Feature Article - April 2011
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Ascending on a Budget

Making Money-Smart Decisions With Climbing Walls

By Daniel P. Smith

Lessons From the Frontlines

California State University Long Beach opened its expansive new recreational complex last August. Amid 106,000 square feet of interior space sits a 40-foot climbing wall with 15 different tracks.

As university leadership, prompted largely by student input, decided upon a natural-looking wall with rock resembling the school's southern California roots, a firm budget was placed in the contractor's agreement, the first move in keeping a tight hold on costs. Along the way, CSU Long Beach's senior construction manager Mark Zakhour gathered a pair of important lessons about maximizing a climbing wall's bang-for-the-buck potential.

First, Zakhour said he learned to pay attention to the ways in which a climbing wall interfaces with the existing structure. By attaching the wall to the existing building over creating a freestanding structure, costs fall for artwork, materials and labor.

Second, Zakhour cautions facilities not to overbuild. Looking at the current programming level as well as forecasts, leadership can get a better hold on the precise size they need.

"It's easy with any project, but specifically a climbing wall, to go bigger and grand, but it can easily get out of hand," he said. "Have a clear vision for what you want and need, and work within those parameters."

Like Zakhour, Colorado State University's Ley gathered important lessons as his facility built its new climbing wall. High among Ley's cost-savvy learning curve: The simpler a design, the less expensive it will be.

"You have to strike a balance between picturesque and plain," he said. "Resist the temptation to go over the top by assessing what's necessary and what's excessive."

Ley and his team also worked with climbing hold manufacturers to get bulk deals for purchasing their holds. Needing hundreds of holds, negotiating a bulk deal will create tremendous savings. Ley said you can then use that purchasing leverage to have the company's professional route-setters train student staff on best practices in route-setting.

With the wall built and operating, Ley turned to public-private partnerships. Though admittedly touchy, particularly in the public facilities sector, he swapped promotional space for licensing opportunities with a climbing shoe company. In addition, Ley believes many facilities can run their walls with a mix of paid staff and trained volunteers.