How often does a groundbreaking partnership literally break ground? This month, one did, between two educational groups that, on the surface, seem very different: the nontraditional Colorado Outward Bound School (COBS) and the University of Colorado Denver’s College of Architecture and Planning.

The backstory: COBS needed 14 custom cabins built at its Leadville base camp. Intended to house the outdoor school’s instructors and staff during breaks, the cabins needed to shelter more than just people—they’re also home to a lot of gear. And given the mission of COBS, the cabins also needed to be eco-friendly, affordable, and connected aesthetically to the forest environment.

Enter the students of CU Denver’s Design Build class. This graduate-level course provides the full design experience to its students: From client meetings to drawings and models and, finally, hands-on construction of the projects themselves, the students guide the assignments each session. “I didn’t hesitate when this project came to us,” says Rick Sommerfeld, director of the Design Build program at CU Denver. “Our students are very outdoorsy and comfortable with the mountain experience. They were excited to visit the Leadville site at 10,000 feet—even in January.”

As it turned out, the end users and the architects had plenty in common, notes Sommerfeld. Most of the COBS instructors and the Design Build students are twenty-somethings, which impacted the designs. “The new generation is more interested in sharing spaces and creating smaller spaces. They brought some micro-housing ideas that were very exciting,” says Sommerfeld.

Take, for example, the “yin-yang bunk bed.” The team created tiny bunk beds in which guests sleep head to toe, creating extra visual privacy. The cabins also boast very small footprints, with the largest structure taking up only 200 square feet; the smallest comes in at less than 100 square feet.

“The students also took a lot of time with the natural surroundings, making the most of the views and blending [the cabins] in to the lodgepole forest,” says Darcy Struckhoff, director of development for COBS. “The students were so intentional in planning the site and keeping the pristine beauty of the base camp. That’s something our staff notices and appreciates.”

The 14 cabins currently being constructed are the first phase of a two-year project. COBS purchased all building supplies, and the Design Build students are donating their time and labor. Next year, the team plans to erect seven insulated cabins and ultimately add a staff kitchen.

“Really, these students are getting their own Outward Bound experience,” says Struckhoff. “And our staff is getting a place to call home after being out on a course.”

—From top, photos courtesy of Andrew Goodwin and Darcy Struckhoff