- The Washington Times - Friday, October 21, 2005

OAK PARK, Ill. — Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple, with its incredibly bold cubic design, represents a pivotal point in the development of modern architecture.

In keeping with its nontraditional tone, Wright installed an early version of electric forced-air heating. Unlike the structure itself, the experiment was a failure.

Instead of heating the building, warm air flowed to nearby trees, which blossomed all winter, while the congregation froze — at least according to a story handed down by church members since the building opened in 1908.

The organization overseeing the building’s restoration wants to update its climate-control system using another modern idea — geothermal technology. Also called ground source energy or geoexchange, the environmentally friendly technology uses wells, pumps and a series of pipes to harness the Earth’s thermal energy to heat or cool a structure.

While initially more expensive than installing a traditional furnace and air-conditioning unit, geothermal systems cost less to operate, according to supporters of the technology. They also are virtually silent and invisible — a big plus when seeking to preserve a building’s historic character.

“I really believe Mr. Wright would approve of this,” says Keith Bringe, executive director of the Unity Temple Restoration Foundation. “He was the father of organic architecture — the whole idea of buildings fitting into the landscape. One of his greatest inspirations was nature. So he’d favor technology that complemented the environment instead of working against it.”

With rising fuel prices causing an increased concern over the country’s reliance on fossil fuels, the project also could be a model for churches that struggle to pay wintertime heating bills, Mr. Bringe says.

A test well 300 to 400 feet deep is expected to be drilled before November. A panel of historical, architectural and engineering experts will then meet to ensure that the system will not alter the structure, which is a National Historic Landmark and houses a Unitarian Universalist congregation.

Designed in 1905, Unity Temple was Wright’s first solo public commission. It is noteworthy because it lacks the traditional details of a church, such as a steeple or front entrance. It also was one of the first monumental buildings to be made entirely of cast-in-place reinforced concrete, in which the material is poured on-site into a form that is removed after the concrete has set.

Within six months of its opening, Wright supervised the installation of a hot-water radiator system to replace the building’s faulty original heating system. That system is still in use, but electric fans provide the only relief from summer heat.

Nearly 100 years later, the freeze-thaw cycle that accompanies Midwestern winters has wreaked havoc on the building’s concrete, which is cracking and crumbling. Some of the fragile art-glass features are cracked or bowed and need repair.

Foundation officials want to complete a $12 million restoration by the centennial of the building’s dedication in 2009. Some projects already are complete — such as a cleaning of the decorative glass windows in the minister’s office and a restoration of the building’s signature cantilevered roof slabs.

An up-to-date heating and cooling system will protect the landmark building from some of the climate changes that cause problems, Mr. Bringe says.

He estimates that the installation of a geothermal system will cost about $2 million — twice the cost of a conventional furnace and air-conditioning unit. The estimated “payback” — the time it will take to earn back in decreased operating costs from the extra cost of the system’s installation — is five to 10 years.

The design of the geothermal project was funded by the state, the National Park Service and the village of Oak Park. The foundation hopes it can attract additional funding in time to begin work as early as the spring. Foundation officials argue that the building is an economic engine for the Chicago area; more than half of its walk-up traffic consists of international visitors.

The technology behind geothermal systems has been around for more than 20 years, and up to 1 million systems operate in the United States, according to the Geothermal Heat Pump Consortium.

Several buildings in the historic district of Williamsburg use geothermal pumps, as does a 15,000-square-foot library that opened in 2002 on the estate of Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, in Charlottesville.



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