For over 100 years, the Unitarian Universalist Society (UUS) had congregated in the same location in downtown Iowa City. However, as their congregation grew, they realized that they needed a new facility to better accommodate their members. In 2015, they made the formal decision to sell their historic downtown location and subsequently purchased a property in Coralville, a nearby suburb of Iowa City.
Just under six acres, the new Coralville property was nestled in a densely forested suburban setting. The UUS envisioned their facility sitting in the meadow near the woodland and blending into its natural setting. Living up to UUS principles, the design process was collaborative and democratic with the congregation frequently meeting to vote on key decisions. To achieve a building that reflected their overall mission, they outlined several priorities. First, the facility needed to be large enough to allow the whole congregation to comfortably meet at once; second, the facility needed to be exceptionally accessible for all abilities; and third, the facility needed to be as sustainable as possible. To solidify this final priority, they challenged themselves to become “the greenest church in Iowa.”
Where We Started
In the early phases of the design process, we frequently hosted workshops with the congregation to discuss ideas and listen to their questions and concerns. During one workshop, we met with 130 UUS members at St. Patrick Church in Iowa City to vote on designs, helping our team develop an understanding of their needs and preferences. As design concepts developed, the UUS New Facility Committee met frequently with all 300 members of the congregation to collect feedback. Ultimately, this collaborative approach resulted in a design that met the community’s needs.
What We Did
The facility reflects the seven pillars of Unitarian Universalism. Accessible features that go beyond ADA guidelines reflect the UUS belief in inherent human dignity and equity in human relations. Curb-less parking and flush transitions between flooring materials maximize accessibility, while a gender-neutral restroom, wellness room, and an on-site shower create an inclusive atmosphere.
The Unitarian Universalist belief in respecting the natural world is reflected through the facility’s focus on sustainability. Features like geothermal heating and cooling systems, extra insulation in the roof and walls, LED lighting, and optimized glazing on the structural bays maximize the building’s energy performance. At the same time, its solar arrays produce 10% more energy than the building uses, giving it a Net Positive energy status. To maximize its experiential potential, the six-acre property features community food gardens, walking and biking trails, and natural playscapes for children, encouraging individuals to unplug and reconnect with nature.
The connection to the outdoors continues in the interior spaces. The facility is separated into two distinct areas. The lower volume spaces to the west intimately welcome visitors and serve as classrooms, offices, and conference rooms. In the Sanctuary and Fellowship Hall, sweeping ceilings and glass structural bays create dramatic views of the surrounding landscape. Project Architect Matt Krieger describes the structure as a “shelter on the savanna.” Safe inside, occupants can admire the beauty of the natural world.
How it Works
With its Net Positive energy status, the UUS facility certainly achieves the goal of becoming “the greenest church in Iowa.” To balance sustainability with budget goals, the team used several innovative techniques. A Power Purchase Agreement financed the solar arrays, extending the cost over a 20-year contract. Additionally, low-maintenance, low-cost materials were chosen to perform multiple functions. Raw cedar finishes in the interiors provided sound diffusion and reduced the need for extra materials, while red cedar on the exterior was left to weather naturally, reducing the long-term maintenance costs.
Long-term costs were considered throughout design and construction. As a worship facility, the UUS relies on volunteers for custodial and groundskeeping services. To reduce the need for volunteer labor, the team designed landscaping that included no-mow prairie grasses, native drought-resistant plants, and rain gardens to collect stormwater run-offs. These features not only limited the need for groundskeeping but preserved the natural landscape as well.
The UUS Facility demonstrates the power of community-centered design. A collaborative, democratic approach can produce a building that accommodates everyone while careful planning can balance sustainability and budget. The facility has garnered recognition, including the AIA Iowa Impact Award, which recognizes projects that produce a recognizable, positive impact on their community. For UUS member Deb Schoelerman, the new facility serves as a “sustainable model for other churches.” While accomplishing this goal, it provides a space for people to gather, play, and experience the joy of nature—a testament to the Unitarian Universalist mission.
Architecture & Interior Design: Neumann Monson Architects
Civil Engineer: HBK Engineering
MEPT Engineer: Design Engineers
Structural Engineer: Raker Rhodes Engineering
Geotechnical Engineer: Terracon Consultants
Acoustical Engineer: C&C Consultants
A/V Engineer: Diversified Design Group
Photographer: Cameron Campbell Integrated Studio
General Contractor: McComas-Lacina Construction