Great Heights

Nebraska-Lincoln Outdoor Adventures Center

PHOTOS © TOM KESSLER, KESSLER PHOTOGRAPHY, COURTESY OF RDG PLANNING & DESIGN

The surge in environmental awareness at colleges and universities nationwide corresponds with increased interest in outdoor adventures programs. On the whole, though, outdoor programs exist in found space on most campuses, and not much of it — 3,000 square feet tucked into the lower level of the recreation center, perhaps, with lack of visibility and storage being ongoing issues. A few institutions have gotten creative — the University of Maine, for example, installed the Maine Bound Adventure Center inside a renovated barn located behind the Memorial Union — but these are generally facilities that don’t keep students in the building after the forms are signed and the equipment is issued.

How the University of Nebraska-Lincoln became the home of an apparent national first — the Outdoor Adventures Center (OAC), a standalone facility dedicated to the school’s outdoor program that includes activity space as part of its 13,532 square feet — was partly due to the school’s longstanding devotion to outdoor activities, and partly a consequence of a three-part student-fee referendum that made the program the odd man out in a renovation of the school’s 1989 recreation center. But its existence, and the measurable impact it made on Nebraska in just its first year, suggests that dedicated outdoor adventures centers could be in a few schools’ futures in the years ahead.

Standing Tall

One particular feature makes the OAC stand out on the Nebraska campus in a big way — a climbing wall on the building’s exterior that rises to a height of 41 feet. A permanent belay bar on the roofline can accommodate three belay lines that for a fee can be used during special events such as home football weekends. Designed to resemble the upper third of the Chimney Rock National Historic Site (a western Nebraska landmark that greeted pioneers on their way west along the Oregon Trail), the exterior wall is controlled by the removal of handholds and footholds between 10 and 20 feet off the ground, keeping the lower portion available for bouldering at all times. The wall is a destination spot, a “happening,” but it also telegraphs the building’s purpose, drawing attention to the rest of the outdoors program.

Nebraska-Lincoln Outdoor Adventures Center

PHOTOS © TOM KESSLER, KESSLER PHOTOGRAPHY, COURTESY OF RDG PLANNING & DESIGN

And there’s more inside. The climbing and bouldering center features a bouldering wall and four climbing walls ranging from 38 to 43 feet in vertical climbing height interspersed with floor-to-ceiling windows, which brings a canyon feel to the space that is nonetheless light and airy. The climbing center comprises 3,200 square feet of floor space, and the walls have been fabricated primarily for skill development and training for competitions. The recreation department insisted on the inclusion of four cracks to enable the teaching of crack climbing in a controlled setting.

The OAC also houses the campus bike shop (reached from the outside through double sliding glass doors on the west entrance) and a dividable classroom that doubles as a conference room/meeting space for the staff, which enjoys direct egress to an exterior patio area to the south of the facility where tent set-up, camp stove training or other outdoor adventures learning experiences can take place. A storage/workroom includes a food service area where, to cite one example, 1,050 meals were prepared for students taking backpacking, canyoneering, surfing and canoeing trips over spring break in 2015. The classroom, as well as day-use lockers and three locker rooms, can be accessed without the entire building being open for operation. In fact, all primary indoor spaces can be operated independently.

The building’s layout — professional staff offices are located centrally, with storefront glass walls making it possible for the staff to observe all daily operations — allows for easy access to each activity area independently and the free movement between all areas. Additional storage space can be found in the volume behind the climbing walls. Outside, to the east, a fenced exterior courtyard and canopy accommodates canoes, kayaks and trip trailers. The fence is secured with a gate and staff have secure access into the OAC storage/workroom of the facility via an overhead garage door.

These details lend the building something close to the experience of a full-fledged recreation center, if at a smaller scale. With its profile designed to resemble the peaks and undulations of a mountain, and lit to glow from within like a beacon, the climbing center portion is a showcase for activity and a potent symbol of the institution’s commitment to the outdoor program. And it’s more than just a space to rent and pick up gear — it’s a facility where learning takes place in addition to recreation.

