Building (and Not Building) a Climbing Gym: 3 Insights From Ryan Studio


When you’re doing dangerous things, like a climb outdoors that entails obvious risks, there are real consequences if you’re not prepared for the challenge and handling difficulties as they arise. This lesson can be directly applied by anyone developing a climbing gym, a process which can also carry significant risk in addition to opportunity.

Creating a remarkable climbing gym building is much more than just making drawings that look great. If you sign a bad lease and have a personal guarantee on the line, or if you hire an untrustworthy contractor or can’t obtain funding, the doors to your new gym may never open. But when you can use analytics and experience to mitigate as much of the risk as possible before your feet leave the ground, you will be able to respond to challenges with confidence as they arise.

These are all lessons that I’ve learned in my life, both as a climber and in the process of building climbing gym projects over the years. In my climbing career, I had a climbing accident that put me in a situation where I had to adapt and lead while seriously injured, and being able to handle that type of situation is all part of climbing. After that accident, I applied to graduate school with a cast on my broken arm; as usual, life always makes more sense looking backwards.

In my project development work, most projects generally move along as expected, with twists and turns here and there, but I have experienced incidents when major issues needed to be addressed swiftly, strategically, and with the right supporting team. I find it’s helpful to adopt the same mindset I use whenever I’m assessing a critical situation outdoors.

In both cases, when everything is going smoothly, things can feel easy. A minimal degree of understanding and skill can often get you through these times. When things go sideways, however, and the stakes are high, that’s when we need to be prepared and capable of responding with clear, analytical thinking, so that we can get through whichever situation presents itself.

BKB Lincoln Park in Chicago
The opportunity of opening a new climbing facility is not without its risks, and managing them deftly from the start is critical to being able to open your doors with confidence. (Image of Brooklyn Boulders Lincoln Park, by Arco)

How I Can Help

If you’re someone who’s considering building a climbing gym, or growing your existing business, my specialty is helping project owners transform their initial ideas into successfully completed building projects.

My name is Chris Ryan, and I’m a development and project advisor. Over the last two decades, I have been the designer for a climbing wall provider, placed top 10 in bouldering nationals, was the VP of Development for a climbing gym franchise, and received a fancy master’s degree from Harvard―which I saw as a way into the teaching work that I’ve been doing over the past decade. Along the way, I’ve become a licensed architect and contractor, but the more I practice, the less any of that is what I talk about. I only mention it here because that’s the foundation of the work I do today which, quite simply, is to help people turn their initial ideas into incredible buildings by guiding them through every step of the way.

Climbing is a central part of my life, and continues to be a way for me to learn and grow, like it is for a lot of people. When I was 15, my first climbing gym membership was in Rhode Island, at a co-op with pea gravel on the floor and 20-foot-tall DIY walls. To be able to work with owners to dream up facilities that are not only remarkable and cutting edge, but also meaningful and inspiring spaces that anyone can be in awe of and get to enjoy, is something that I’m truly grateful for.

The goal is to design architecture that is based on climbing, and not just another climbing gym to fill a need in the market. The good news is that we don’t need to blow a huge budget to get there, if we’re smart about how we set up the space and strategic about how we run the project development process.

BKB West Loop in Chicago
“The goal is to design architecture that is based on climbing, and not just another climbing gym to fill a need in the market.” (Image of Brooklyn Boulders West Loop, by Arrowstreet)

How Do We Do This?

1. The early decisions are the most important ones.

How you handle the early-stage, high-value decisions will set your climbing gym project up for success or failure. This happens way before most architects, contractors and wall builders are involved, but it’s crucial to find the right space, sign the right lease, and calibrate your business model early on to get the most out of your project. This is why I focus on working with owners who are making these important decisions in the early going.

From there, we work to put together the “draft” or “script” for your project. This will be the core of your project that everything else will refer back to in the months that follow. The “script” will typically include visualizations and schematic drawings that can be used for a variety of purposes, from validating your business model and helping with fundraising to eventually being used by local teams of architects, engineers, contractors, etc., as the central reference material while executing the build.

Ryan Studio concept art
The early-stage, high-value decisions are important ones for any climbing gym project, including developing a strong script to refer back to. (Image by Ryan Studio)

2. The building layout and climbing wall layout go hand in hand.

When we talk about the facility itself, I believe that to create spaces that are truly world-class, you have to look at the architecture of a project and the initial climbing wall layout at the same time, from the very beginning. That’s the only way that you will truly maximize the impact that each of these two core pieces will have on your climbing gym project.

When you view them as components that mix together and compliment each other, rather than just live next to each other under one roof, the building layout and the climbing wall layout can interact and support one another in a more productive and deeper way. That’s the big opportunity that makes these spaces unique, which is to make your first key moves in a way that supports your larger vision for the space and your goals as a business, not just cramming the required building and climbing components in next to one another.

BKB Queensbridge in NYC
“To create spaces that are truly world-class, you have to look at the architecture of a project and the initial climbing wall layout at the same time, from the very beginning.” (Image of Brooklyn Boulders Queensbridge, by Arrowstreet)

3. Your “script” will help you navigate the twists and turns with confidence.

Once you’ve pulled the “script” together, and once everything is lined up in terms of your finances and so on, you’ll move into documentation and execution. This involves local teams of architects, engineers, contractors and other professionals. Along the way, you may stumble across any number of pitfalls that might derail your project, many of which I’ve referenced already, but as a project develops the challenge is to keep things going as planned and moving forward as quickly as possible.

If you make major changes to the plane mid-flight, you might end up crashing the aircraft. At the very least, making changes at the wrong time―or not knowing what to do at the right time―can add unnecessary hours to your schedule and blow through your budget, or lead to mistakes that can keep you from opening your doors or hinder your operations.

This is why the early stages are so critical, because as we move forward, the goals we’ve established and the script that we’ve developed are the filters we use to keep us on track.

Not to worry, this is all part of developing a building: guiding a project from the initial idea through the high-value, early-phases of a project, and coming up with a design that reflects your most ambitious goals as an owner, so that you can move forward confidently with the documentation and execution of your project.

Boston Bouldering Project
To turn ideas into meaningful projects which positively impact people’s lives, it can help to have the support of the right team. (Image of Boston Bouldering Project)

Moving Forward

All of my experiences have developed into a skillset that combines my love for climbing and architecture, and leverages my development experience to advise and assist owners as they turn their ideas into meaningful projects.

I work as a development and project advisor―independent from any companies―so that I can be squarely on your side of the table, as an advisor you can trust, and help you move forward confidently.

After developing commercial climbing gyms for almost a decade, and now working with a variety of owners across the country, I’ve witnessed the impact that this work can have on helping people achieve their goals, which is why I continue to offer this assistance.

There is so much room for the industry to evolve, and there are so many people out there who will have their lives positively impacted by climbing―just like my life has been positively impacted by it, and probably yours as well.

I look forward to continuing this work with you. I would love to hear about your goals, and I’m happy to provide some feedback in return.

Thank you for your time,

Chris Ryan



This story was paid for by the sponsor and does not necessarily represent the views of the Climbing Business Journal editorial team.