Future Architects Reimagine Walker Rink

Lucy Gellman PhotoDad lingers in the skating rink’s light-flooded entrance after dropping off his daughters to hockey practice at 2 p.m. When he picks them up at 4, the glass has clouded over to the color of milk. 

High school student Nina Padro imagined that happening thanks to an idea for how to design the shuttered Ralph Walker Skating Rink on State Street: use chromatic glass, which changes from transparent to translucent depending on light, heat, or voltage.

Padro participated in a brainstorming session Thursday night on how to redesign the rink as it undergoes a gut-rehab. Held at the Chapel Street offices of Pickard Chilton architecture firm, the session was part of the ACE Mentorship Program, a national initiative designed to get high schoolers involved in architecture, construction and engineering.

Thursday night the students offered fresh, specific ideas for how to bring the rink back to life.

ACE has one chapter comprising three “teams” of students in New Haven. One of them, supervised by Pickard Chilton architects Karl Hennig and Adrienne Nelson, has a local focus this year: the beloved Ralph Walker Rink on State Street. The chapter’s 20 students are broken up into focus groups relevant to real-life design scenarios: landscape, architecture, interior, and engineering. They meet biweekly to flesh out their plans, and prepare for a final presentation later this year.

Courtesy Christopher FlanaganCity parks Director Rebecca Bombero and Civil Engineer Christopher Flanagan attended Thursday night’s session to give updates and listen to the students. The rink had closed because it was old, Bombero explained—it had been built in 1968, with the roof put on in 1974, and refrigeration equipment upgrades in the ‘80s. By last year’s skating season, the plumbing system had given out, and Bombero had to bring in porto- potties to make it through March. The last day of the season came on March 27, 2016. Maintenance costs were too high to reopen it for another season, she said. The rink was closed, and Bombero, Flanagan (who grew up playing hockey at the rink), and other city staffers got to work on the renovation.

Student Engineers Weigh In

As students in ACE’s mentorship program, the cohort at Pickard Chilton doesn’t actually get a say on the final design of the rink. Instead, architect Brett Spearman suggested exploring ideas for the rink to the ACE mentorship team as a timely exercise.

Padro, a senior at North Haven High School, and Triana Highsmith, a senior at downtown New Haven, Co-Op High School, have been working closely with professional electrical engineer Mike Higgins, on their ideas.

Motioning to a three-dimensional model on the table, Padro walked to the front of the room with a fat black binder containing those ideas. She and Highsmith were interested in a sustainable new design, she said. That meant a GreenMachine-717, an ammonia-based chiller that increases energy efficiency through its high efficiency, low pressure heat exchangers. It meant underground piping to divert the heat collected by the rink’s refrigeration system to the bleacher area, where chilly families were waiting for their skaters to finish. And the possibility of solar panels on the roof, to reduce the rink’s long-term carbon footprint. 

Then there was the glass. She and Highsmith had envisioned a small, bubble-like entryway to the rink with an arching ceiling, made entirely of chromatic glass. Depending on the time of day, skaters might find the entryway transparent—letting light entirely through—or translucent, letting light only partially through. They would never find it opaque, not letting light through at all. They looked around the room for input. 

Flanagan raised his hand. “Would it also be photovoltaic?,” he asked.

Padro didn’t miss a beat on the term. Flanagan was referring to a type of double-glazed glass that acts like a solar panel.

“We’ve talked about that, but we still have to do more research,” she said. Flanagan gave a quick nod.

Lessons in Landscaping

Padro and Highsmith weren’t the only ones to leave with new perspective, and some rethinking homework, at the end of the evening. Zeroing in on a series of annotated maps, ESUMS students Gabriel Andrade and Evan Walker gave their outdoor landscaping ideas to the group. There would be ample parking by the building, with flowers and shrubs surrounding it. They weren’t yet sure about the large park in the back, and how that factored in.

It was great that they were thinking about the parking lot, Bombero told them. But what about its accessibility in relation to the rink?

“When you have someone that parks on the other side of the lot, how do they get to the entrance?” she asked. “You have to make it safe for people.” Someone else in the room suggested that parents or kids might have big bags, that made it hard for them to amble across a sea of asphalt.

Andrade and Walker hadn’t considered that. They said they’d work it in into their plans as they moved forward, toward a final ACE chapter meeting later this year.

Iceberg Visions

ACE’s architecture group also had a moment to hear back from officials—and to learn that some of their designs weren’t too different from Flanagan’s mock-up.

Using a laser pointer to single out a design, New Haven Academy student Daniel Heredia said that the team had been interested in a design that resembles an iceberg, with a gradient to both match the iceberg shape and make the design functional. They’d also tested out igloo-like designs, but realized that the shape presented its own problems. So they’d gone back to the drawing board—literally—several times.

