A Lasting Memory

By Calvin Hennick

The memorial park at the United Airlines Flight 93 crash site incorporates sustainable building elements in a natural setting.

The Flight 93 National Memorial’s concrete walls follow the path the plane took on 9/11. Photo: Eric Staudenmaier Photography and Paul Murdoch Architects.

The grief and the memories hit people in different ways when they visit the Flight 93 National Memorial. For many, the focal point is the 17-ton sandstone boulder that marks the site where the wreckage of United Airlines Flight 93 smoldered 15 years ago. Others get chills as they walk along the Wall of Names—composed of 40 individual slabs of white marble, each inscribed with the name of a crew member or passenger who died in the attack—and realize that they are traversing the jet’s final flight path. For some, a gentle breeze and a ray of sunshine are enough to transport them back to that early fall day in 2001, when planes across the country were grounded and the calm blue skies belied the chaos unfolding on the ground. At the Visitor Center, which opened last fall and achieved Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold, visitors listen to recordings of calls made by passengers in their final moments; in the future, a 93-ft Tower of Voices containing 40 wind chimes will welcome them into the park.

“The chimes are meant to be a living, ever-changing memorialization of what, for many people, were the last memories of their loved ones on the plane, which were through phone calls,” explains Paul Murdoch, whose architecture firm designed the 2,200-acre site. “Some people, when they hear that, that’s what will strike them the deepest. Other people, when they come to the Visitor Center, they get out of their car, and then there’s this long, straight walkway and it goes through these openings in this pair of concrete walls. You may not know you’re tracking the path of the plane when it went overhead that day. But when people find that out, that can give them a little bit of a shiver, and all of a sudden, they’re starting to see this place differently and they’re starting to really feel it.”

Left: John Zinner was the LEED consultant on the project and relays that the importance of the visitor center is to tell the story of that day for Flight 93’s crew members and passengers.
Right: Paul Murdoch’s architectural firm designed the memorial and explains sustainable elements had to support the project’s priority. Photos: Andri Beauchamp

“We’re trying to offer a number of diverse ways of coming to terms with what happened here by creating this whole system of elements and moments,” Murdoch adds. “We tried to offer moments where people can lose themselves a bit. One of the advantages of having such a large site is that we have space to allow people to just reflect.”

The events that led Flight 93 to tear a hole into this remote field 80 miles southeast of Pittsburgh are well known. On the morning of September 11, 2001, 40 passengers and crew members set off from Newark to San Francisco. Less than an hour after takeoff, four Al-Qaeda terrorists took over the cockpit and turned the plane around, aiming it in the direction of Washington, D.C., likely in an attempt to hit either the White House or the United States Capitol. Calling their loved ones on the ground, passengers and flight attendants learned that three other planes had already crashed into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon, and they tried to wrest control of their fate from the hijackers, who crashed the plane into the ground.

While the crew members and passengers were unable to save themselves, their actions saved the lives of untold numbers of people on the ground. Of the four planes hijacked by terrorists that day, United 93 was the only one that didn’t hit its target.

Almost immediately, mourners began making pilgrimages to the crash site, leaving tributes at a chain-link fence along the highway. National Park Service volunteers began staffing a small building where visitors could ask questions and sign a guestbook, and in 2011, the Flight 93 National Memorial was officially dedicated. The Visitor Center opened in September 2015, and the memorial now draws around 1,200 visitors each day.

“The Flight 93 National Memorial Visitor Center’s purpose is to tell the story of that day,” says LEED Fellow John Zinner, who consulted on the project. “Even more than most projects, the LEED strategy needed to support the project’s priority.” For example, while daylight was important, it had to be done in a way that protected the displayed historic artifacts. The placement of openings was important to connect the interior to the site, so the architect and lighting designer used a daylight model to analyze natural lighting while keeping the light level low at displays.

“They’re coming here to pay tribute,” says Keith Newlin, deputy superintendent for the National Parks of Western Pennsylvania. “They’re coming here to pay their respects. In the architect’s build-out, they wanted to give people as many opportunities as possible to think about what happened here that day.”

Just as the memorial site has evolved gradually over time, so too has the legacy of 9/11. The mourners who showed up at the makeshift roadside memorial in the fall of 2001 were just beginning to process the events, and their grief was fresh. Fifteen years later, the emotions still run strong, and the attacks obviously continue to influence American foreign policy, but for many people—especially young people who either watched the attacks on classroom television sets or learned about them from textbooks years later—the events of that day have come to feel like a part of history.

“That is part of what we really wanted to consider with this,” Murdoch says. “We’re 15 years away from this event now, and it’s already perceived differently. You have high school kids who weren’t even alive on 9/11. Parents have a whole different frame of reference from their kids.”

The Wall of Names is composed of 40 individual slabs of white marble, each inscribed with the name of a crewmember or passenger who died in the attack. Photo: Eric Staudenmaier Photography and Paul Murdoch Architects.

Sustainability and preservation are important to the site in several ways. All new National Park Service visitor centers or major visitor facilities must incorporate LEED standards to achieve a Silver rating. But the idea of a sustainable building is perhaps even more resonant at a memorial site—which, by definition, is built to last through the ages. And the very fact that the memorial is at a remote park ensures that visitors will have a very different experience from those visiting the 9/11 memorial sites in the population centers of New York City and Washington, D.C. Like most National Park Service properties, the Flight 93 site is dedicated to the preservation of not just history, but also nature, and the park’s natural elements create a sort of living, changing memorial.

“When you’re there by yourself, it is very tranquil,” says Newlin. “That’s what the families remember. They remember the tranquility, they remember the wind blowing, they remember the different sounds.”

“It’s not New York, it’s not Washington,” says Murdoch. “It’s for everyman. Everybody can come here. It’s for the public. And it has this kind of accessibility, where people, I think, can bond with this experience through the land in a way that’s very difficult in a more urban, busier, more complex site. People value the story, and they value the place.”

Murdoch notes that the park sits on land that was once used for mining, and that it needed to undergo significant remediation before opening to the public. “There is a parallel between the physical healing of this place and the emotional healing associated with the memorial,” he says.

The Visitor Center uses geothermal heat pumps, features a radiant ceiling for heating and cooling, and incorporates several different types of glass in a sophisticated daylighting system. Compared to a baseline calculation, the building uses 49 percent less energy and 53 percent less potable water. More than 20 percent of the building materials are recycled, and more than 35 percent of the materials were manufactured and extracted within 500 miles of the project site.

“Part of the legacy of the park system is offering this to generations,” says Murdoch. “It’s part of why we wanted this diversity of different commemorative places within the park and gave visitors the opportunity to participate in their own way and at their own pace, so we didn’t have something so overly programmed with a certain perspective that in 20 years would be outdated. We tried to do something that is open and resilient enough to be powerful well into the future.”