Wright with Nature

The Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Unitarian Meeting House is a historical landmark, Madison icon and the spiritual home to thousands since it first opened its doors in 1951. So when the First Unitarian Society of Madison outgrew the space, an expansion project was sure to involve more than simply doubling the church's size. Fortunately, what could have been a disatrous undertaking produced a model in green design that echoes Wright's vision and has energized the congregation.

When the First Unitarian Society of Madison decided to expand its home, the idea was to do more than simply add square footage. Yes, a 450-seat auditorium would be an improvement from the original space that fit 280 people shoulder to shoulder, and community areas and classrooms could give the congregation places to connect and learn outside of Sunday services.

But the expansion project was also an opportunity to put the church’s core values of equality, social justice and environmentalism into practice, says parish minister, the Rev. Michael Schuler.

That meant hiring union labor and working with firms that believe in fair compensation for their employees. It also translated into erecting a building using as many recycled, local and green materials and practices as possible, and that would have a minimal impact on the environment.

Of course, many of these elements come with a higher price tag. But Schuler was happy to find a congregation open to—and in some cases demanding—them being part of the project.

The addition was hardly a quick undertaking: the Unitarian Meeting House took ten years to expand. But the pace—plus lots of discussion and a good deal of transparency—helped ensure nearly the entire 1,500-member congregation was on board throughout the $1.9 million project.

Inspired Design

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unitarian Meeting House is lauded for its unique triangular shape and prow in place of a traditional steeple, not to mention a masterful use of limestone, copper and glass. On the National Register of Historic Places since 1973, the building is considered a must-see for fans of Wright architecture.

Needless to say, the mere idea of making changes to the building can quickly spark controversy. The Kubala Washatko Architects of Cedarburg was chosen for the expansion project, as the firm had experience working on green, religious and historic buildings. Early on, they established a peer-review panel with several Wright experts from around the country. As experts and skeptics were able to air their concerns and ideas for improvement, many fell into support for the expansion. “It could have easily gotten extremely contentious,” says project architect Vince Micha. “But we opened ourselves up to scrutiny in front of the congregation.”

The architects were committed to creating an addition harmonious with Wright’s original design while not trying to be an exact replica of it. They envisioned a twenty-first century counterpart, “but it had to have echoes of the old building—its colors, textures, proportion,” Micha says.

In place of Wright’s limestone, the architects and builder J. H. Findorff & Son used board-form concrete with a light stain. Other hallmarks of the new space are pine—including special wood harvested in a Menominee reservation—open steel struts and a red wall behind the pulpit made with a hand-applied Venetian plaster technique.

Visitors enter the original Meeting House—which remains a popular spot for weddings, funerals, other special events and smaller services—through a low hallway that opens into the spacious auditorium. Walking into the new building and seeing the expansive, light-filled auditorium is a similar experience. The size of the addition is deceiving, as it’s built into the side of a hill so as not to compete for attention with the historic structure.

“We did not want it in any way to overwhelm or overpower the building,” Micha says. “The original prow is always dominant, the tallest point on campus.”

The new building’s gentle curved shape is a departure from the angular grid system Wright employed. Yet the arc, which houses the auditorium, classrooms, community spaces and more, symbolically and reverentially generates from the site of the Meeting House’s historic pulpit.

“That was the quietest, simplest gesture,” Micha says.

Green Behind the Scenes

For its myriad environmentally conscious features, the church’s addition was awarded gold LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, certification.

The building’s location on a hill made methods of dealing with storm water a priority. A highly absorbent sedum roof, rain gardens and infiltration strips in the parking lots prevent water from running off-site and onto neighboring land.

The church receives much of its heating and cooling from an energy-efficient geothermal system, which relies on the earth’s constant underground temperature of fifty-five degrees to help bring warmth into the building in the winter and remove it in the summer.

By making the decision to withstand a little heat in the summer—understanding that on the few extremely hot and muggy Sundays of the year the building won’t feel as cool as usual—the church was able to cut the size of its HVAC equipment by seventy-five percent. But a natural ventillation system makes the most of air flow, drawing it at low points in the building and directing it across the sanctuary with fans. “Not only does it bring in fresh air, it brings it past the people,” says Sam Lawrence, a church member and senior pre-construction manager at Findorff.

Additionally, natural light illuminates ninety-five percent of the new building. Besides being more energy efficient than artificial lights, it creates a pleasant atmosphere. “We’ve all been in windowless rooms and we know how that feels—it’s awful,” Micha says. “You feel more connected to nature this way.”

Using recycled and locally sourced materials was a crucial component of building green—and one aesthetically in line with the Meeting House’s origins.

“It’s very much a creation of Wisconsin and the upper Midwest,” Schuler says of the addition. “It gives it that organic feel that Frank Lloyd Wright did so well.”

But Schuler doesn’t anticipate enthusiasm about green design stopping at the building’s doors. “We also want it to be a teaching tool,” he says, “so anyone can understand sustainable design and use it in their businesses, churches and homes.”

New Connections

To keep costs down when the original Meeting House was being constructed, members of the congregation—men and women alike who were dubbed “The Stonehaulers”—helped carry in limestone from a quarry thirty miles away, as well as perform other construction work.

Likewise, the spirit of volunteerism played an integral role in the First Unitarian Society’s most recent construction project. Members helped with tasks ranging from planting trees and landscaping to chipping mortar off stone so pieces could be reused.

And personal ties to the new wing have only continued since the building opened, says church administrator Susan Koenig.

“People walk into the building and they start to smile,” she says. “People we haven’t seen regularly are back now.”

The congregation is drawn not only to the building, but also to one another once they’re inside. “Wherever you are you can see other parts of the building,” she says. “You’re always connected. People want to be in this space.”

But perhaps the best connections take place after Sunday services. The church’s longstanding tradition of coffee and fellowship is enhanced in the new open spaces, says Dave Weber, a member who served as the liaison between the congregation and the building and design teams.

“It’s almost like a bazaar,” he says. “The commons just fills up. There’s a lot more social interaction. It’s hard to describe but it feels like there’s more energy.”

“The problem we have now is the parking lot doesn’t clear out for the next service,” Koenig adds. T

o Koenig, as impressive as the new building itself is the fact that a project which could have torn the church apart actually did the opposite. It’s built energy and momentum for the future.

“It has really moved us to a new place as a congregation,” she says. “Our job now is to live up to it.”

Katie Vaughn is associate editor at Madison Magazine.

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