself, and the entire committee are stoked for our new upcoming events and initiatives this year. We hope you’re excited as well and hope to see you at one (or all) of them soon!


Yuguo Tian Qing; Moments of Beautiful Simplicity while Traveling in Japan

This past October I traveled to Japan for three weeks. I have often felt a connection to the simplicity and beauty of Japanese architecture, and therefore had put Japan on my bucket-list of “far-away” places to visit when the rare opportunity presented itself, which turned out to be my honeymoon.

Having booked places to stay in various cities over the course of three weeks, and armed with the invaluable Japan Rail Pass (similar to the Eurail pass, this enables you to travel pretty much anywhere in the country using Japan’s incredibly robust train system for a set window of time,) we did not set a daily agenda, but rather allowed the place and our guidebook to inform what we wanted to see, eat, and experience each day.

While I could write a lengthy blog post outlining each architectural wonder and cultural epiphany I had while there, in the Japanese spirit of brevity, I thought I might share 3 simply beautiful, inspiring things that made my day and life a little more profound after experiencing it.

Hopefully this might serve as afternoon inspiration or eye candy for you as well.

#1: When a phrase captures something almost more beautiful than the thing itself.

About an hour from Tokyo is the resort town near the Fuji Five Lakes called “Hakone.” This beautiful lake town was built with the idea of entertaining foreign dignitaries visiting Japan, and has become an eclectic cultural hub for museums boasting international art and culture (complete with an entire museum dedicated to “The Little Prince.”)

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Pola Art Museum, photo credit: Mosenthal, 2015


Of the many museums, I was very moved by my visit to the Pola Museum, surprisingly specializing in impressionist art. Yet it was not the impressionist pieces that got me, but rather, an exhibition titled “Regarding Color: Oriental and Contemporary Japanese Ceramics.”

I learned that in Japanese ceramics, pottery created during the Chinese Song Dynasty (960-1279) was sought after to be a highly specific celadon blue. This color, as described in the Japanese language, was referred to by the ceramicists as “Yuguo Tian Qing,” (雨過天青), which literally is translated to mean “clear sky after the rain,” and idiomatically has the meaning of “hope after hardship.”

This description (and metaphor) referring to a color felt more clear than any word assigned to the color itself.

#2: When nature becomes an integral part of the display of art.

Another highlight for me in Hakone was the Hakone Open Air Sculpture Park. Immediately upon entering this mountain-side open air museum, I was graced with a view of a Henry Moore sculpture, restfully placed on a serene, sloping pillow of grass that mimicked the sculpture’s amorous, flowing lines and rounded corners.

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Hakone Open Air Sculpture Park, Hakone, Japan, photo credit: Mosenthal, 2015


As I continued to circulate around the park, each piece became all the more powerful as it interacted against the slightly gray backdrop of sky, green plot of grass, or dappled light of changing leaves in the rustling wind.

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Hakone Open Air Sculpture Museum, photo credit: Mosenthal, 2015


While I think most architects agree it is a tenant of good architecture to relate site to building in an integrated, holistic fashion and vision, this visit reinforced my belief that this relationship is imperative in creating a strengthened dialogue and blurred line between form and foundation.

#3: When a space is curated so thoughtfully it takes on a life and character that is distinctly its own.

Towards the end of the trip we tracked down an air bnb in a place that felt a bit like it’s own country. About an hour from Nagano, buried in an agricultural community near the Town of Kaize, we came upon a cabin that had been completed by a young man and nine of his high school friends.

Completely powered by solar and in a remote location that we had to be driven to by our friendly host, upon arriving the cabin immediately felt familiar and, for lack of a better word, perfect.

The simple interior was evocative of a Finnish sensibility—light woods, simple whites, a simple balance of elevated everyday objects (copper pots, Muji colored pencils and books by a window, a simple wood bird mobile.) A small ipod hooked up to a faux-wood speaker held the contents of every Beatles album imaginable.

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Magical air bnb in  Japan (near Nagano), photo credit: Mosenthal, 2015


Was I in Japan or the future tiny home cabin I had  dreamed for myself? Perhaps the greatest part of travel is the ability to imagine (and to even test) yourself as you might live in new settings, contexts, and cultures, if only to find the second best part of travel is, after a long journey, returning to your home.

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Until my next trip, I will probably reminisce of this view daily…



Acknowledging “Thank Your Mentor Day” (held on January 21st, 2016)

In case you missed it, January 21st, 2016 was “Thank Your Mentor Day; ” an initiative of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and a part of the School’s “National Mentoring Month Campaign.”  On this day, Americans are urged to “thank or honor those individuals who encouraged and guided them, and had a lasting, positive impact on their lives.”

Perhaps overshadowed by social media’s warm embrace of “National Popcorn Day” on January 19th, I found out about this initiative through my sister, whom after navigating the world of tech and development for a few years co-founded a growing company, Glassbreakers, aimed at easily connecting mentees with mentors (and vice versa) through a digital mentorship platform.

Mentorship is something that I’ve thought a lot about as my career continues to evolve.

Perhaps this is because I’ve basked in the warm glow of a mentor’s support, teaching, and guidance, and have also experienced the contrasting feelings of vulnerability, crippling stress, and elated excitement in the absence of a mentor and in full possession of my decisions and actions (not to mention their related outcomes.)

