PROVO — In Utah County, where Mormon meetinghouses number in the many hundreds, the construction of yet another LDS Church building attracts little attention.
But a sign at the corner of 900 East and 300 North in Provo is drawing double takes — it's announcing a new structure for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that will serve 48 wards.
To understand the incredibility of a 48-ward ward building among the LDS faithful, one must understand the typical meetinghouse in Utah generally houses from one to three wards (or congregations), with some larger buildings also accommodating administrative offices for stake leaders, who oversee five to a dozen-plus wards.
Meetinghouses are used by each ward for a three-hour block of worship and instructional meetings on Sundays, with various additional activities, administrative meetings, interviews and other gatherings conducted throughout the week.
And scheduling the overlapping meetings and activities of wards sharing the same building can be challenging.
"When everybody hears '48 wards,' they ask, 'how do you circulate 48 wards in just one building?" said Terry Cano, section manager in the Architecture, Engineering and Construction Division of the LDS Church's Meetinghouse Facilities Department.
It's because the new building is not so much a meetinghouse for regular Sunday worship, but rather a dual-purpose "facility" — one, a site to hold stake conference meetings where upwards of 2,000 can be accommodated at one time; and two, a four-pod configuration to house leadership and clerk offices and interview rooms for four stakes and 48 wards of BYU student and young single adult LDS members.
In some parts of Utah, the LDS Church has built large buildings shared by up to eight student/young single adult wards. The massive meetinghouses are complete with two chapels, a shared large cultural hall, administrative offices for eight wards and fewer but larger classrooms, since there's few if any children's classes and no youth classes to worry about.
But this building is even bigger — in size and in the number of units served.
"It's the very first one of its kind," said Cano, admitting the building plan hasn't been given a design name, unlike most meetinghouse plans. "We don't know if it will ever be built again."
But it could be feasible in similar areas of high LDS student concentrations near a church campus, such as BYU-Idaho or BYU-Hawaii
The new 48-ward facility measures a whopping 53,000 square feet. By comparison, the typical three-ward meetinghouse in Utah is 17,000 square feet, while a stake center may reach 23,000 to 24,000 feet. The Provo Utah Temple's total area is just less than 131,000 feet, but that's spread over three floors, including the basement.
For more than a half-century, BYU student wards have meet in campus buildings for their Sunday meetings, with ward leaders using department offices and professors' offices scattered across campus for stake presidency and ward bishopric meetings and interviews.
Church leaders approached facilities architects with the desire to have a centralized location for a good chunk of the student/young single adult ward leaders.
Original concepts called for a multi-story, multi-chapel, multi-function building for four stakes; the design was eventually scaled back to the current administrative/conference facility.
"It allows all the students to come to one location, rather than going to look for a bishop on one floor (on campus) and a stake president on another," Cano said.
Campus locations will still be used for Sunday meetings. But the new facilities will provide more personal — and personable — accommodations for the leaders in four stakes and a meetinghouse-like atmosphere for stake conferences of those and many more stakes.
The 48-ward facility's chapel can seat 500-plus — that's two to two and a half times the chapel size of a typical meetinghouse.
With chairs set up in the overflow/assembly area, the conference crowd can increase to upwards of 1,600. Another several hundred can watch a stake conference via video broadcast from a secondary assembly room at the far end of the building.
Each of the four stake areas feature a stake president's office, a stake clerk's office, a high council meeting room, 12 bishops offices, six shared clerk offices, a half-dozen interview rooms and several waiting areas.
What the building doesn't have are classrooms and a basketball court/hardwood gymnasium. The large overflow/assembly area can be divided into quarters — each with its own serving area — for simultaneous activities.
Cano said the project is currently out to bid, with construction expected to start next month and the facility to be finished in the summer of 2012, just in time for the start of BYU's fall semester.