At the theme park Ark Encounter, which opened last week in Williamstown, Kentucky, thousands of visitors can step inside a recreation of Noah’s Ark—built to spec as detailed in the Bible. Inside, exhibits attempt to explain how two of each animal might have fit on the boat, while visitors can pick up souvenirs at the gift shop or eat at a 700-person restaurant on the ship.
The Ark is one of the largest wooden buildings ever constructed, a five-story structure built from 3.3 million board feet of timber. It was funded by Answers in Genesis, the same nonprofit Christian fundamentalist group that founded the nearby Creation Museum. (To raise the incredible nine-figure building cost, Answers in Genesis has leveraged donations, tens of millions in tax incentives, as well as presold "Ark bonds.")
But what architecture firm on earth has the expertise to actually construct a 500-foot boat out of wood? It turns out the Indiana-based Troyer Group—a 45-person firm built upon a strong Amish construction influence—had already built some of the country's largest freestanding wooden structures. I talked to lead architect Leroy Troyer about taking the project on.
Co.Design: How did you get involved with building a giant ark?
Leroy Troyer: It grew out of our work in Nazareth, Israel, from 1995 to 2000. We helped envision a plan for a first century village in Jesus’s hometown 500 meters [or 1,640 feet] from where he grew up.
We put together a foundation in the U.S. to do that. Through that process, Cary Summers came on board, who was president of the Silver Dollar City Corporation [the theme park company that operates Dollywood and Stone Mountain]. The family who owns Silver Dollar City sent him over to check out the Nazareth building project. It was just starting construction, and we needed someone who knew the theme market business. Summers said these people from Kentucky—Answers in Genesis is the umbrella organization—had built a Creation Museum. They had talked about the idea of doing an ark.
We’d had experience in heavy timber and master planning—I grew up in the northern Indiana Amish community, and I had lots of experience as a boy growing up, and had a lot of experience in barn building and with heavy timber.
Did you know that you could actually build a giant ark when you agreed to the project?
I probably didn’t have as much faith as Noah did! [Laughs.] Noah had to have a lot of faith to build a structure like this. I knew it was possible. We did talk to the client, and they thought they had to build with steel and cover it with wood—I said we could do it with wood. One project we completed was the largest wooden peg barn in the country. We also did a retail building in an Amish community with four levels in it. And that was also built of heavy timber.
This ark far exceeded that. It’s just a matter of scale, and understanding the wood structure. And, of course, we had to use wood that has good fiber strength.
You built your crew in a unique way for this project.
We ended up reaching out to the Amish community, asking them to help us. We had Amish people from 15 different communities—Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, Illinois, Tennessee, Wisconsin . . .
Could you just not have used a standard construction crew for the heavy timber?
I think other construction crews could have done it. But [the Amish] are used to working with wood. We had to do it in a very short time period, so that was a real key. We had some non-Amish also help. When I was a young boy, I played with Tinker Toys. We looked at it as Tinker Toys, basically getting all the notching and milling done off site, getting the timber to the site. Initially we tried to use wooden pegs but the forces were too great. According to Genesis, there was iron and bronze used before the flood. We used thousands of galvanized bolts.
This Ark feels like a studio-defining project. Do you feel like you’ll lose out on some business because of it, or doesn’t that matter, because this is your direction?
It’s not a conscious direction. Troyer Group is committed to help clients meet their vision, their goals, and build their dreams, whether it’s secular structures or religious structures. We’ve done health care facilities, retirement communities, bank buildings, commercial buildings—since ‘71 we’ve had a broad gamut. One thing we don't do is work for the military. We do not want to contribute to the whole aspects of making war. We’d rather wage peace than war.
Dumb question . . . but does it float?
No, we built it specifically not to float.
Specifically not to float.
Yes. Because we anchored it to three 74-foot masonry towers, to support 120 mph wind pressure. We designed it 10% to 15% over the code requirements for wind because we have 10,000 people in the ark at one time, and if there’s a strong wind, we want to make sure the ark is stable.
According to the Bible account, God said he’d never do a worldwide flood [again], so we said, "Okay, we don't need to float it." Some people have already contacted us about having an ark on water.
Is this project within your own faith, personally? Obviously Noah’s Ark has many interpretations from literal to symbolic—but this one is being funded by a Christian fundamentalist group.
I do believe in the Bible as word of God. I don’t know about when the creation happened. I just give God the credit to the creation. I don’t know when he did or how he did it, but that he did it. There’s a higher power that provided the heavens and Earth, according to Bible passages. Some people think it’s a myth. I don't know. Everyone’s entitled to their own view.
There are over 200 religions in the world, I understand, that have in their own history about a global flood.
Dealing with the science and architecture of building something this large, does it reaffirm your faith that Noah could have built this, or does it challenge it?
No [it wasn't challenged]. I think it’s possible. I don’t know what kind of plans and drawings Noah had, but if you believe in the divine being, we can only make assumptions that God would have given him instructions how to build it.
We don’t know what kind of tools they had before the flood. Much of our history seems to be primitive. But according to the Bible's account, people lived four, five, six, 700 years before the flood. We don't know how much knowledge they had. Basically, it was all destroyed. If you follow that line of thinking, some scientists who believe that line of thinking, they believe it’s possible. Some scientists think they may have been more advanced before the flood than we are today.
I don’t know. Faith: You can’t see, you can’t touch it, you can’t measure it. It’s a spiritual dimension. And I don't know how to measure people's faith or their spirit. I don't know how to do that.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
[All Photos: courtesy Answers in Genesis/Ark Encounter]