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Building the new Pikes Peak Summit Complex will be no easy task 

Mountain of challenges

click to enlarge This rendering shows the planned Summit Complex, facing southeast. - RTA ARCHITECTS/GWWO ARCHITECTS/DHM DESIGN
  • RTA Architects/GWWO Architects/DHM Design
  • This rendering shows the planned Summit Complex, facing southeast.

Pikes Peak, fondly known as "America's Mountain," rises a majestic 14,115 feet above sea level. Sitting atop it, like an unworthy crown, is the Summit House, a squat, dim and unimpressive structure beloved mostly for its flush toilets and tasty doughnuts.

But as soon as 2020, the 600,000-plus annual visitors (who reach the summit via hiking trails, Pikes Peak Highway or the Pikes Peak Cog Railway) could encounter a far different scene. A 38,000-square-foot Pikes Peak Summit Complex, with huge glass windows, is planned to replace the outdated current structure, built in the 1960s with about 12,000 square feet. The new complex includes a visitors center and Colorado Springs Utilities technology support. An accompanying building will house the Maher Memorial High-Altitude Research Laboratory (HARL), operated by the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine and being paid for separately.

There are also plans to build elevated cement walking trails allowing anyone — even in wheelchairs — to take in the views that once inspired Katharine Lee Bates to pen "America the Beautiful."

"We wanted to do something that some people might consider modern, but we prefer the term 'timeless,'" Stuart Coppedge, principal of RTA Architects, says of the new complex. "It's of a design that looks like it kind of grows out of the mountain a little bit, and tucks into the mountain, and you don't have an architect walk by and say, 'Oh yeah, that was what was popular in 1980, or in 2000, or in 2015.' [We wanted it to be] difficult to kind of place the building in a certain time in history, and make it more one that belongs up there forever."

Some hurdles remain before that plan becomes a reality. There's not exactly a blueprint for building "timeless" glass houses at 14,000 feet. Now add on the requirement that the building must be LEED Certified Silver. Figure in that there's no running water. And that, even optimistically, you can only build on the peak from June through October, because there's snow. Oh, and because it's a public building, there has to be public input into the design.

And then the projected cost: $45 million to $50 million.

Jack Glavan, manager of Pikes Peak – America's Mountain, says conversations about replacing the Summit House started in the 1990s, but the need to make changes to the highway, for environmental reasons, took priority. The conversation started up again in 2013, and by May 2015 the city of Colorado Springs enterprise had hired RTA Architects to create designs.

Four design options were presented to the public in late 2015, and alterations were made to the final design based on meetings and more than 1,000 comments. Coppedge says he wanted to focus on the views, not the architecture. Beyond that, the design had to address practical needs. As anyone who has ridden the Cog while slurping water to avoid altitude sickness will be glad to know, that started with the big 'T' — toilets.

Currently, Glavan says, the Summit House has 11 toilets in the ladies' room and four (plus five to six urinals) in the men's room. The new Summit House will have 28 toilets for ladies, five toilets and 15 urinals for men. The bathrooms will be immediately accessible and blatantly obvious when entering the building — meaning fewer panicked tourists and more time to enjoy the summit. Cog passengers have only 45 minutes on the summit and people in cars often won't spend much more time than that because altitude sickness can be a problem, Glavan says. Thus, the upgrade allows for a more enjoyable visit.

During the public process, Glavan says, "The two words that were probably most common were doughnuts and toilets."

The doughnuts will remain, plus upgraded food offerings that include a trail-mix bar. Visitors will enjoy spectacular views from the dining room or a patio on sunny days. Interactive exhibits will lead visitors through Pikes Peak's history and geology, and help disperse visitors throughout the complex, easing crowding. The elevated trails, besides being safe and accessible, will reduce the environmental impact.

But designing all that wasn't easy. Beyond the LEED standard, architects are seeking a Living Building Challenge (LBC) certification through the International Living Building Institute, "the world's most rigorous and progressive environmentally green performance standard." Unlike LEED, which acts like a checklist, LBC looks at how the building performs after a year on issues including water and energy use.

"It's almost like building an organism," says Brian Calhoun, RTA principal and Summit Complex project manager, "rather than doing a lot of prescriptive things."

Figuring out how to do this at 14,115 feet, however, has been a challenge. For starters, water must be trucked up and sewage trucked down daily. Thus, Calhoun explains, it was imperative that toilets use far less water. Plans include a vacuum system for toilets, so the complex would use 90 percent less water than normal.

It's too costly for most projects. "But if you have to truck your water up to the top of a mountain," Calhoun says, "all of a sudden the economics of water are a lot different."

Energy, too, was considered. The building will have a highly insulated concrete shell, with radiant heating in the floor. Solar arrays on the roof and near the summit will provide 105 percent of energy needs on sunny days. The building also has zones that will be warmer or cooler based on the activity taking place there, and in the kitchen, heated air will be reused instead of being replaced by cool outdoor air, which is energy-intensive.

Even the windows — engineered to survive 195 mph winds and strategically placed to avoid the most powerful gusts — will use electrochromic glass, which darkens when hit by the sun's rays. That will help control inside temperatures, eliminating the need for air conditioning.

Designers also had to factor in the difficulty of building atop a mountain.

Jim Hopper, GE Johnson Construction Co.'s project manager, says the company has built at 10,000 to 12,000 feet for ski resorts, so high-altitude building wasn't a completely foreign concept. But Pikes Peak does offer unique challenges.

GE Johnson researched altitude effects on workers and consulted with experts. Workers, for the most part, will be limited to 6-7 hours on the summit and must go through a pre-training process. A trailer, equipped with first-aid kits and oxygen, will be available for workers to get out of the elements.

Then there's the biggest problem, Hopper says: "a short build season."

GE Johnson plans to prefabricate as much of the building as possible in the Springs, truck it up and assemble it. If work starts in June 2017, as planned, a shell could be finished by late 2018. The interior could then be worked on and finished through late fall 2019, if the road stays open long enough. Demolition on current buildings would happen in 2020.

Glavan notes that all of this is dependent on funding. Pikes Peak's reserve fund will chip in $6 million to $7 million, Pikes Peak plans to take out around $15 million in bonds, and the city's Lodgers and Automobile Rental Tax will give $1 million. But the rest will need to come from private donations. Pikes Peak has hired The Benefactor Group, a fundraising outfit based in Dayton, Ohio, with hopes of raising an additional $25 million to $27 million. The group is currently conducting a feasibility study.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Jim Hopper.

  • Mountain of challenges

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