MAD Architects’ One River North cracks open to provide a terraced landscape

A Canyon Runs Through It

MAD Architects’ One River North cracks open to provide a terraced landscape

As construction progress continues, the stepped street-front canyon is slowly becoming visible. (Courtesy One River North)

A copse of 13 tower cranes signals the massive building boom underway in Denver’s River North neighborhood (RiNo), but only one of these projects has a crevasse running across its facade. The fissure is purposeful, intended to hold a landscaped canyon emerging from the reflective glass facade of One River North. The design aims to connect people and nature, but the ultimate proof will arrive when this 16-story, concrete-frame tower is completed in late 2023. As of mid-August, construction crews are placing concrete for level 10, and the project is expected to top out by the end of the year.

Designed by Beijing-based MAD Architects and Denver’s Davis Partnership, when complete, One River North will offer 187 for-lease apartments and 13,352 square feet of open-air environments. It will likely quickly become a Denver architectural icon.

The project’s developer is The Max Collaborative, an Ohio-based company established by the Ratner family in 2019. The firm has a history of building in Denver as Forest City Realty Trust, which was responsible for Central Park, a 4,700-acre redevelopment of the former Stapleton Airport. The company was acquired by Brookfield in 2018 at an estimated cost of $11.4 billion.

“I’ve always been a big believer in architecture and a big believer in design,” Kevin Ratner, the firm’s chief development officer, told AN. “Over the long term or even in the short term, it really helps and differentiates a property,” he added.

Ratner said his firm has been “big believers in the Denver market for a long time” and added that the firm looked to build in RiNo because it’s “a neighborhood that’s really dynamic, very creative.”

rendering of a glazed building with a "green" canyon
A rendering of the completed building, to be finished by late 2023. (Courtesy MAD Architects)

When initial concept renderings were made public, locals scoffed at the canyon’s lush-looking vegetation, doubting its ability to withstand the area’s cold, windy winters and the yearly average 300 days of sunshine that often lead to blazing-hot summer days. Davis, a multidisciplinary design firm with deep Denver roots, adapted the landscape design concepts to the area climate.

“We shared how diverse our geology is, from high alpine lakes and tree line to the eastern plains,” Jeff Stoecklein, senior landscape architect at Davis, said. “All of these plants need to be adaptable to the microclimates the building is creating,” he added. The canyon will be populated with a variety of plant species to mitigate the risk of die-off of any one species and watered via an irrigation system. The canyon includes a trail-like walkway across four floors and a waterfall between the eighth and sixth floors. As the plants mature, “we will witness seasonal change,” Stoecklein said, which will create a dynamic and variable view of the building throughout the year.

One River North is the first project collaboration between MAD and Davis. Dixon Lu, associate partner at MAD, commented that it’s been a “great experience so far.” He said being “very transparent is very important” owing to the challenges of delivering the design and meeting the project budget.

“If you can’t build it or you run into problems or people feel like there’s a lot of risk in the construction, the price is going to go up, so we needed to try to be very thoughtful about how we presented this building to people so they could understand what it was they were going to do,” Ratner said. (The Max Collaborative declined to provide project costs.)

rendering of landscape detail at residential high-rise
With expertise from Davis, the canyon’s plantings, shown here in a rendering, were adjusted to thrive in Denver. (Courtesy MAD Architects)

The Max Collaborative brought Colorado-based Saunders Construction on board shortly after selecting the design team, a move that was crucial to meeting budget and intent. “At the end of the day, we gotta rent the thing, and we’re a for-profit company, so it’s got to be able to make money,” Ratner said.

“[Saunders] really helped us work through how to demystify the building and how to look for the parts of the building that were really special and unique,” says Ratner, adding that “they were, very early on in the project, heavily involved in a lot of decisions.”

“Our preconstruction effort was about two years,” Dan Tuttle, senior project manager for Saunders, said.

“It’s not a typical apartment complex for Colorado,” added Sean Jackson, Saunders’s senior superintendent. He says early builder involvement was important not only to track budgets and stay in line with the vision but also to “talk about logistics and how we’re actually going to build this thing on such a tight site.”

The design forbids a typical rectilinear stacking of units. The 37 different floor plans added to the challenges with mechanical and structural systems. Tuttle said Saunders brought glazing, mechanical, and curtain wall trade partners on in a design-assist role early “to coordinate the most difficult parts of the project, which would be the canyon and the trail.”

The canyon’s walls are created out of a prefabricated panelized framework system of #3 rebar with mesh applied, which supports the plaster creating the canyon’s texture. Jon Kontuly, MAD’s senior project manager, said KHS&S Contractors used the designers’ model to prefabricate the panels into what the team collectively called a “chip” system.

“It really kind of looks like a ridged potato chip,” said Kontuly. “They’re able to use the Rhino model to engineer how thick the bars need to be, how often they need to be spaced, and also generate the bending data.”

“You can start making real complex shapes with the same fabrication assembly steps,” Shane Hastain, preconstruction manager for KHS&S, said. It becomes “like a rule system,” allowing the chips to be welded together into what KHS&S calls a “quilt” and then installed from the bottom up. He said the “super early” coordination with Saunders provided the design team with certainty that the system could meet the budget.

Tuttle agreed, saying, when it comes to coordinating construction of a building like this, “you need as much help as you can get.”

Nancy Kristof is a Denver-based freelance writer who tells stories about the built environment.

Jon Kontuly, senior architect at MAD Architects, will present One River North at AN’s Facades+ event in Denver on September 21.