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Scaling the wall: a climbing gym comes to life in SketchUp

An advantageous member of the DAJ design team, architect Ryan Costner has completed many commercial and residential projects that anyone would be thrilled to call their own. A Colorado native, the latest EVO Rock + Fitness climbing gym in his backyard is his latest endeavor. In a community where climbing is a passionate hobby for many, I asked him how SketchUp helped him create another project that he could be immensely proud of.

The Evolution of EVO.

You’ve been designing commercial projects for over a decade. How was it different working on an active space?

I think the most interesting thing about designing for this active space was allowing for the different activities to have their own space but also have interesting interactions. In other building types, you try much harder to have different spaces that are isolated from each other. This design is much more about how the spaces have different energies and can enhance each other. I think the building does this well where the exercise area is a balcony that looks out to the main competition wall. When you’re working out you have this visual feedback loop of the wall you’re getting stronger for.

Colorado has a notorious passion for climbing. How did the community help provide insight into what its needs are?

We leaned on Clint Dillard and Hilary Harris for that information. Clint and Hilary are an integral part of both the global and local climbing communities, and a wealth of information on climbing and climbing gyms. Not unlike many Coloradans, [Clint] has been climbing for twenty-seven years and Hilary for twenty-nine. This was Hilary's fourth gym so she was the brains behind the layout. [Clint] knew what he wanted in a gym being a member and patron for years. We talked to a lot of climbers around the nation to see what people were saying. We quickly knew Colorado was an ideal place for EVO.

Were there any particularly challenging elements of this design project?

The size of building had some interesting challenges. We quickly learned through some early designs that it shouldn’t be just a big box. The volume of the building as one large volume was too big to be reasonable or interesting. We studied the relationships of the different activities and their adjacencies, and then we draped a functional skin over them. The Bouldering area has the lowest roof because that is most appropriate for its function. The tallest section of the building covers the 45’ tall competition climbing area. The form of the building is really a reflection of what is going on inside.

final rendering Schematic Design: Massing study of the gym

How did SketchUp alleviate this difficulty?

SketchUp is a great design tool. The simplicity of the program and its speed in rendering the design as you spin around make it a powerful tool for us. The program allowed us to make quick design decisions, and helped our clients visualize the space more completely than if we were working in 2D or with hand-sketched 3D images.

Another difficulty that we encountered during the process of making the building real was planning the ductwork in the building. It took a lot of effort in coordination with the other teams in the project. We designed the shape of the building and worked with the team on locating the different types of climbing areas. We had to coordinate HVAC to work around and within the climbing walls structures. By using a combined model that included our building and the climbing wall company’s model, we were able to model the ductwork to work within the complicated structure. I don’t know if we could have done that with any other program than SketchUp. We had to make a path for this duct to come from outside the building, into the freestanding competition wall, and through the complicated climbing wall structure weaving 40’ down to 8’ off the floor. By using SketchUp, the general contractor BUILT Construction was able to easily fine-tune the routing of the ductwork based on feedback from the mechanical contractor.

Ductwork 1
Ductwork 2
Ductwork 3

Sometimes the project's toughest problems just need a little SketchUp. (Click through to see more photos of the final ductwork solution.)

How did you incorporate the surroundings into the design of the building?

We were able to bring in simple vegetation and trees to schematically mimic the landscape design, and also incorporated cars and people to give the model scale. We used the SketchUp model for our presentations, which were unenhanced by other 3rd party rendering programs. We were on a tight budget and the SketchUp models allowed us to have a level of sophistication with the least amount of effort.

GroundworkGroundwork is key.

In working with a third party on the other side of the world (Walltopia) to build the walls themselves, how were you able to instill your own vision into that collaboration?

SketchUp became our collaboration tool. Our main input was what kind of climbing happened where, and then designing the colors on the walls. We literally took Walltopia’s forms and then painted them in SketchUp with the colors EVO selected and the design that we wanted. Once we were happy with the color design, we sent the model to Walltopia for production. This is another example of the power of 3D design. I can’t imagine how we could have designed a color scheme and pattern with confidence with 2D drawings (All the panels were pre-cut and pre-painted before they were erected). Also as a communication tool: I can’t imagine how many drawings we would have to create to display the color scheme. Being able to send them the 3D model, and nothing more, saved a huge amount of time.

WalltopiaCollaboration sure looks good on us.

How did SketchUp help in the decision-making process?

At every step it was helpful. SketchUp is really our schematic design tool and it is what we use to present to our clients to see if they are on board with the design. Again it’s another instance where it stands out as a great communication tool. Seeing the perspective angles, the corners of the building in real-time communicates the design so much better than anything we could do on 2D paper, without a long and arduous process.

SketchUp model to gym construction

How do you go from SketchUp model to gym construction?

This is really where SketchUp gets unplugged. Once we have the design, we then move it into CAD and create a typical construction set*, plans, elevations, sections etc. The part where SketchUp is nice to have, is during construction because they can look at the 2D construction set and then look at the model and understand what is going where easier. Our contractors used the SketchUp model a lot for the HVAC design like I talked about earlier.

*Ed. note: This is a common workflow, but it’s also where LayOut really shines. Learn more about using LayOut!

About the Author

When she's not writing copy, analyzing numbers, or executing strategy, you'll find Michelle cooking from her garden in her 100 year-old cabin, logging alpine miles on ski and foot, or enjoying a craft beer and a burger.

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