Integrated Teamwork Revitalizes River

Colorado Hardscapes proudly installed a concrete fox hollow tree, concrete log steppers, sculpted concrete boulders, a decorative concrete plaza with colorful paving and Sandscape walls, a Sandscape fire pit, a colored concrete overlook, a tactile colored concrete compass rose and newly stained concrete floors in the SPREE Building all at the new Johnson Habitat Park in Denver. These elements helped create a remarkable new park along the invigorated South Platte River. However, the vision took incredible teamwork and years of planning before it became a reality.

On Monday, June 1, 2015 the sun shone as the new Johnson Habitat Park officially opened to the public along the South Platte River. The community gathered in front of the newly renovated SPREE building while Mayor Hancock welcomed the new park to the community, “Today we are not just cutting the ribbon of a newly renovated park, but a new chapter in our city’s rich history. And we get to leave something for these young people in front of me, that they will appreciate much more than we got to appreciate. And they are going to have something to pass along to their children some day that that will be much better and much greater than they could have ever imagined.” and continued on to state, “Today with a new playground, a beautiful new learning landscape, outdoor classroom, an awesome fire pit we can do permits for education and outdoor overnight opportunities for you people and other non-profits and educational programing.” As if inspired by the tactile compass rose, the crowd soon dispersed to help cut the ribbon to the park and race Mayor Hancock to the playground and explore everything the park offers.

The grand opening ceremony with Mayor Hancock and the community
The grand opening ceremony with Mayor Hancock and the community

Johnson Habitat Park is part of the River Vision master plan for the City of Denver. The vision stemmed from goals set years ago by the Shoemaker family when they saw abuse of the river and the possibilities revitalizing it could bring to the City. Jeff Shoemaker, of the Greenway Foundation states, “My father started The Greenway Foundation in the 1970’s with the vision of reclaiming the South Platte River and its tributaries. The site of Johnson Habitat Park used to be a polluted landfill dumpsite, one of five along Denver’s South Platte River at the time. Today however, JH Park is a unique outdoor education-learning center, home of the Foundation’s youth education program known as SPREE (South Platte River Environmental Education). Additionally, JH Park provides nearby residents with the opportunity to experience ‘nature in their backyard’ including programmed weekend events by SPREE that feature overnight campouts for children and their families. Thanks to the City and County of Denver and numerous additional funding partners as well as the design and construction talents of Colorado-based companies such as Colorado Hardscapes. JH Park and the adjacent South Platte River have new life and new energy, right in the epicenter of Denver.” Through the framework of long term visioning and an excellent team, Colorado Hardscapes helped restore the livelihood of the river by offering their decorative concrete expertise.

A major obstacle for the River Vision plan came early on in the visioning stage of the project: money. The city partnered with DHM Design to help secure funding. Mark Wilcox, principal at DHM Design, explains, “DHM assisted the City of Denver with writing and winning the GOCO River’s Corridor Initiative grant for over $6 million in funding for river projects identified in the River Vision Implementation Plan. Denver was strategically positioned through winning this grant to partner with many other foundations, funding sources and governmental agencies to leverage over $20 million in funds for River Vision. Denver hired DHM based on our past performance and efforts to help them find the funding for these projects. And of course, we like to think having kids make s’mores for the GOCO BOD helped sway the vote in our favor.” DHM reached out to Colorado Hardscapes in the early planning and budgeting phases to determine the feasibility of their ideas for the River Vision.

The success of Johnson Habitat Park relied on the team effort. Mark Wilcox of DHM worked with Karen Keyes of Colorado Hardscapes early in the design and budgeting phases. They worked through ideas for the large boulders for the West side of the park to create a sheltered setting to give a mountain feel and help bring the mountains closer to the city. They worked through different paving ideas for some of the key elements of the park. Together they found cost effective solutions while creating structurally sound and aesthetic colors and finishes.

The City of Denver hired ECI Site Construction Management as the CM/GC for the park. The budgeting and value engineering process continued with ECI, DHM and Colorado Hardscapes to align the final project price to the funding available. As final construction budgets rolled in for the entire project, the team soon discovered they needed to make additional adjustments. Because of the strong team of Denver, ECI, DHM and Colorado Hardscapes, they collaborated on ideas and solutions to meet the design intent and the budget. Early in the design and through the construction document stages, the following solutions developed through collaboration:

  • Fox Hollow: DHM envisioned a custom climbing structure where kids can go in and around an old hollowed out tree. Unfortunately, their vision could not be found in a catalog. Wilcox and Keyes worked together to determine how to make the tree structure out of shotcrete and what size it needed to be in order to stay within the budget. Once contracted, Keyes created a maquette of the fox hollow with the inspiration of the large old cottonwood trees that grace the river. She studied the orientation of the structure and how the openings of the tree should encourage flow and movement of the children around the playground. Then she created peek holes out of the tree for kids to glimpse out at their friends or parents. She created a worn piece of the tree on the interior to double as a miniature table or chair to encourage imagination and play. And she wrapped the roots around the outside of the tree to encourage slight climbing, exploration, and seating without tripping the children. The City then took the maquette and ensured the heights and fall zones met acceptable tolerances.