“It was a challenge,” said Catherine Dimon, a student at Seymour High School. She pointed to a red rendering: At the back, the rink was tapered to a point, meant to mimic the shape of an iceberg. But that had made it too narrow to be practical. The focus group had turned to engineering duo Padro and Highsmith for advice, and learned about the importance of collaboration in the process.

“It’s funny, because that’s not too different” from a concept design, Flanagan told the group, pointing to another of the drawings.

The Rink At The Heart Of It All

Courtesy Pickard Chilton/ACE Mentor Program StudentsThe city’s official preliminary concepts for the new rink have also started to take shape. Thursday night, Flanagan and Bombero presented what they now know, and what they’re still discovering about the site and the rehab. Trying to consider both “current users and future potential users” in the plan, they are proposing a rink that meets NHL regulation size, at 200 by 80 feet, with bleachers that will seat between 150 and 250 people. The roof will get an extra 20 feet, with new construction that “opens up view of East Rock and Blake Field.”

They said they will be investing in new refrigeration equipment, dasher boards, and glass for the rink and surrounding area itself, as well as new locker rooms and a party room for those who wish to rent it out. The site will employ 30 percent cogeneration, where “waste heat” is converted into extra energy.

As in years past, the end of skating season will signify preparation for summer camp and the city’s Midnight Basketball League, for kids ages 10-14. At that time, the rink will be drained and the floor repainted, with portable basketball hoops rolled in in time for the summer months. 

But that all depends on the success of the construction and reopening. The current concept, Bombero and Flanagan both said at the meeting, is subject to change, grow, and become more detailed over the next months, as four public budget hearings between now and May set the financial tone for the project. (Those meetings are set for March 13, March 30, May 8 and May 22.) Mayor Toni Harp’s proposed new fiscal year budget has $1.5 million for the job.

Bombero said that she hopes the rink will be ready to use by the beginning of this year’s skating season.  She said the $1.5 million would enable the department to reach that goal, with other elements of the redesign to be phased in later.

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posted by: THREEFIFTHS on March 3, 2017  5:27pm

They sound like Future Hipsters

posted by: RobotShlomo on March 4, 2017  12:36am


Not digging the man bun but I admire their vision. Considering that this has been a facility that’s been neglected for so long, and having some good memories of skating there, I’m interested in seeing any plan that involves making the facility BETTER.

There is one thing, however, I’d like suggest. And that’s forego painting over the rink surface for the summer months for basketball, and get an actual basketball FLOOR. There’s other surfaces besides hardwoods that just as durable. Yes, I know it has to be stored somewhere, but they’re smart enough to figure this out. I’m sure the city has a trailer somewhere they can stash it. A lot of companies will even cut you a break if you get an unusual color. Go all out and do this right.

posted by: Renewhavener on March 6, 2017  1:26pm

Interesting article. 

Am viewing it more as a new piece about the students than an article about the rink, given the lack of follow up from prior.

No comment on the consultants report or findings NHI?  Is $1.5MM enough to make recommended repairs.  How much of Park’s other ambitions are funded?  My guess is they will be short in order to appeal to both “current and future” users.

Firstly, the chilled water distribution system below the rink slab is not large enough to support an NHL sized ice surface.  It proves that lack of forethought in our government officials is not just a contemporary manifestation.  To extend the network of pipes, they city would be encumbering itself with a full removal and replacement. 

Other aspects of Bombaro / Flanagan’s proposals cause me to question why is this being considered as a renovation at all?  With the amount of open space available in the adjoining fields, a new metal building with ice making equipment adjacent to this rink would be a more straightforward option.  Walker rink’s existing PV can be relocated and then raise the building. This would open up more river’s edge experience space for all citizens and providing a better urban ecological tie to the District development on the opposite side.  Am frustrated that the student’s thinking has been constrained by the all-too-narrow parameters of a renovation.

Constructive feedback for the students:

- With regard to the rendering and the perimeter counter / stool seating.  The counter cannot engage the boards of the rink.  The boards flex and move by design to absorb impacts.  Make sure you are providing a ‘working tolerance’ of between 8”-12”.

- Consider also painting the underside of the roof-deck and steel trusswork.  Lightening and brightening the facility will go a long way towards improving a lay-person’s reaction to the investment.

- Also, you must visit your sites. It already has PV. Presenting a solution a client already has may cause them to ignore you.

posted by: elelsnow on March 6, 2017  1:30pm

Glad to see they’re making the rink “normal” size. There are so many leagues that play in the area in often bumper to bumper full rinks. I would imagine that NHV would stand to earn revenue from adult leagues able to rent space. The rink I grew up on used 2/3 for free skate and 1/3 for lessons concurrently too, which is a nice option to have. So, in case that’s ever a question, I think it’s a good idea to support!