A Green Addition to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Meeting House

Architects of the First Unitarian Society’s new eco-friendly addition find inspiration in the ideas of original architect Frank Lloyd Wright

Architect rendition of the green addition to Frank Lloyd Wright's First Unitarian Society Meeting House. (The Kubala Washatko Architects, Inc.)

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“He designed his buildings to cooperate with the environment,” adds Holzhueter. “He also understood the solar capacity of a building.” He knew that broad eaves would keep the sun from warming a house on a summer day, that the shelter of those eaves would cut the wind.

These principles found expression in the addition: Kubala Washatko oriented it to maximize passive solar gain; the green roof’s 8-foot overhang helps cool the building naturally.

In-floor radiant heating, which is favored by today’s green architects and a component of Kubala Washatko’s design, is incorporated in Wright’s original Meeting House. “He was trying to lower heating costs,” says Holzheuter. “Environmental responsibility was not something even talked about in those days.”

The 21,000-square-foot addition opened last September; in January, the project received a LEED Gold rating. Thanks to green features such as a geothermal heating and cooling system and a “living roof” of plants that control stormwater runoff from the site, the building is projected to use 40 percent less energy and 35 percent less water than a similar-size, conventionally built structure.

The congregation’s carbon footprint was another one of the main factors in their decision to stay where they were. “Moving to a new site on virgin piece of land would have been the exact wrong thing to do,” says Micha, reflecting on the importance the congregation placed on the original site, with its proximity to bus lines and bike paths.

By contrast, Wright was definitely not green in terms of his perspective on development density. At the time of its construction, the Meeting House was bordered by the University of Wisconsin’s experimental agricultural fields. Wright had urged the congregation to build even farther away: “Well, we have gone afield—not far enough, but at least far enough to valiantly state a principle of growth to which our civilization must awaken and soon consciously act: decentralization.”

Despite the differences, both the original building and its addition share similar inspiration in the grounds of Wisconsin. As Wright wrote in 1950 about the Meeting House, “Nothing is so powerful as an idea. This building is an idea.”


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