St. Thomas More Parish is An Elegant Expression of its Time & Place 25 years Later / by SHOKO SMITH


St. Thomas More Parish has received the American Institute of Architects - Utah 25 Year Award. In making the announcement, the jury said:  “St. Thomas More Parish continues to be an elegant expression of its time and place.” 

In its recognition of the parish, the jury continued:  “The natural light is brilliantly manipulated.  The inventive light shelves give sunlight an almost three-dimensional quality, while the grid of stained glass is a visually restful termination of the room.  All the details and materials are simple, almost background elements.  As a result, the interaction among worshipers and between the man-made and the natural is intensified.  A memorable space.”

According to Scott Henriksen, a principal with the Salt Lake firm of GSBS Architects, which designed the building, the St. Thomas More Parish Building Committee originally envisioned a traditional church.  After a few meetings with the design team, this concept shifted to a more inventive approach that sought to take advantage of the unique opportunities offered by the site – incredible views to the Wasatch Mountains, a gentle slope and a favorable orientation.  The challenge then was to accommodate views, control direct light, and enable a worship experience that puts God and His creations on display.

Henriksen recalled the site discussion began to drive the design decisions resulting in a space that is full of natural light and view opportunities.  In addition to its distinctive shape which rises in harmony with the mountains to the East, the church’s most distinctive feature may be the white concrete light shelves placed above each window on the South facade.  These light shelves control 95 percent of the direct sunlight by reflecting and diffusing it upwards onto the sloped ceiling.  The remaining direct light creates constantly changing and intricate patterns on both the floor and walls as the sun moves through its seasonal arc.  The pendant light fixtures and high wall sconces provide supplemental light during the day, and primary lighting at night.  On the North facade, precast lintels which match the light shelves in vertical dimension and color, harvest huge quantities of favorable light to balance the diffused light from the South.  The light shelves and lintels perfectly balance the ambient condition setting the stage for worship services in glare-free, natural daylight while the parishioners enjoy God’s handiwork outside its windows.  


The interior surfaces are of simple materials and detailing.  These become the background for a serene and contemplative worship experience.

These concepts work today as they were envisioned 25 years ago.  The church in Cottonwood Heights has been recipient of many design awards and honors, including Religious Art and Architecture Award – 1994 IFRAA Honor Award,  - Religious Architecture Design Award – 1994 AIA National, Design for Life Outstanding Project Design Award – 1995  DFCM,  - Honorable Mention – 1995 AIA WMR, Lighting Award – 1995 Utah Chapter IES, and Merit Award – 1995 AIA Utah.