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Rich detail, careful craftsmanship, and ideal building materials make an experience incredible By Sean O’Keefe.
Architecture is an opportunity; a chance 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 of 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,” says Wallis, an associate, who has been with FFRK for 12 years. “We basically recreated a Costa Rician rain forest in the middle of Utah where we have 100-degree temperature swings.”
Located midway between Salt Lake City and Provo, UT, 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 is a 45,000-SF facility consisting of three primary components, an interactive discovery space; 7,500-SF nature-themed indoor playscape; and, of course, the living conservatory space. At 10,000-SF, 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,” says Wallis. Home to more than two thousand 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. Geofoam blocks range in compressive strength from 2.2 pounds per square inch (psi) at one percent deformation up to 18.6 psi. Stacking the blocks as the base material allowed FFRK to conceive of an ADA accessible pathway over the hills that rises six feet 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. Once the rough form of the geofoam platform was established FFRK turned to the highly specialized services of L&S Distribution to secure artists to carve the foam into realistic faux-rock mountains.
Scott Jones is the guy pulling the strings at L&S Distribution and he has a lifetime of experience bringing dreams from other people’s wildest imaginations to life. Growing up in his father’s business, Western Architectural Services, Jones got a front seat perspective on the process of crafting faux realistic architectural columns in Las Vegas, detailed domes for Disney, and specialized frames and moldings for Universal Studios. While his father’s model was based on employing artisan resources of a full-time basis, when he started his operation, Jones saw an opportunity to streamline things.
“L&S essentially finds the right combination of technology and artists for projects like the Butterfly Biosphere,” says Jones. Today, L&S Distribution is working with museums, aquariums, designers, builders, and developers of interactive experiences that call for highly customized works of art which must often be built in-place. “We help clients understand the possibilities and then secure and manage the resources to realize that vision.”
At the Butterfly Biosphere, the vision began with flowing rock formations incorporating trickling water features, life-like tree stumps, and a stream and pond circled by tall grasses and carved-in-place trees. Huts built along the winding pathway feature 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.
“Molded polystyrene Geofoam makes an ideal building material where the design requires a unique, sculpted form that is lightweight but still very durable,” says Jones. “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.”
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 an inch 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.
“Using Geofoam allowed us to think three-dimensionally about what the experience could be,” finishes Wallis proudly. “We created accessible paths that fluidly change elevations among realistic carved rock, landscaped mountains. We were able to create an entire ecosystem exactly as we imagined, and the Geofoam never restricted us.”


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