True Believers

A Bahá'i Temple Project Team Had to Prepare for Everything—Including Earthquakes


Bahá'i Temple near Santiago, Chile




The US$30 million, 14-year project was the last of eight continental temples around the world commissioned by the Bahá'i World Center. The project, designed by Hariri Pontarini Architects, involved exhaustive testing and tireless requirements management to ensure all design and construction goals were achieved.


“[The project] required us to be very nimble and lean.”

—Siamak Hariri, Hariri Pontarini Architects, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

The aesthetic objective was simple: Nestle a temple in the foothills of the Andes Mountains near Santiago, Chile that would embody the Bahá'i understanding of light as a symbol of unity. Cladding the nine sail-like panels with translucent materials produced a temple that resembles a budding white flower by day and an illuminated lantern by night.

But the technical challenges required time—and collaboration. By fostering unity among project owners, global experts and local stakeholders, the team completed the marathon project last year within 3 percent of a budget set a decade earlier.

“Without time, we would not have been able to achieve this,” says Siamak Hariri, founding partner, Hariri Pontarini Architects, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. “It took time to find the right material, to find the right site and to find the right people to do this in the right way. That required us to be very nimble and lean so we could keep the costs down. But it was also a heavy burden of trust, which we took very seriously.”


It took nine years to secure the land because of public resistance and protracted negotiations with private landowners. “It was the hardest part of the whole journey,” Mr. Hariri says.

Even after the team found the eventual site—a former golf course owned by a private school in the municipality of Peñalolén—it took a separate team hired by the client three years to close the deal. During that time, the Hariri Pontarini Architects project management team continued to develop technical and engineering aspects of the project—amid strict client requirements.

For example, the client wanted to have the building permit in hand before purchasing the land as a matter of sound project delivery. This placed considerable additional responsibilities on the project management team. Those tasks included revising the property address and clarifying the road access for construction teams as part of a new building permit application submitted before the property was formally received.


While the final site aligned with all preliminary planning and design concepts, the project team had to take every precaution to ensure an earthquake wouldn't shatter the temple's brittle cladding elements of cast glass and stone. “The glass had to survive the predicted accelerations of the superstructure,” says Doron Meinhard, project manager and associate, Hariri Pontarini Architects, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

His team consulted structural engineers as well as seismic experts from North and South America, including professors at the University of Toronto. Together, the specialists studied the maximum acceleration and displacement that the temple could experience. They also conducted a site-specific hazard study to determine the criteria for seismic design.

“We had to know precisely what the structure would do under different stress loads at each unique load and member,” Mr. Meinhard says.


The team adjusted the design during the development phase starting in 2007 after conducting computer modeling simulations and structural analysis. All changes were made before construction started, so they had no impact on labor costs. One such tweak: The team added reinforcements to certain parts of the structure to ensure quakeproof stability.



The project owners made it clear they wanted the temple to embody and hold light—similar to the way alabaster glows when it's illuminated. But the initial concept to use alabaster for the outer shell was abandoned because of concerns over the risk of moisture degradation on the outside and temperature degradation on the inside.

Experimenting with cast glass, they conducted tests around thermal shock, strength, chemical absorption, light penetration and resistance to freezing and thawing. The tests led to using a material “that was durable, beautiful and captured light in the right way,” Mr. Meinhard says.

For the exterior material, the team worked with Canadian glass artist Jeff Goodman to cast borosilicate—a more expensive material traditionally used in Pyrex bakeware.

“However, the increased cost of the borosilicate glass made us conscious to save money in other aspects of the design,” Mr. Meinhard says. For instance, to cut costs, the team eliminated an interior decorative steel tracery.


“The increased cost of the borosilicate glass made us conscious to save money in other aspects of the design.”

—Doron Meinhard, Hariri Pontarini Architects, Toronto, Ontario, Canada



Using alabaster on the interior was a nonstarter, too. Testing and research revealed that alabaster loses translucent properties when exposed to high temperatures. Having that material on the interior would have required the team to install an air conditioning system that would have increased the budget by an estimated US$1 million.

So the team huddled again with experts and ultimately chose a Portuguese marble—which met all of the project's requirements.

“We were very happy with how light enlivened the stone panels and how durable it was,” Mr. Meinhard says.

2003: Hariri Pontarini Architects wins the Bahá'i community's competition to design the temple.

2006: The project team develops a new material for the temple's outer shell.

2007: Design and development phases begin with computer modeling simulations and structural analysis.

2008: The team chooses a translucent Portuguese marble for the interior shell.

2012: The team secures the temple's site and construction begins.

October 2016: Bahá'i Temple opens.



A deeper analysis of construction requirements led to creative solutions that allowed the project to stay on budget. The temple structure originally had two parts—the glass cladding frames mounted to steel subframes, which would then be mounted to the superstructure. But the project team worked with Germany's Gartner Steel and Glass to conduct a value engineering analysis that revealed it could eliminate the steel subframes and mount the cladding directly to the superstructure.

“It provided a more straightforward installation of the glass panels, and it reduced costs by US$900,000 by eliminating a layer of steel,” Mr. Meinhard says.



Doron Meinhard,

project manager, associate, Hariri Pontarini Architects

Location: Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Experience: 18 years

Other notable projects:

The Ontario Pavilion, an exhibition space for the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Mr. Meinhard served as project architect and project manager.

The Art Gallery of Ontario Weston Family Learning Centre, completed in 2012. Mr. Meinhard served as project architect and project manager.

Career lesson learned:

“To move forward with international stakeholders, you always have to maintain a cooperative attitude.”


The seven other continental Bahá'i Temples constructed around the world:


Wilmette, Illinois, USA

Completed: 1953

Notable feature: It's the world's oldest Bahá'i Temple.


New Delhi, India

Completed: 1986

Notable feature: In 2015, it became one of the first temples in Delhi to use solar power.

Ingleside, Australia

Completed: 1961

Notable feature: The team used a helicopter to place the lantern structure atop the dome—a construction technique never previously attempted in Australia.


Kampala, Uganda

Completed: 1961

Notable feature: The temple, designed to resemble an African hut, was the tallest building (nearly 38 meters, or 125 feet) in East Africa at the time of construction.


Langenhain, Germany

Completed: 1964

Notable feature: The temple has 540 diamond-shaped windows.


Apia, Samoa

Completed: 1984

Notable feature: The high, curved roofs were inspired by the area's tropical landscape.


Panama City, Panama

Completed: 1972

Notable feature: The building has no doors or windows.



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