CU Denver College of Architecture and Planning
Meet Chris Achenbach, the next superstar in our Alumni Advice series. Based in Denver, Chris is an architect and developer who is passionate about creating sustainable, thriving communities.
Chris is the founder of Urban Roots Development, a company focused on crafting sustainable, mixed-use, outside-the-box development projects. Before Urban Roots, Chris co-founded Zocalo Community Development, where he served as principal for 12 years, overseeing the design, development, and construction of signature mixed-use and residential projects throughout the city.
Chris is a licensed architect and Class A general contractor. His companies and projects have received numerous accolades, including the Grand Tribute Award from the Apartment Association of Metro Denver and the Denver Business Journal’s Residential Developer of the Year award.
Chris is very active with the Colorado Urban Land Institute (ULI) and has held several leadership roles with the organization, including serving as Chair and Vice Chair. He also cofounded the ULI Sustainable Communities Committee. In addition, Chris has contributed his time and expertise to Habitat for Humanity and the Denver Mayor’s Development Advisory Committee.
Chris grew up in the Green Mountains of Vermont, where he received a Psychology degree from the University of Vermont. In 1998, he earned his Master of Architecture degree from CAP.
Life within the four walls of architecture school may seem to offer all that a student needs to learn the profession. However, practicing architecture is social, engaged, and at times political, and it’s hard to develop all the necessary skills inside the studio. Take every opportunity to get out into the community and meet people related to the profession. Join the AIA and the Urban Land Institute. Participate in design-build opportunities. Attend a rezoning hearing at City Council. Buy the first piece of junk house you can afford and tear it up. Develop an area of interest and become an expert (sustainability, modular construction, mass timber). Leverage the platform that your school provides to launch a career.
During his studies, Chris won first place in a research competition for his project titled “An Affordable Alternative Materials House,” which featured a residence made of strawbales. Strawbale construction—which consists of tightly packed bales of straw covered in stucco or plaster—is a centuries-old building technology that offers a durable, renewable, and highly insulated wall system with unique design qualities. Chris’s first job out of school was, in fact, working for a Colorado company that specialized exclusively in strawbale design and construction. How cool is that?
We asked Chris to share some insights about his education and career. Here’s what he had to say:
1) What advice would you like to offer CAP students?
Learn to work fast. I spent many late nights in studio, fretting over tiny design decisions. Snapping a piece of bass wood off a model, and then gluing it back on. This is not the way the profession works. Like writing, design is an iterative process and is never perfect. It depends on a quick flow of inspirational ideas—not painful, tedious late nights. On your next design project, give yourself a time budget. Work fast, then go home and get some sleep. Mix it up, find generators of new ideas. Dig back in on the design when an actual real spark of inspiration strikes. In the end, distill your best ideas, then clean it all up for a good presentation.
2) How did CAP help you get where you are today?
An architectural education must deliver the basic tools of the of the profession (history, design theory, computer skills)—but the real value is learning a non-linear way of thinking and the ability to stitch together great design with pragmatic realities. Like art, architecture can be abstract, visionary, and inspirational, and yet for architecture more so than art, gravity still applies (as does budget, building code, and programmatic requirements). An architect must travel between these worlds and weave them together into a successful design. Pragmatic realities are not obstacles; they are design opportunities. Be clever in how you handle them.
My career path led toward real estate development and urban mixed-use housing. On the surface, development seems to be a numbers-driven game, and indeed it is, but the success of a project is not just dialing in a tight proforma, but also crafting an inspirational vision that is shared by other people. As with architecture, that’s the special sauce, and it’s very rare. Wherever your career leads, knowing how to translate abstract thinking into physical reality is one of the greatest gifts your architectural education can offer