To Build a Hindu Temple in Virginia

This is the story of what happened when the Indian community of Glen Allen, Virginia, came to us with the intention to build a 20,000 square foot Hindu Temple and Community Center. I was the project architect, working at the time for nbj Architecture on this very challenging project. What made it so challenging were the characters involved and the fact that it would not be one owner with whom I interacted, but an entire board of directors. There were many personalities and priorities; all would need to be honored and no detail, from cornerstone to paint color, was too small for their attention. Yet they didn’t always understand the requirements of the design and build processes. Last but not least, we didn’t want the contractor to become so frustrated that he would abandon or rush through this project. This Temple had to be done right.

The program called for the great hall of worship, classrooms, a community hall, and a small kitchen. We would build this Hindu temple from the ground up. The structure’s significance to the community meant it would be both a religious and cultural center –– so the pressure was on.

The other characters in our story included:

The President of the Board –– This gentleman took an avid interest in every phase of the project and no detail was so small as to escape his attention. He felt very concerned about keeping the project to budget and as such was of great benefit to the project.

The Past President –– Nearly the opposite of the sitting President, this gentleman was all about fund-raising and making this Center a showcase for the community. He called for the maximum of “green” features for sustainability. As such, he was a visionary.

The Contractor –– The contractor and his company would do the actual building of the Temple. Our contractor was extremely professional and organized. He realized that this project offered his company an exciting new opportunity to build in a community where they had not done work before. To smooth what I knew would be a bumpy road, I was clear up front, “There will be changes and not always at the right time.” He was willing to help, though he still felt frustrated at times.

A Religious Building Architect from India –– He spoke very little English and was fluent in a native language that I did not speak. He and I communicated mainly through sketches, a testament to the power of visual art … and one of the many ways this evolved from a “challenging project” to a calming and centering space. He would ensure that this structure met all religious requirements concerning placement of deities, of which this Temple would be the abode.

LEED-Gold Consultants –– The only other woman on this project was the head of the LEED consultancy, though I interacted mainly with the young man who staffed her office.

I was the primary communicator among all these parties and, at least at first, very much a peacemaker (so appropriate for bringing about a space of peace and unity). So, in addition to developing the design, my role involved coaching each stakeholder in the importance of not frustrating the others, while very much honoring the position and needs of all. The stakes were high: Not only did the principle board members come up with new ideas all the time, but also they were the key investor/donors.

Unfortunately, despite our meetings that occurred every week (compared to once a month or every two months on other projects), the Board did not fully understand the ramifications of the design-then-build order of operations. That didn’t matter; though I explained the process and the obstacles, some wishes were set in stone.

One day, a board member came to me and said, “The doorway on the front of the temple is too small.” The others agreed. Now, speaking of “set in stone,” this doorway was already rooted in solid, poured concrete. The footing was specifically designed for the current door size, lintel weight, and so forth. The doorway could not be readily “moved” … or even “adjusted,” as they were suggesting.

Though I had bridged differences until now, we couldn’t just climb over or go around this obstacle. Like the doorway in question, we would have to go through it. But how? Try to move the client instead? “Tear down” the work of the contractor?

I decided to go all out with communication. We should, I said, make communication our cornerstone throughout this project. That’s because I realized, Surely there were additional significant changes in the wings.

Summoning all my determination, I met with the contractor and told him the client wanted a wider doorway. I acknowledged the extraordinary nature of the request at this stage. ‘The answer would not be easy but I knew that he must have some creative ways to solve this problem. The reward for this level of communication: The contractor graciously proposed breaking apart and reconfiguring the entire entrance. It worked!

The design was a “tall order” as well: Make this a very traditional-looking Temple both on the exterior and interior yet connect to the modern world –– and stay within the budget. Many traditional temples in India have carved stone on the exterior. But stone is expensive and carving it, even more so! My solution, in line with the client’s openness to connect to where we are today –– let’s use contemporary materials when we can do so without any sacrifice of the aesthetic we wanted.

As a result, we settled on what the carvings would be and then I worked with an exterior wall system company to achieve the look we desired with a plaster-stucco on the insulation finishing system (known as “EIFS”). We were very particular: This must look like the traditional ancient Hindu Temple and not a Mexican Ziggurat or an Islamic Dome. We all felt very pleased with the results.

Upon entering the building is a lobby like any other; this opens onto the expansive and beautiful main hall –– bringing a feeling of expansiveness. To reinforce this and add a feeling of grandeur, we wanted to bring in natural daylight, but were concerned about glare, which would have limited the visual field. My design solution called for us to raise the ceiling substantially and use a clerestory and skylights.

The color scheme reflected the colors found in India and within the community. These were warm, vivid colors: Dark maroon, blue-gray, and yellow ochre. We worked with landscape consultants and included a children’s outdoor play area, a nod to contemporary requirements! We are proud of the fact that the Temple is LEED-Gold certified for maximum sustainability.

Today when I visit the Temple, the people greet me with smiles and shake my hand. They are delighted and so am I. The process of building a Hindu Temple in Virginia was challenging, but communication was our cornerstone and a space both spiritual and cultural the result. The project is a success. The proof is in the happiness and satisfaction of all those who helped make the Hindu Center of Virginia a reality.