Climbing wall at Outdoor Adventures Center

PHOTOS © TOM KESSLER, KESSLER PHOTOGRAPHY, COURTESY OF RDG PLANNING & DESIGN

LEARNING BEYOND THE WALLS. For the University of Nebraska – Lincoln, building the Outdoor Adventures Center (OAC) was part of an overall student referendum to add, improve and enhance the current recreation facilities on campus. The OAC is the headquarters for adventure trips, academic and noncredit classes and activities, challenge course programming, outdoor gear rentals and the campus bike shop. There is an exterior patio area to the south that allows those teaching a class to move straight into the outdoors for various outdoor adventures’ learning experiences. The completion of the OAC has allowed the university’s Outdoor Adventures program to grow exponentially since the facility opened in May 2014.

Climbing Higher

The OAC has been so successful and promoted so much activity and excitement on campus that it’s almost difficult to remember how close it came to not being built at all. The university has been a proponent of outdoor programs for more than 50 years — Nebraska’s program was founded in 1972, and the school actually built a rudimentary outdoor climbing wall on the back of a tennis court backstop in 1976 — but the circumstances had to arrange themselves in a way that made such a building feasible, and necessary.

Nebraska’s outdoor adventures program moved into the brand-new Campus Recreation Center in 1989, but space for certain elements associated with the program were limited and difficult to expand as demand increased — for example, the climbing wall, which was built alongside a gymnasium court. Fitness space was also proving difficult to expand, and there was a certain rationale to removing the outdoor adventures program from the equation so that cardiovascular and strength areas could take over its space.

As plans developed for a new East Campus recreation and wellness center to be created through the renovation and expansion of the existing 1926 Activities Building, the prevailing current was toward relocating the outdoor adventures program there. This sent a chill through administrators of the outdoor adventures program, who feared being banished from the 18,000-student City Campus in favor of the 3,000-student East Campus. An ad hoc wellness committee was formed to discuss ways of keeping the program on the main campus, and many different options were discussed, including a partnership with the city of Lincoln to combine outdoor recreation efforts.

Eventually, in 2010, students passed a three-part “Yes 2 Better Rec Centers” referendum, appropriating student fees to build the $14.89 million Recreation and Wellness Center on East Campus and the $5.28 million Outdoor Adventures Center on the City Campus, and renovate and expand cardiovascular and strength areas within the Campus Rec Center.

The OAC is an embodiment of a coming change in recreation as Millennials and teens embrace adventure sports and environmental causes. The logic that once placed climbing walls at the front or center of new recreation centers — as much as an architectural element as an activity space — appears to be giving way to something more holistic, with indoor climbing walls tied to the outdoor activities that originally gave birth to them. And there are, perhaps, other activities that fit better under this umbrella. For example, the rise of bicycle culture on campuses and in cities practically cries out for an expansion of the infrastructure devoted to bicycles — maintaining them, parking them, storing them indoors — and to the campus fabric that accommodates them. The OAC is a step in this direction, with a generous space devoted to bike maintenance, 22 bicycle lockers available for rent (to members of the university community using the OAC and other nearby buildings), and a location along one link in the Lincoln community’s extensive trail system.

Bike repairs

PHOTOS © TOM KESSLER, KESSLER PHOTOGRAPHY, COURTESY OF RDG PLANNING & DESIGN

A major focus of the building is to promote bike commuting to campus, as befits the broader efforts of both the university and the OAC’s designers. The university has been recognized as “Bicycle Friendly University: Silver” by the League of American Bicyclists, and the OAC helps move the university’s “BikeUNL” initiative forward. More than altruism is at work. If students can be moved away from bringing cars on campus, the university achieves potential savings in the infrastructure devoted to automobiles.

RDG Planning & Design, meanwhile, has worked with the Des Moines Bike Collective back at home (“Changing Greater Des Moines two wheels at a time”) to promote downtown bicycle lanes and regional trails, as well as with the Green Streets Initiative, a Cambridge, MA-based organization dedicated to helping individuals and businesses change their mindset about transportation in their communities.

Additional facilities like the OAC will pop up as more people join these efforts, but also, just because the OAC exists. The college recreation center building boom happened because students demanded them and because the new centers became important recruiting tools. For now, UNL enjoys a huge edge among adventurous, active and environmentally conscious prospective students, but it’s unlikely to last long.

This article originally appeared in the November 2016 issue of College Planning & Management.

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