As Denver’s first secure campsites opened in December 2020, offering services and shelter in rows of uniform fishing tents, Richard McSwain, a University of Colorado at Denver graduate student in architecture, contacted Cole Chandler, who ran a site.
“What can we do for the Colorado Village Collaborative? How can we help you ? McSwain remembers asking the executive director of CVC, who ran a site next to the Denver Community Church in the Uptown neighborhood.
“We’ve landed, shot, can we just make a whole new shelter? Because shelters themselves are inherently problematic, being fishing tents,” says McSwain, who is part of the CU Denver chapter of Freedom by Designa non-profit community service program for students of architecture.
Just over a year later, McSwain and other architecture students at CU Denver are testing the prototype of a new shelter that they hope will significantly improve the living quarters of secure campsites.
The new living unit looks like a particularly tall tent – except that the skeleton of the unit is made of wood and it is planned to be wrapped in a waterproof insulating material, then a layer of canvas.
Although Denver’s Safe Campsites Ice Fishing Tents have greatly improved living conditions for many homeless people, they are still tents and lack insulation.
“We had problems with leaks and the shelters remained isolated,” explains Gray Waletich, who works with Radian, a non-profit architecture and urban design group; he designs safe campsites for the Colorado Village Collaborative and advises students. “We also had issues with the longevity of the tents. They shouldn’t be used for long periods like this, so we’re looking for structures that can better withstand the elements.”
The new model’s canvas is expected to last seven years, is highly water resistant and should provide “much more efficient heating,” according to McSwain.
“One of our big requests for how this should work as we go from -20 to 120 [degrees]“, notes McSwain. In addition to being able to withstand a wide range of temperatures, the unit must be temporary; there are separate zoning regulations for more permanent housing units.
“Ultimately, when these are removed from the site, the fingerprint should be unidentifiable,” he adds. So that means there is no concrete base either. But the crew believe the new model is functional and are currently carrying out outdoor testing.
“It’s a really exciting project,” says Waletich, who sees potential for future safe campsites made up of these new units.
But two major challenges remain: finding the funding to build dozens of these units, and also getting the go-ahead from the city of Denver on the design specifications. “We need to take the design beyond the city,” says Waletich. “We’re trying to navigate to make the process as quick as possible, to get these things up and running for emergency use.”
McSwain and his team try to keep the total material cost for each unit under $2,000, or about four times the cost of a fishing tent. In February, the Denver City Council approved $3.9 million in funding for safe campsites. Given the much longer lifespan of the new style of unit, McSwain thinks student units could be a good investment.
While the prototype of the new housing unit currently sits atop a building at CU Denver, it will receive an official unveiling at a CU Denver Freedom by Design Open House from 4:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, March 30 at the 14th Street CU Denver Building, 1250 14th Street. The team will be taking feedback at this event. “We’re really trying to confirm that it works as intended and designed,” McSwain said.
And they’re looking for suggestions that involve more than design. “We don’t have a name yet,” he admits. “We will launch a recommendation at the open house and see what the discussion on this leads to.”