From Lexington: Wall Design Part 1


This is the fifth installment in our From Lexington series that chronicles the journey of starting a climbing gym.

by Chris Shotwell

In the last episode of From Lexington, we received conditional approval to operate our facility on the land we selected and completed its purchase. As soon as we received approval we settled in with our design team to develop a facility with which we could attract customers and pursue our goals.

In order to finalize costs for the basic design of the building, we needed to get the general locations of the climbing walls laid out. Using the sketch we submitted to the city Board of Adjustments we sent off preliminary building plans to multiple wall builders for responses on suggested wall size and fundamental design elements. Upon receipt of these initial responses we then submitted the engineering information they provided to our architectural team so they could run the numbers.

Wall Design

We went into our wall design with an open mind. Many wall builders use good materials and assemble them well. We wanted to be sure that we were getting the best product for our money: something that would be durable, modular enough to replace a wall that didn’t work out as planned, and well designed in the first place. Nicole and I traveled to several gyms to gain a better feel for the unique products offered by various climbing wall manufacturers. We spent time at both the new Momentum Millcreek and the Momentum Sandy locations.

While we were traveling, our architectural team developed structural cost estimates for the different systems. After a successful architectural review, we made the call on the spot and signed a contract with Walltopia.

We soon discovered that the project was looking to be well over budget. In order to get this project back into the realm of feasibility we would have to make some compromises. We suggested a number of alterations to the proposed facility, substituted materials, and finally decided that we would have to reduce the size of our building. Our architect did a fantastic job of rearranging the space to maximize the amount that was usable while maintaining an open concept with excellent traffic flow. As soon as the drawings were ready, we confirmed with Walltopia that there remained a sufficient span of wall to generate extensive climbing surface.


The wall designers at Walltopia were able to take our detailed notes, crag pictures, climbing gym pictures, random Sketchup sketches, and (frequent) emails to quickly lay down the basic framework of the gym. Our primary goal with our wall design was to supply future route setters with a clean canvas that would challenge and inspire them. We wanted the end result to allow for outstanding setting, and we understood that wall shape and hold selection play large roles in achieving that.

Nicole was adamant that our sport climbing features be modeled exclusively after outdoor climbs. We sent in dozens of pictures of Buoux, the Red River Gorge, Ceuse, Lander and Red Rocks. With the boulders, competition climbing was a major consideration so we included select faces from World Cup setups and other gyms. We also thought about the outdoor bouldering people enjoy across the country and added attributes of granite, sandstone and limestone climbing.

We pushed for creative use of materials and also probably drove our designers a little crazy. We had very specific criteria as well as a desire to get a multitude of features in to provide a huge variety of climbing terrain.

After we had the basics of the layout in place, the first major decision we made was to cut some of our wall space back. We initially had walls blocking some of the flow of traffic in the roped climbing space. We eliminated these, which reduced the overall size of our climbing wall. Additionally, we cut down the wall height in our kids’ area; we hoped that this would alleviate the intimidation young kids feel about beginning to climb. To their credit, the wall designers suggested that we would have a better overall design if we removed certain elements.


As we started to become satisfied with the major features in our layout, we submitted our design for flooring bids. Timy Fairfield at Futurist Climbing called up our architect and asked for some clarification, which led us to realize that we had an error with our egress. We were unaware that Kentucky requires 5′ of egress, and we would have to undergo a major bouldering redesign to make everything work well together.

We also made a carefully researched decision to use a more European floor layout in our roped climbing terrain. We are well aware that traditional flooring products offer no real protection from high ground falls. We will only cover the floor in areas that protect from falls early on the route. This provides several benefits; it creates clearly demarcated space for climbers, belayers, and spectators, reduces overall distraction, does not produce a false sense of security, allows easy boom lift access, and doesn’t waste an incredible amount of material. The realized savings are modest, especially if you pick a durable flooring material over carpet bonded foam. The real benefit is in usability and ecological savings.

Route Setting

Before we ever started looking at land, we had selected a route setting consultant whom we knew we wanted involved in our design. Our selection process was detailed, and led me to the belief that Tonde Katiyo, of L’Ouvre Boîte, was philosophically aligned with us. The phone call we scheduled showed us that we would be very happy to work with him; he was far more interested in listening and understanding than just being right. He was intent on making sure that he knew what we were trying to accomplish, even taking the step of sending us a detailed list of questions about our gym. These ranged from our logo design, to programs we will offer, to route density, to furnishings. Tonde was very attentive to the type of experience we want our customers to have in the facility.

At the same time, we were aware that we had some concerns with the design. We had been through many revisions at this point and were beginning to wonder if we were being unrealistic; was this as good as it was going to get? Were we improperly assessing what we were seeing? Had we pushed for too many features at the expense of a cleaner aesthetic? Was it really just too steep?

I sent a message off to Tonde, asking him to give us a review of the terrain. His response was detailed and articulate; exactly what we needed to get the process back on track. I don’t want to give away the specifics of his review; his ideas are his own and are how he makes his money. What I can safely say is that Tonde reminded us that we wanted to create a space that enabled incredible climbing. We wanted to show people what high quality indoor climbing could be. We wanted to bring the quality of the best competitions to everyday commercial setting. He helped us to define what the criteria for accomplishing this would be inside the framework of our specific design.

We spent the next few evenings exchanging emails with Tonde, with multiple gyms and crags provided for further inspiration. His feedback let us revise the basic elements in a way that maintained their character but improved their quality. We can’t believe how amazing the result is!

End of the Arch

The only major snafu of the construction process is that we added a significant expense to our structural design. One of our very clear criteria with the climbing walls was that we were unwilling to install an arch. An arch is a fantastic structural tool for reducing moment load on the walls and foundation of the building, but neither Nicole or I have ever been impressed with the way an arch has climbed. Fall lines, intersecting routes, lower-offs that occur in the main traffic space, and what typically turns into a huge amount of wasted wall surface, make them seem far from worth it.

Because of this, we have a tremendous overhanging lead wall which required reconsideration of our foundation materials. It definitely isn’t something 
you can skimp on, nor were we willing to change the climbing wall design in a way that compromises its essential quality in order to reduce the cost of the foundation. We’ve made a choice to assess other aspects of the building for potential cost savings, but we may have to get creative to get this thing to come in on budget!

From Lexington is a CBJ original series written by Chris Shotwell about the trials and tribulations of opening the L’Escalade Climbing in Lexington, Kentucky.