Bringing It to Life

Rich Detail for Butterfly Biosphere in Salt Lake City, Utah 

by Sean O’Keefe, professional writer for the construction & design industry

Architecture is an opportunity to explore the edges of what is possible by pushing beyond the boundaries of what has already been done.  Today, through a combination of inquisitive talent, careful craftsmanship, and the nearly unlimited capacity of an innovative building material, architects around the world are creating incredible environments of every scope imaginable.  When FFRK Architects, Salt Lake City, Utah, was hired to design a new Butterfly Biosphere for repeat client, Thanksgiving Point, architect, Justin Wallis, AIA, knew they were up for the challenge. 

“This was an amazing design opportunity from a creative standpoint,” said Wallis, an associate, who has been with FFRK for 12 years.  “We basically recreated a Costa Rican rain forest in the middle of Utah where we have 100º temperature swings.” 

Located midway between Salt Lake City and Provo, Utah, Thanksgiving Point is an interactive, non-profit farm, garden, and museum complex that draws on natural wonder to cultivate family learning.  The new Butterfly Biosphere, designed by FFRK and built by Okland Construction, Salt Lake City, is a 45,000 sq.ft. facility consisting of three primary components, including an interactive discovery space, 7,500 sq.ft. nature-themed indoor playscape, and the living conservatory space.  At 10,000 sq.ft., the conservatory is the largest of its kind in North America and home to thousands of living butterflies and plants year-round.  The challenge of articulating a hyper-realistic, yet ADA-accessible, tropical jungle indoors is one Wallis and the team at FFRK will never forget. 

“The Butterfly Biosphere invites users to look closer at small but significant invertebrates in an exploratory setting,” said Wallis.  Home to more than 1,500 butterflies from around the world living among dozens of species of tropical and flowering plants, the conservatory combines highly sensitive thermal control and ventilation systems with a landscape of rock forms and dense vegetation.  “The design needed a dynamic topography of hills and sloped pathways meandering through the conservatory.  Geofoam from Atlas® Molded Products allowed us to create that topography.” 

Atlas Molded Products’ Geofoam blocks are made from molded polystyrene, a lightweight, cellular plastic material that is incredibly strong.  Stacking the blocks as the base material allowed FFRK to conceive of an ADA-accessible pathway over the hills that rises 6’ above the concrete floor as it loops through the conservatory.  Gripper plates placed between layers of blocks secure the foam in place and rebar was added to increase structural rigidity during the building process.   

At the Butterfly Biosphere, the vision began with flowing rock formations incorporating trickling water, tree stumps, a stream, and pond.  The winding guest way features interactive components that string together the latest technology with the immersive tropical experience surrounding visitors as butterflies flit about.  Beneath it all, the rigid, reliable molded polystyrene from Atlas Molded Products. 

The stacked Geofoam blocks are hand shaped into rock walls and then carefully coated in glass fiber reinforced concrete, commonly known as GFRC.  Like fiberglass, GFRC uses high-strength, alkali-resistant glass fibers embedded in a concrete matrix.  Sheets are applied over the carved foam shapes to form a hard, durable cement shell that takes on the exact form the artist renders.  As the layers adhere and build-up, a lightweight coating forms while the material hardens.  Ultimately a thin shell of less than 1” results in a concrete surface, which is painted in rich detail to reveal the hillside’s geomorphology.  Filled with dirt, planted with hundreds of tropical plants and trees, and managed by the Butterfly Biosphere’s team of specialists, and the exotic ecosystem comes to life. 

“Molded polystyrene Geofoam makes an ideal building material where the design requires a unique, sculpted form that is lightweight but still very durable,” said Wallis.  “It allows craftsmen to articulate very complex, detailed designs.  It is easy to correct mistakes or change directions and once we coat it with GFRC, it’s extremely strong and solid. 

“Using Geofoam allowed us to think three-dimensionally about what the experience could be,” finished Wallis proudly.  “We created accessible paths that fluidly change elevations among realistic carved rock and landscaped mountains.  We were able to create an entire ecosystem exactly as we imagined, and the Geofoam never restricted us.” 

Please follow and like us: