31 December 2007

Is the Conference Center Green?

The LDS Conference Center may be, in a show-me-not-tell-me kind of way, the best statement received to date on the current Church position towards sustainability. When it comes down to the most sacred of Mormon spaces, Temple Square in Salt Lake City, the LDS Church is willing to send a significant statement to the world. The article, Nature Hits the Roof by Trey Popp, states, "The LDS leadership’s decision to install a green roof is beginning to look like the leading edge of a deeper religious trend." In the same article, LDS ground service manager Eldon Cannon said, "It was a desire for us to see what we could do to be conscious of the heat sink we have here in Salt Lake City … where the roof is just generating an awful lot of heat." He continues, "Temple Square is also an area people visit...We have a message we want to share with them..."

The city block, which used to be surface parking and a large gym, is now a six-acre park and has terraces of natural vegetation and wildflowers. The building is designed as an extension of the natural mountain landscape - to blend in rather than stand out. The most impressive landscaped terraces are on the back side away from Temple Square. In the middle of a downtown urban setting, you can stand in a wildgrass prairie to view the Temple. It opens up downtown and provides opportunity to view and appreciate the arguably most sacred of Mormon sites, if not the most visited.

With such a magnificent green roof, I decided to search for other green features of the building. But I was unable to find any. Apparently the project was not intended to be a green building at all. As it turns out, even calling the roof gardens a "green roof" may be a stretch. The excellent article Shades of Green by Jan Striefel states, "While a lot of green roof construction is driven by ecological considerations, this design had nothing to do with sustainability and everything to do with aesthetics and image...Traditional 'green roofs' built to meet ecological objectives usually require minimal maintenance once established. So-called intensive green roofs, with deeper soil and a wider range of plants, often need more...This roof garden requires a lot of hands-on maintenance."

According to the article, soil for a typical green roof is only about 2-3 inches thick, with no maintenance, while the Conference Center has shallow soils averaging 18 inches thick and deep soils averaging 4 feet thick. "Does the increased maintenance required of a rooftop garden cancel out any energy and resource savings? Probably," Striefel concludes.

This leads to another big feature of green roofs that appears to be missing here; water and energy savings. This is especially critical in the high-desert climate of Utah. Clean, potable water for irrigation comes at a premium. "The LDS Conference Center block, all of which is over structure, requires regular maintenance, supplemental water, and a long-term commitment to resources. It will probably never save enough energy or water to offset its high initial cost or the costs of day-to-day maintenance," Striefel continues.

While the classification of what this roof garden actually is may be in question, there are still several benefits to be found. The heat island effect and storm runoff are both reduced by the vegetation and the cavernous auditorium below is insulated by the soil above. Unfortunately we don't know how much these features help since no effort was made to monitor any water or energy savings, meaning that it was not a priority for the design team.

Finally, regarding the choice to go with native plants rather than the formal, manicured flowers covering the rest of Temple Square, the Church made the right move, which leads me to believe that aesthetics wasn't the only motivator for the roof gardens. Compared to the rest of Temple Square, this meadow changes with the seasons and presents a more realistic and natural beauty in keeping with the environment of the Salt Lake Valley.

As the Conference Center illustrates, the Church appears willing to incorporate green features, but is not yet sold on sustainability as a way of building to conserve the earths natural resources. I believe that an important milestone will be reached when the Church recognizes the value of green building features on a global scale for all LDS building projects. Temples and meetinghouses are an enormous untapped resource where the church could be a global leader in sustainability and conservation efforts and provide a valuable example to communities where these buildings take a prominent role.


birdchaser said...

I use a slide of the conference center in presentations on creating urban bird habitat. Its a great symbol, if not a perfect example, of what is possible. And I've got a nice photo of birdlife on Temple Square here.

green mormon architect said...

Good point about the roof existing as an urban bird habitat. It reminds me of a local project here where they have removed a downtown surface parking lot, added an underground parking garage, and built a city park at street level over the garage. They are just finishing it up now. Would the fact that the conference center roof is above street level and away from the bulk of pedestrians and cars add to its ability to function as a bird habitat? Even though the park here in Portland is also over a roof, it will be at street level, adjacent to people, light rail, and cars.

birdchaser said...

Lots of greenroofs in Portland. What's the park you are talking about? I visited one in Portland a few years ago that was downtown at street level over a parking garage. Is there more than one now? I'll have to check it out next time I'm visiting my family in Oregon City.

green mormon architect said...

The new one that I am familiar with is called South Park Block 5, and it is directly west of the Fox Tower on 9th & Yamhill. Here is a site map of it: http://www.portlandonline.com/shared/cfm/image.cfm?id=96614

They still need to landscape, but are close to finishing.

Pleather Murse said...

(a year late and a dollar short...)

I love the concept of the Conference Center; I can imagine it as the sort of multi-use structure to one day be built in Independence. Though I sometimes find its plain humungousness (sp?) to be overwhelming. I like the tower and waterfall that face the crosswalk by Temple Square, although the tower/steeple seems almost too small for such a huge building. Also, having all that green stuff on the roof is great, but from the p.o.v. of a poor pedestrian on the ground you'd never know it was up there. You only really see it from above, like on the observation level of the JS building or the Church h.q. If you didn't already know about it you'd be likely to overlook this feature.

Anonymous said...

Having been a major member of the design team for the conference center and over 100 temples, I am always amazed at the conclusions that uninvolved persons are able to reach without ever speaking to any of the people who actually created the project. But it is easy to be a critic..far more difficult to be the creator.

birdchaser said...

Hey anonymous, thanks for chipping in, but as a big fan of the conference center, I'd love to hear your thoughts on this topic, rather than just your criticism of the post :-)

Please tell us more about the green features of the building, and the direction the church is headed with sustainable building. Will we be seeing xeriscaping, greenroofs, porous paving, water capture, and other features in chapel construction anytime soon? We'd love our chapels and temples to be a light to the green building community! Maybe you can tell us how that is coming?

Mike said...

I agree with Birdchaser. And I would love to hear more about the design process. I am in Civil Engineering at Iowa State and am about to graduate. I am taking the LEED exam soon and looking for a CE job where I can employ sustainable techniques. Glad I found this blog, and I marvel at what must have went into the conference center.


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