    Sculpted concrete fox hollow with compass rose in the background
    Sculpted concrete fox hollow with compass rose in the background
  • Log Steppers: Log steppers can be found in a catalog, but through comparisons with ECI and DHM, the team discovered it was just as cost effective to have Colorado Hardscapes build some of them out of concrete to match the fox hollow. In the end, the concrete log steppers meander through the playground natural tree branches and logs. By creating these elements on site, they reduced the environmental impact of manufacturing them out of state and transporting them to Colorado.

    Log steppers amongst natural logs and the shotcrete boulders in the background
    Log steppers amongst natural logs and the shotcrete boulders in the background
  • Large Boulders: Gently hugging the West side of the park, large shotcrete boulders craft a subtle focal point. The river embraces one side of the park and the large boulders contain the other. DHM, Denver, Colorado Hardscapes and ECI worked together extensively throughout the process on this key feature. DHM envisioned large rocks similar to what would be found in the mountains along campsites. They wanted the boulders to provide a shelter from the wind and a cozy feeling for kids to pitch tents for some of Denver outdoor activities. DHM and Colorado Hardscapes worked together and concluded to create the boulders out of shotcrete due to size, style, minimal environmental impact, and budget. When the initial park prices initially came in over budget, Colorado Hardscapes again worked with ECI and DHM to re-work the feature, scale it down and meet the design intent.

    Construction of the shotcrete rocks included referring to a construction copy of the maquette frequently
    Construction of the shotcrete rocks included referring to a construction copy of the maquette frequently

Once given the go-ahead to proceed, Keyes made the maquette with the design elements from Wilcox at DHM in mind, along with concerns about kids climbing and visibility. She took inspiration from boulders along the Platte River near Deckers, Eleven Mile and Cheesman. She envisioned the story of the formations traveling along the river over time and washing along the banks at Johnson Habitat Park. She based everything from their shapes to orientation on the geomorphology, telling their history along the river.

  • The Compass Rose: DHM envisioned 10 different colors and/or textures within the compass rose. To pour each of the panels separately would not only be expensive, it would cause weak points and likely cracking due to the layout and design. So, Colorado Hardscapes and DHM worked together to develop a plan to create the entire compass rose out of a base mix of concrete but color just the surface of the concrete, before it cured, with color hardener. This technique allowed for different colors and finishes to be poured together, creating a more structurally sound and budget friendly solution. The color harder also made a great imprinting surface for the different textures and it hardens the surface to create a more durable surface. The color will last longer than any surface applied stain or pigment.

    The compass rose pointing west to the rock structures
    The compass rose pointing west to the rock structures
  • The Flower Plaza: Similar to the compass rose, the layout created tricky layout for separate pours for the different colors. In addition to the structural and cost concerns, DHM envisioned brighter colors for the flower plaza. For the Columbine flower paving they wanted a light and dark purple, and for the blanket flower a yellow and red. Traditional integral color in gray cement could not achieve those bright of colors without incurring costly concrete mixes or custom colors. But, Colorado Hardscapes had custom color hardeners made to match the color palette desired and achieved the bright colors.

    Finished photo of the blanket flower plaza with vibrant colors
    Finished photo of the blanket flower plaza with vibrant colors

 In addition to those two flowers in the plaza, DHM also wanted something unique for the forget-me-not flower portion. Originally they considered sandblasting and staining the flowers, but with the hesitation of the shorter lifespan of exterior stain. They discussed possibly saw-cutting the designs in, but the problem of color lasting arose again since they wanted several forget-me-not flowers in this section rather than one large one like the other two flower plazas. After weighing all the options and still getting stuck, Colorado Hardscapes suggested utilizing a newer concrete innovation of LithoMosaics. By reducing the overall count of flowers and creating outlines of the flowers with the LithoMosaic technique, they achieved vibrant, long lasting colors in the concrete and stayed within budget. As an added bonus, the kids of SPREE helped create two of the flowers during summer camp with the assistance from DHM, Denver, SPREE and Colorado Hardscapes. The children are part of the history and future of this park due to the innovation of introducing mosaics into decorative concrete.

The SPREE kids helped create the LithoMosaics for the forget-me-not plaza
The SPREE kids helped create the LithoMosaics for the forget-me-not plaza
Finished LithoMosaic flower installed, created by the SPREE kids
Finished LithoMosaic flower installed, created by the SPREE kids

Then around each plaza Colorado Hardscapes installed Sandscape radial walls to double as seat walls and planters for the corresponding flowers. The crew finished the walls so well, the city and design team saw them and decided not to cap the walls with stone – another cost saving measure.

Together, DHM and Colorado Hardscapes, helped push the envelope of possibilities with decorative concrete on a budget. Throughout the construction, Colorado Hardscapes continued to work with the team to construct each element to the design intent while being mindful of the river environment, sustainable sensitivity, and safety.

Ted Johnson, Vice President of ECI Site Construction Management states, “This was the first of multiple phases of the River Vision project completed under the CM/GC process for the City and County of Denver. The collaborative delivery process allowed this challenging project to be completed on time and within budget. Working with quality subcontractors, like Colorado Hardscapes, helped implement the stakeholders vision in an efficient fashion while maintaining strict design integrity of the unique site elements for this signature park on the South Platte River.”

The team created an educational and recreational park with extremely custom features through collaboration. Mayor Hancock wrapped up his speech at the grand opening of the park with, “To have this kind of setting in the urban core is an amazing opportunity and one in which I’m so excited for everyone. This park belongs to the people of Denver and the people of this great region. And what a great gift we can leave behind us.”

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