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The directors of the staggering seismic upgrade and renovation of the iconic Salt Lake Temple fully expected the unexpected when they started to excavate the pioneer landmark’s foundation.

So when one of them said in spring 2019 that “This is the largest and most historic (temple project) we have ever tackled,” they knew it would be bigger than they knew.

That’s why, four years later, they are comfortable with being right, even though the projected finish date first moved back from 2024 to 2026.

Update: Salt Lake Temple renovation reaches 50% milestone: ‘We are starting to build back up’

One reality?

“We keep adding to it,” said a relaxed and chuckling Andy Kirby, director of historic temple renovations for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Kirby sat on a metal bench outside the Salt Lake Tabernacle on Tuesday to talk with me.

“So for example, this year, we’ve added the renovation of the Joseph Smith Memorial Building, and we will begin renovation of the Beehive House and Lion House later this summer,” he said.

Work on the Joseph Smith Memorial Building is starting now.

The temple renovation is surging ahead with a daily complement of 600 construction workers. Kirby said this week that the work on the temple is about 50% complete, pivoting from the tearing down and excavating phase to building back up, a process that eventually will bring as many as 1,000 workers a day on the site.

Concrete is poured at the Salt Lake Utah Temple in Salt Lake City on Thursday, March 30, 2023, during an overnight pour. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

What challenges arose during the Salt Lake Temple renovation?

Kirby listed three causes that have pushed back the renovation’s completion.

  • The pandemic and accompanying supply chain disruptions and labor shortages.
  • The unique seismic, structural work.
  • Unforeseen conditions found in the excavation of the pioneer-era foundation.

One, work hummed along through the worst days of the pandemic because Utah designated construction as a critical trade and “essential work,” but some materials and equipment were delayed.

That’s a critical issue in a field where it already normally takes six to 12 months to order massive equipment like the special forklift the church bought to move 98 base isolators under the temple. The isolators will isolate the temple from the ground, allowing it to sway safely above an earthquake.

Two, the genius of the seismic upgrade is that a gigantic, pioneer-era, granite temple is being fortified with concrete and steel cables into a single, interlocked object that moves together when an earthquake shakes the ground under and around the temple.

Salt Lake Temple to close for four years as Temple Square undergoes seismic change
What the Salt Lake Temple renovation has in common with an aircraft carrier

Most seismic upgrades on a scale like this are done on buildings with much more steel already in them, Kirby said. “This is a very tall, unreinforced building, and it’s so unique in its shape, its mass and its makeup.

“The temple is unique and we have to adapt the seismic structural work to a historic building. So you go in with a good plan, but you have to solve problems along the way and then you adapt the plan again,” he said.

“That takes a little bit more time sometimes, because we’re trying to do it in a way that manages risks — we’re being careful not to disturb the temple.”

Three, the anticipated discovery of unanticipated issues.

“You expect to find unforeseen conditions when you open something that hasn’t been seen for 60 years,” said Kirby, referring to work done on the foundation in the 1960s. “We did as much exploration in preparation as we could, but you see more after exposure.”

Excavating the foundation made it clear that more — and more difficult — work was necessary.

Why workers had to dig holes under the temple by hand

“We didn’t know the extent of the gaps and voids in the original foundation until we exposed it,” said Georges Bonnet, director of communications for the historic temple renovations. “There were design changes to reflect as we discovered conditions we couldn’t know existed before we exposed the foundation.”

Kirby said the issues related to the historic footing built from 1853-58.

“We thought it would be a higher level of masonry,” he said.

That meant, for example, hand digging instead of boring holes for cylindrical beams underneath the temple. One danger of excavating the foundation was that as workers removed dirt around it, the temple’s tonnage threatened to push the earth out from underneath it.

Renovation of the Salt Lake Utah Temple continues in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, April 11, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
What the Salt Lake Temple renovation has in common with an aircraft carrier

Workers installed a giant, 40-foot collar around the base of the temple to keep the earth under the temple while they installed reinforced cylindrical beams into the existing foundation. That’s called the jack-and-bore process.

But the foundation’s condition didn’t allow for modern equipment to bore into it. So jack-and-bore became jack-and-dig-by-hand.

“That slowed us down,” Kirby said.

The completion of the excavation removes most of the unexpected, but Kirby said the rare and unique nature of the base isolation system that workers will begin to install in a few weeks is difficult to predict. The plan is to complete it by the new year.

“I would say by the end of the year, I’d feel more comfortable,” he said, smiling.

My recent stories

Arizona Supreme Court upholds Latter-day Saint priest-penitent privilege in sex abuse case (April 12)

Update: Salt Lake Temple renovation reaches 50% milestone: ‘We are starting to build back up’ (April 11)

Watch the BYU short animated film that won a 2023 ‘student Emmy’ (April 10)

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland excused from church assignments for two months due to health condition (April 6)

About the church

President Dallin H. Oaks to speak at the Worldwide Devotional for Young Adults in May.

Saturday is the first day of the public open house for the Saratoga Springs Utah Temple. It runs through July 8. Here are the first photos released of the inside the temple.

Elder Gerrit W. Gong invited BYU students to write their own best story.

What a king from Ghana said about attending general conference and visiting church headquarters.

Vanuatu’s president and prime minister joined the groundbreaking services for the Port Vila temple.

A story in a local paper in North Carolina notes that President Nelson’s announcement of a new temple for Charlotte follows 23% church growth in the state since 2013.

What I’m reading

It’s official. A group is preparing a bid to bring a Major League Baseball team to Salt Lake City.

Remember the Brandon Sanderson links I shared a couple of weeks ago? There’s a new profile out about him in Esquire. It was a good read with a lot of additional insight. Read it here.

Of course I had to read this story of a Jewish boy who sat out the Maryland state cross-country championship race because it was on a Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath. A rabbi he consulted, his mother, his coach and his teammates all told him to run. I won’t spoil what he decided to do, but what happened after the race, when he appealed to the state to move the race to another day, made me slap my forehead. Great story about staying true to beliefs and seeking accommodation for them. Good job by the state race director to respond, but I’m not sure he found a solution for everyone. Read it here.

This story really energized me, helping to inspire I story I’m working on. In fact, I just interviewed Tami Pyfer, the woman profiled in this article I think you’ll find compelling. The headline is, “One woman is holding politicians accountable for nasty speech. It’s changing politics.” The secondary headline is, “She was a Republican appointee, religious Mormon and grandmother of 10. Then she began to wonder: What if politicians got rewarded for resisting contempt?”

Here’s where religious freedom is most under threat, and how the United States is fighting back.

Harley-riding historian Stan Ellsworth, former host of BYUtv’s “American Ride,” died at 63.

The Utah congressional delegation asked the Secretary of State to open a passport office in Salt Lake City.