Adding to Wright

Volume 44, Issue 2 :: by Michael J. Crosbie

Adding to a National Historic Landmark on the National Register of Historic Places would be intimidating enough for your average architect. But to design an addition to such a building that was also designed by Frank Lloyd Wright really cranks up the anxiety level.

If there was any sense of insecurity on the part of the new building’s designers, The Kubala Washatko Architects, about planning an annex to an American masterpiece of religious architecture, you cannot detect it in this new, 20,000-square-foot addition to Wright’s First Unitarian Society Meeting House in Madison, Wisconsin. The addition, which contains a 500-seat auditorium, social/fellowship space, offices, a library, and support spaces, looks as though it was always meant to be there, showing deference to Wright’s opus yet asserting its own quiet identity. In the spirit of Wright’s approach to designing with nature (as he often described it) the Meeting House addition is green. It earned LEED Gold certification and was recently cited for a Top Ten Award by the 2011 Committee on the Environment (COTE) of the American Institute of Architects.

This addition had a long genesis. Wright’s original building was designed in 1946 and completed in 1951 (relatives of the architect had been founding members of this Unitarian congregation, and Wright himself was a member). Wright designed a building to accommodate 150 parishioners. Today the congregation numbers 1,600 and is the largest Unitarian Universalist congregation in the country. Wright’s building is iconic in its triangular glass prism form under a broad A-frame roof, an architectural composition inspired (it has been suggested) by Albrecht Dürer’s drawing, The Hands of the Apostle. This element contains the tall worship space, with a low wing extending to the west containing classrooms and social spaces. In 1960 an addition extending to the southwest, mimicking the long west wing of the original, was added; another addition was constructed in 1990, creating a C-shaped “claw” off the original. The predominant materials throughout were limestone, glass, and wood. Consideration of a third addition commenced in 1999, with the organization of a building committee and extensive meetings.

The Kubala Washatko Architects used a design method that seems perfectly aligned with the congregation’s belief that they should stay on their historic site and work within “an interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part.” That translated into the desire for not only a green addition, but also one that would build upon the history of the location, the congregation, and its mission. The firm has a unique approach to design, which it describes as “Wholeness,” or the “interconnectedness of all things.” According to Design Principal Tom Kubala (who worked on the project with Senior Project Architect Vince Micha) Christopher Alexander’s Pattern Language has greatly influenced the firm’s working method by helping them understand how a design should unfold in response to the myriad wants of the client, the context of the site, and the materials at hand. After extensive time spent listening to congregants and drawing them out (there were 31 user groups for the First Unitarian Society addition) the architects formulated patterns to guide the design and set the goals for the final building. This project had 30 patterns, each structured as an Issue Statement (which articulates a desire, a need, or a problem that the design must address) and a Solution Statement (which suggests how the design might respond). All 30 patterns for this project may be found on the architects’ Web site (

“During the discovery phase of design,” says Kubala, “anecdotal information, emotional information, information gathered from user groups may be recorded, but it does not find itself in the details of the design. But if we write patterns, a lot of that information becomes clear as a network of intentions. It codifies the issues that the design needs to resolve. It is a non-reductionist approach to design.” The patterns are guideposts for the design, yardsticks by which the finished project can be judged.

Another guiding factor was a committee of Wright experts, an advisory board of peers assembled by the firm to help critique the design as it developed. The board consisted of Neil Levine from Harvard University; John Garrett Thorpe, AIA, a Wright restoration architect from Chicago; Gunny Harboe, FAIA, of Harboe Architects, PC, Chicago; John Eifler of Eifler & Associates Architects, Chicago; and representatives from the Wisconsin Historical Society. Besides giving the design architects direction, the advisory board helped reassure the congregation that the new building would be a fitting addition to Wright’s original design.

The congregation wanted the new building to lower the intensity of use of the original Wright building, but not to upstage it architecturally. An early design scheme took its layout from the original building, using an equilateral rhombus as the overall plan shape. When a consultant informed the parish that its fundraising targets were unrealistic, the architects had to scrap the strong geometrical scheme and “re-grow the design,” as Kubala puts it. The answer was an entirely new, simplified geometry: an arc that gently curves around the original building to the south, creating a circulation spine and a focused exterior space that help frame views of Wright’s church. The primary pivot point for the arc is the pulpit in the original building, with a second pivot point being the pastor’s office.

“The circulation is in constant visual connection to the building original,” explains Kubala of the geometry generated off Wright’s building. “As people move from old to new, it is clear where the master is, and the addition is the servant to the older building.” The exposed structural members, the window frames, the column grids, and the angle of the north/south walls all radiate from the pulpit, in deference to the elder building.

Materially, the new addition is sympathetic to the old. Instead of stone, board-formed concrete is used to give the base a sense of weight akin to Wright’s church. Colored concrete flooring and fiber-cement siding are also used. Glass curtain walls are framed with locally sourced wood; pine tree trunks (wind-felled trees from tribal lands in northern Wisconsin) are used for structural timbers, and the roof is copper, where it is not planted with vegetation. Materials have high-recycled content.

Material choice is only part of what makes this building sustainable. The green roof and the new permeable surfaces around the site have virtually eliminated storm-water runoff. Rainwater collection and storage onsite, efficient plumbing fixtures, and other recycled water strategies cut consumption by approximately 30 percent.

Passive solar design, along with a low-power-assisted natural ventilation system and abundant natural light help to cut energy consumption. The addition uses geothermal heating and cooling delivered through a radiant floor system. Kubala says that the design team used extensive energy modeling early in the project to guide sustainable choices throughout.

Some clients choose to build sustainably to reduce life-cycle costs, to improve comfort, or to enhance building performance. However, more religious communities, such as First Unitarian Society, see a strong connection between earth stewardship and their religious beliefs. This new addition honors both the father of the original, and the sun.