Earth Treks Climbs New Heights in Old Sports Authority HQ

earth treks
Exterior elevation with new skin installed


In today’s environment, it is rare and exciting to design a structure that not only incorporates some of today’s most modern architectural elements, but also challenges the team to include features that build community – both inside and outside of the building. In the wake of the closing of Sports Authority’s Englewood headquarters, Earth Treks Climbing and Fitness is taking over the space in hopes of reinvigorating the area and adding to the already-bustling neighborhood. This summer they will open a 53,000-square-foot indoor climbing gym which, upon completion, will be the largest operating climbing facility in the U.S.

james bernlohr

James R. Bernlohr
Principal, J.R. Bernlohr Architects

The gym will feature world-class climbing and bouldering, along with amenities such as a yoga studio, fitness and cardio zones, climbing classes, a fully stocked retail gear shop, high-end locker rooms and on-site child care. This will be the second Earth Treks facility in Colorado, with another located in Golden – a 29,000-sf property built in 2014, which sees more than 1,000 climbers a day on average. This new Englewood facility is expected to similarly thrive in this location, with nearby light rail and bike trail access and the Denver Tech Center and University of Denver in close proximity.

Our firm has designed multiple Earth Treks facilities, including their Crystal City location near Arlington and their Maryland locations in Columbia and Hampden (also opening this year). While Earth Treks tries to keep a relatively consistent design across their gyms, they also appreciate the unique aspects that each gym offers.

earth treks entry

Entranceway into the gym

The renovation of the Englewood facility has involved multiple elements unique to this location. The building – originally industrial warehouse space – was converted into office space prior to Sports Authority’s occupancy. Conceptually, the biggest challenge was incorporating high-roped climbing in a structure that originally only featured a 20-foot-high roof. We considered using a roof-lifting contractor, but ultimately decided that the most effective method in these areas would be to demolish the existing roof and construct a new 50’ high roof with a large-span steel structure.

I have extensive expertise in designing fitness facilities – developing over 400 fitness projects in our 18-year history – but indoor climbing offers unique challenges that general fitness facilities don’t involve. While the fitness industry is largely results-based, climbing is more community-based – it’s a way of life and members have a “tribe” mentality. With a typical gym, we try to design a place that can provide great experiences; in climbing, we try to design uplifting communal spaces. There is something very special that happens in an Earth Treks facility that you rarely see in your neighborhood health club.

earth treks ceilings

The existing roof was removed and new structure installed to accommodate 50-foot ceilings.

We worked closely with Chris Warner, Founder of Earth Treks, to ensure that this new facility would incorporate elements that would foster a sense of community. The central space of the Englewood facility is not the front desk nor the actual climbing areas, but an observation area that will serve as the hub for patrons when they are not climbing. This area, which sits between the high-roped climbing area and the bouldering zone, will also double as a stage or a space to for gatherings. In addition, we’re incorporating other communal spaces which people can use as lounge space or work areas. Overall, the intent of facility is to fuel the communal energy that exists in the climbing industry.

Climbing is now where fitness was 45 years ago – in its infancy – so it’s a fascinating time to be involved in its design. After designing more square footage of fitness space than perhaps any other architect, it’s challenging and exciting to be a part of this rapidly growing industry. The design concepts with climbing gyms are two-part – the general architecture itself and the climbing walls. Finding a way to marry the two can be a puzzling yet inspiring process. We work closely with the Earth Treks team to understand the parameters in terms of bouldering space versus high-roped terrain, and then study how to design alternate routes of varying complexity. Panels for the climbing walls are designed and constructed by Bulgaria-based company, Walltopia, and we work to sculpt spaces to complement their design intent.

My 20-year career has involved trying to shape fitness spaces into something interesting, but working with climbing gyms has provided an entirely unique opportunity – climbing walls themselves certainly can be more interesting and more dynamic elements than anything modern architects usually design. They parallel the most modern architectural features that are being sculpted in civic centers and museums today. After doing hundreds of fitness facilities and millions of square feet, it’s fascinating to work alongside such cutting-edge design and manufacturing techniques.

The ultimate intent of the Englewood facility is to create a space to bring communities together. Earth Treks excels at this – both through their operating procedures and through their design elements – and we’re excited to continue our relationship with them.

Published in the June 2018 issue of Building Dialogue.

Edited by Building Dialogue