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A team of U architecture students conceptualize Tibetan Community Center design.

By Ashley Babbitt, College of Architecture + Planning, University of Utah

A team of students from the University of Utah School of Architecture, led by Associate Professor Lisa Henry Benham, collaborated with the Utah Tibetan Association to conceptualize the design of the new Tibetan Community Center. Located at 135 W. 2950 South, the 10,000-square-foot building will open Sunday, Oct. 11, and the center will serve as a place of reflection and prayer for Utah’s Tibetan community.

Tibetan Community Center rendering

An exterior design rendering of the east corner of the Tibetan Community Center. Photo credit: University of Utah School of Architecture

“Gratitude was a major theme in this process and project,” said Henry Benham. “It manifested in both directions — the community has been grateful for our involvement, and our students and I are thankful for this opportunity for engagement.”

With more than 250 Tibetan community members and a need for a local gathering space, the Utah Tibetan Association approached the School of Architecture to help adapt a South Salt Lake warehouse into a community center.

“We are so grateful to the University of Utah and especially the School of Architecture for being so encouraging and inspiring with this project,” said Pema Chagzoetsang, former president of the Utah Tibetan Association and leader of the community center project. “The students were enthusiastic, excited and willing to learn about a new culture.”

Prior to the construction of the center, the Tibetan community met at various locations for religious, cultural and community events. Chagzoetsang recalled that many meetings have taken place in living rooms, as there was not a designated community gathering space to host large groups of people.

“This project eloquently expresses the commitments we have as a college to respect all people and places and to respond to community need,” said Keith Diaz Moore, dean of the College of Architecture + Planning. “The amazing opportunity for our students to translate such needs into realized dreams are the types of opportunities that set our student experience apart.”

The students spent three weeks at the beginning of the spring semester researching economical design materials, creating conceptual

A design rendering of the entrance at the Tibetan Community Center. Photo credit: University of Utah School of Architecture

A design rendering of the entrance at the Tibetan Community Center. Photo credit: University of Utah School of Architecture

designs of floor plans, presenting design proposals as large-scale models and scaled drawings and hosting community members who voted and selected the winning architectural concept.

The students worked closely with John W. Paulsen of Paulsen Construction. Paulsen participated in several design reviews advising students on the feasibility of material choices and labor costs, as well as permitting and code requirements.

“It’s imperative that our students learn to work with the community while learning about the discipline and practice of architecture,” said Mimi Locher, chair of the School of Architecture. “Projects like this emphasize the importance of careful listening and truly engaging with the community to stimulate the design process and to create beautiful and functional spaces.”

U students Tales Martinez Brito, Matt Green and Matthew Van Wagner won the design concept competition and handed off the conceptual drawings for further development into construction documents.

“The concept is based on historic Tibetan architecture, and the students brought natural materials, beautiful lighting elements and a centralization of the shrine to the former warehouse,” said Henry Benham. “From every sight angle, a person can look back to the shrine as an orienting and organizing object.”

The students had the opportunity to learn about the Tibetan community through working closely with their design clients. Many drafts and renderings evolved into the winning selection of the design concept.

“I learned that design can be influential in creating a home for cultural expression with a widespread community,” said Green. “It’s great to have the opportunity to work with a real client and deal with realistic restrictions on design, which can give you the opportunity to excel.”

The design process involved the opportunity for many community stakeholders to voice their opinions and to share their passion for this project.

“It is a sensitive design process and very much cooperative with my team and the community,” said Van Wagner. “We worked to make architecture relatable and approachable in general presentation.”

A host of community partners volunteered time and materials to complete the construction of the community center. The Dalai Lama was originally scheduled to dedicate the community center but had to cancel his visit to the U.S. due to health reasons.

“This experience builds a fantastic foundation helping our students to develop empathy in the practice of architecture, and the service of community,” said Benham.