The greening of Unity Temple

A proposed geothermal heating/cooling system gets closer with the drilling of a test well

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Would you be amazed to discover that Frank Lloyd Wright's Unity Temple and the bunker (inside the mysterious hatch) on LOST have something in common? And that it's related to the big hole that was being dug outside Unity Temple last week?

Only the geekiest among us (and perhaps those in the know at the Unity Temple Restoration Foundation, the non-profit charged with the restoration and preservation of the landmark building) will understand the connection.

It's geothermal technology.

If LOST character Sayid's muttering about the bunker being powered by geothermal energy seems like science-fiction claptrap, think again.

As part of an ongoing, multi-phase, total restoration of Unity Temple, the foundation is moving forward with its plan to install a geothermal, "green" climate-control system that will rely on wells, pipes and a pump to heat and cool the structure, according to Keith Bringe, the foundation's executive director.

It's called a ground source heat pump system. Instead of burning fossil fuels to create heat, it works by moving heat from one place to another. In the type of system anticipated for Unity Temple, an antifreeze solution will be circulated through a series of closed-loop, plastic pipes that will extend 300-400 feet underground (where the temperature is a fairly consistent 50 to 55 degrees) and back into a heat pump in the temple's basement.

"The heat pump uses the stable ground temperature and transfers energy from the Earth to the building or from the building to the Earth," explains engineer Mark Nussbaum. His Oak Park firm, Architectural Consulting Engineers, has conducted a feasibility study and developed conceptual designs for updating Unity Temple's mechanical systems.

"This [geothermal] technology uses the Earth as a heat source in winter and discharges heat into the ground in the summer," he says.

Nussbaum has been installing or providing assistance for the installation of similar systems in other local projects. Although his firm primarily works on mechanical systems in historic buildings and churches, he's supervising the drilling of a well field now at a privately-owned Wright house at 534 N. East Ave.

This kind of geothermal system still uses electricity, but "a lot less," says Nussbaum. "It conserves energy and produces dramatically fewer greenhouse gases." And with the cost of fossil fuels heading to the stratosphereâ€"not to mention their dwindling supplyâ€"it's becoming more cost-effective. Nussbaum figures that the additional cost of installing a geothermal system instead of a traditional heating system can be made up in five to seven years.

Unity Temple aims to be a showplace for the use of this kind of geothermal technology. "This is a great marriage of environmental technology and historic preservation," says Bringe. "Unity Temple is an internationally renowned masterpiece of architecture, and we will have the opportunity to show off a model of green retrofitting."

Nussbaum began supervising the drilling of a test well last week. The experiment, which also includes sending a fluid-filled pipe down into the hole to measure its temperature down and up, will provide him with the data he'll need to come up with the final design, he explains. He estimates that the design will include between 26 and 30 wells, all of which will be invisible when grass grows back to cover them.

As much as possible, Nussbaum intends to use ductwork installed by Wright, who originally planned a kind of forced air heating system for Unity Temple. (It reportedly never workedâ€"legend has it that people in the temple froze while warm air made its way outside, causing surrounding trees to bloom in winter).

"Our goal is a sensitive design that fits Wright's original intent, with a modern twist," says Nussbaum.

Funding for the design phase (including the test well) was provided by the State of Illinois, the National Park Service and the Village of Oak Park. Nussbaum estimates that installing the system will require between $1.5 and $2 million in additional funding.

Restoration blueprint

Updating the climate-control systems at Unity Temple is just the first of three phases of the planned $12-15 million restoration, according to Bringe. "It's really important to stabilize the environment in the building to near museum quality" control of temperature, humidity and ventilation, he says.

At present, the building has no cooling capacity at all, and relies on traditional hot water radiator heat. Years of unstable humidity, freezing and thawing is taking its toll on the interior woodwork and art glass, and is a "primary factor" in the deterioration of the concrete exterior, explains Bringe.

Restoration of the concrete will be the second major phase of the restoration effort.

Unity Temple was the first monumental, poured-in-place, reinforced concrete building in the world, he notes. "The assumption was that the concrete would find its own way to expand and contract," but instead the surface developed scars and cracks. The use of what turns out to have been poor quality iron reinforcing bar compounds the problems.

"Legend has it that Mr. Wright loved this building but said, 'Doctors are lucky. They get to bury their mistakes. Architects get to plant ivy.' History has it that Unity Temple was covered with ivy," says Bringe.

In 1973, Wright's son Lloyd Wright, also an architect, supervised a surface restoration of the concrete. "It was a masterful application but it didn't solve the core problems. Those problems are pushing through," says Bringe. "We're working with the most accomplished scientists and technicians in the world" to develop a solution.

And like the rest of the project, repair of the concrete will require major funding. Bringe estimates a price tag of $4-6 million.

Finally, the third phase of the restoration will focus on the interior art glass, woodwork and painted surfaces. Bringe says the foundation hopes to complete the entire restoration project in time for the centennial of the building's dedication in 2009.

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