As we learned the second (if not the first) day of architecture school, there are no right decisions. Sans “right” or “wrong,” we are left with options that can be explored infinitesimally.  From those options or ideas, a few contenders seem to consistently rise to the top, whether through preference, intuition, and/or analysis (usually a combination of all three.)

Working with a confident mentor that generated concepts and realized work that, while not adhering to the terms “right” or”wrong,”) felt manifestly important and thoughtfully justified, has been one of the more invaluable first experiences of my professional life.  While many people enjoy the challenge of immediately being thrown into the deep end and figuring out their voice through independent trial and error, I found it helpful to have someone more experienced in their career help create distance between me and the challenging  client-related, managerial, and administrative tasks of an architectural office.   Instead, for a brief time, I was given the chance to simply  learn, to make, to explore, and to imagine.

On the “National Mentoring Month” webpage, we are asked to acknowledge “Thank Your Mentor Day,” by doing one of the following activities:

 Contact your mentor directly to express your appreciation;

Express your gratitude on social media.

Pass on what you received by becoming a mentor to a young person in your community;

Make a financial contribution to a local mentoring program in your mentor’s honor; and,

Write a tribute to your mentor for posting on the Who Mentored You?

All valid ideas of ways of expressing “thanks” to the people that invest their time and energy into our well-being, this list only begins to scratch the surface of ways in which mentees might acknowledge the personal time and investment an individual has put forth to watch them grow and, by widely-interpreted definition, succeed.


In Dialogue in Dever: “The Art of Access”


When we think of the term “accessibility” of space, depending on your profession, this term might conjure up diverse definitions and perceptions.

As an architect, accessibility is often quickly taken from broad considerations of public networks, access, and inclusive user experience to the minute details dictated by Chapter 11 of the International Building Code.  It is through the lens of Chapter 11 that parameters associated with accessible dimensions, heights, clearances, slopes, circulation paths, and restroom counts (among many other important building features and considerations) are outlined for incorporation into building designs.

For an emerging professional, Chapter 11 can be a bit intimidating at times, as it feels as if only time, professional experience, and repeat exposure to code reviews, discussions, and resulting interpretations might help young professionals form a more holistic understanding of creating code-compliant, “accessible” space.

Despite my accumulating years of time and experience with Chapter 11, I recently attended and participated in an event in Denver, “The Art of Access,” that radically changed the way I think about the term “accessibility,” as it relates to public space and the built environment.

Organized by the inspiring, passionate Executive Director at VSA Colorado/Access Gallery, Damon McLeese, and supported by Imagine 2020: Denver’s Cultural Plan, the event was prefaced with the following description:

“[The Art of Access] is a day long dialogue about access, inclusion and community.  Fifty-six million people, nearly 20% of the American population, have some form of disability.  While much has changed since the 1990 signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, deficits remain concerning inclusion and access in the arts.  This day long symposium is designed to bring educators, administrators, architects, designers, artists and concerned citizens together to how best to ensure full participation and engagement in the arts and culture for persons with disabilities.”

Sessions included moderated discussions, panels, and interactive workshops related to Access and Architecture, Communication of Inclusion, Low Sensory Program, Art and Creative Aging, Audio Description, and Tactile Tours.

Perhaps what was most surprising is that this forward-thinking event was the first of its kind in Denver.

The 100+ attendees represented a broad range of professional and personal backgrounds and experiences.  Everyone in the room was tangibly excited by the opportunity to learn and participate in a candid dialogue regarding engagement in arts and culture-related organizations for persons with disabilities.

Despite the many different perspectives represented at the event, what was amazing was the shared enthusiasm, importance, and consistency in the themes of the conference.  My biggest take-away was the reinforcement of the inherent idea that access is not about codes, regulations, or special treatment.   It is about creating understanding and a sense of empathy for various individuals’ needs, and responding with designs, programming, and opportunities that are built on the foundation of universal inclusion.

As a participant in a panel regarding access as it relates to public art and space, I spoke from the perspective of an architect, public art committee member, and cultural advocate invested in Denver’s continued development of culturally-rich, universally-accessible public space.

My talk focused on how public spaces, as physical extensions of public artwork, have the potential to become celebrated markers within the fabric of a city, woven together with culture and a sense of shared, inclusive identity.

Giving this talk was a great opportunity to delve deeper into research regarding contemporary “inclusive urban design” methods, as well as the growing practice of applying the process of design-thinking through empathetic design to generate design solutions that consider both the macro (the urban scale) as well as the equally as important micro (individual user experience.)

A small part of a much broader and more important discussion, events like these continue to fuel my sense of excitement and optimism for Denver’s future. It’s hard to truly portray how rich the conversations were, and how dynamic and thought-provoking the talks by various Denver-based organizations were.  From the RedLine Gallery’s “Reach Studio” that provides art classes and entrepreneurial opportunities for Denver’s past and present homeless population to Djamila Ricciardi’s “Tactile Tours” of Denver, in which she provides public art tours that are based on senses other than sight, people are doing amazing things to broaden the definition of inclusive design and programming.

Creating civic, inclusive space and programming in a rapidly-urbanizing city is no small feat, and this event demonstrated the need and enthusiasm for various constituent groups to be provided with opportunities for increased dialogue and education with and from persons with disabilities, with hopes of generating more inclusive and thoughtful design solutions as well as cultural and professional opportunities.