In Fall 2008, the First Unitarian Society of Madison completed a major new addition to its Frank Lloyd Wright-designed National Historic Landmark Meeting House. Commissioned by the First Unitarian Society in 1946 and completed in 1951, the original Meeting House has been hailed as one of the world’s most innovative examples of church architecture. In 1960 the American Institute of Architects listed the Meeting House as one of seventeen buildings to be retained as an example of Wright’s contribution to American culture.
In recent years, the First Unitarian Society of Madison has grown to become the largest Unitarian Universalist congregation in the United States. This growth, along with ongoing architectural tours by visitors from around the world, has placed increasing demands on the original historic structure. As stewards of this historic building, the congregation wished to maintain the integrity of Wright’s original design, provide space for expanded daily needs, and align construction with its deeply held environmental values. The 20,000 sqf addition includes a 500-seat auditorium, office, fellowship, and meeting space, an expanded kitchen, and music rehearsal space.
The completed addition reflects a contemporary expression of Wright’s idea of an Organic Architecture. The new building design integrates sustainable thinking in a forward looking, historically sensitive, and beautifully crafted structure that responds to the social needs and spiritual aspirations of those who enter. Together, the new and the old create a coherent whole that is in harmony with its surroundings and the environment.
Although now engulfed by the city of Madison, when erected, Wright’s “country church” was sited on a knoll overlooking university farmland and Lake Mendota. Two later additions were designed by Taliesin Associates Architects: the Religious Education Wing in 1964, and the Lower Meeting House in 1990. Alterations to the site were limited due to constraints imposed by the National Historic Landmark status of the original Meeting House. A critical one-acre remnant oak savannah on the northeast quadrant of the 4.4-acre site was designated off limits to construction for both ecological and historical considerations.
Recognizing the historical significance of the original Meeting House, the TKWA architectural team developed four key criteria that guided all design decisions:
• Build in the spirit of the original, yet refrain from historic mimicry.
• See the Meeting House and addition as a coherent whole.
• Use geometry that reinforces the iconic power of the landmark building.
• Advance Wright’s integration of buildings with natural systems.
To support initial planning efforts and to build consensus among diverse stakeholder groups the architectural team convened a unique design peer review group comprised of nationally recognized Wright experts. The peer review group met to identify key issues in the design of a new addition and to assess its impact on the historic building and site. This peer review process has been described by the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy as a “model” for creating sensitive, highly sustainable additions to historic properties.
The success of this project lies in its geometry. In Wright’s original Meeting House, the diamond and triangle are the dominant geometric shapes. The TKWA team concluded that a curve was the simplest and quietest gesture that could be made in response to the intense geometry already present on the site.
The new building design is formed by a gently curving arc, which keeps geometric focus on the historic Wright building while reinforcing its iconic power. This design approach helps veil the mass of the new auditorium so that it sits naturally and beautifully on the site. The new addition roof slopes down to join seamlessly with the historic Meeting House while subtly echoing the original Meeting House prow.
The new building design is approximately 40% more efficient than a base case facility. This conclusion is based on the original energy design model and reinforced by initial post-occupancy analysis of actual energy use. The decision to transfer thermal loads via radiant floor heating and cooling, instead of through conventional forced air systems, was a significant factor contributing to overall building energy performance. Most HVAC systems move air around to maintain a constant temperature. Air is less dense than water and, thus, much less efficient at transferring a unit of energy. Instead of using zonal air-to-air heat pumps, the HVAC system treats and supplies only the code-required amount of outdoor air to occupied spaces. The reduction in air volume transferred around the building means less ductwork and appreciably lower fan energy costs. Geothermal heating and cooling contributes to reduced energy demand.
Light & Air
By decoupling the delivery of heating and cooling energy from ventilation needs, more fresh air can be provided to occupants at greatly reduced energy cost. Ventilation air supply is triggered by actual use via CO2 sensors, providing additional energy savings when spaces are unoccupied. This approach, when combined with reduction of air-borne toxins produced by interior finishes and materials provides outstanding indoor air quality.
By keeping the new building addition width as narrow as possible – a design approach shared with the original Wright Meeting House – interior spaces are infused with daylight. Interior courtyards were designed to provide daylight, operable windows and views into gardens and sculpture. Views back to the original Meeting House are amplified by placing the addition’s main circulation path along a continuous, north-facing wall of high-performance glass. The continuation of the floor plane into the terrace enhances the connection to outdoor space and assists users in their cognitive mapping of the complex.
This project achieved a significant environmental goal: The building footprint was doubled, yet stormwater runoff was virtually eliminated. Prior to the addition, severe runoff caused localized flooding of neighboring properties. With the addition completed and landscaping established, virtually all stormwater is now retained on site. This improvement is due to an ensemble of cooperating measures. First, a vegetated roof absorbs substantial rainwater. Once saturated, runoff flows to a terrace where it is directed into an underground infiltration chamber. Overflow is piped to one of two rain gardens. Stormwater falling onto impervious roofing is directed into a landscaped courtyard to be absorbed. Courtyard overflow is piped to the second rain garden. Runoff generated by impervious parking surfaces is directed through a series of bio-swales to promote infiltration. Native plants were selected to assist in storing stormwater in their massive root systems, filtering runoff toxins, minimizing watering, and increasing the bio-diversity of both flora and fauna.
Historic and site constraints were primary factors in the final building design. The state historical society, for instance, imposed restrictions on where a new addition could be sited and on how the new building looked in relation to the historic original. Within these parameters, bioclimatic design considerations played an important role. The northern exposure created an opportunity for expansive floor-to-ceiling glass views back to the Wright Meeting House without adding significant cooling loads. Building overhangs provide additional solar shading. The western exposure was designed to minimize late afternoon solar gain. Bioclimatic design for the southern exposure was carefully analyzed. The adjacent property to the south is zoned for five-story commercial use, so potential loss of a solar window in the future was great. For this reason, the congregation elected not to rely on installation of PV systems or design of solar strategies that could be compromised.
Materials and Construction
The palette of building materials used in construction was designed to be durable and long-lasting, including board-formed concrete walls, stained concrete flooring, stairs and countertops. Heavy timber structural elements provide both durability and tactile warmth. Red Norway Pine columns prominently featured in the new addition were salvaged from windstorm-felled trees on Menomonee Tribe lands in northern Wisconsin. Exposed, non-vegetated roof areas were covered in copper to weather gracefully over time.