KU architecture class partners with Lawrence elementary school to construct shade structure

student stands on scaffolding working on steel structure with brightly colored roofing


LAWRENCE — A University of Kansas architecture class is bringing a slice of shade to a playground at Lawrence’s Hillcrest Elementary School that’s billed as the first fully accessible playground in Kansas.

Third-year students in Keith Van de Riet’s design-build studio course designed and fabricated an 800-square-foot pavilion and companion rain garden with native plantings to provide shade and ecological benefits for the Ryan Gray Playground for All and are spending the last few weeks of the semester on site for construction and installation. Van de Riet, associate professor of architecture, said this is one of the largest projects ever undertaken by one of his classes.

“These projects are so rich with real-world content for the students,” he said. “I can’t imagine a better experience for them to get the holistic picture of what it takes to build even a relatively simple structure. We have only four months to complete the project, which includes obtaining a construction permit from the city of Lawrence. The weather can sure throw a wrench into our plans, as it did this year with the snow and heavy rains around Thanksgiving week.

“I’m completely impressed with my students’ resilience in the challenges we’ve faced, from re-digging our footings after heavy rainfall to snow and mud removal across the site,” Van de Riet said. “Hillcrest is certainly exposed to the elements — the windy, cold weather has only added to the challenge. Not to mention the tornado sirens located adjacent to the playground – we’ve had to literally cover our ears in pain because of the proximity to it. The students have persevered through it all this semester.”

The students on the project are third-year architecture majors who bring prior experience with drawings, conceptual development, computational design and model making, according to Van de Riet. He said the goal is to advance the student’s education in these areas with the project serving as a case study.

“These projects bring about a collaborative vibe that is always great to see, but the Hillcrest Elementary children on the playground have made the project so memorable – they make signs, chant and cheer for us and even bring treats for the KU students. I’m watching the KU students become role models in front of the children – it’s about all you could ask for as an instructor.”

Van De Riet said he expects the project to be complete by the end of the finals week in December.

Initially opened in 1993, the playground honors Ryan Gray, a former Hillcrest student with disabilities who served as a good luck charm of sorts for the 1988 KU men’s basketball national championship team. He died in 1990. In 2016, the playground underwent a $375,000 renovation and at the time was considered the first fully accessible playground in Kansas.

A ribbon-cutting for the new structure is planned for 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Dec. 15, which is also Gray’s birthday.

In addition to the in-kind and donated materials from KU, the Hillcrest Elementary PTO and Lawrence Community Foundation raised around $40,000 in private funds to support the project.

Image: KU Designbuild student works on the Ryan Gray Playground Shade Pavilion at Hillcrest Elementary.