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Lift up your church with an innovative construction technique

A traditional Baptist church uses non-traditional methods to create a new facility.

By Scott Henwood

When Blackshear Place Baptist Church in Flowery Branch, GA, opened its doors in 1955, the founding fathers could not have foreseen the growth that would take place during the next 53 years. Since its inception, the congregation has grown to more than 5,500 individuals, with a majority of that growth spurt occurring since 2003 when membership was about 3,000.

“We endured some cramped conditions for a couple of years, but the new facilities will allow all ministries to grow,” says facilities director Joe Collier for the church. Blackshear Place Baptist began a massive overhaul and 75,000-square-foot expansion in October 2005 by refurbishing the worship center. Phase two, which broke ground May 2006, included a compete renovation of the church’s façade and an expansion that housed classroom space, pastoral reception area, coffee shop and children’s ministry areas.

As the church’s staff and congregation planned and budgeted, they originally thought their expansion would be built using a traditional steel frame with cast stone and masonry veneer. However, scheduling and cost factors led general contractor R. J. Griffin & Company and architectural firm Pieper O’Brien Herr to recommend a concrete tilt-up structure instead.

Switching didn’t change design

“We were not constrained design-wise with the switch to concrete tilt-up. The biggest reward was that our design and the client’s vision remained the same; even though the materials were changed we reduced construction costs,” says Earl Smith, project manager for Pieper O’Brien Herr.

In addition to lower costs, benefits of a tilt-up structure were numerous for the church, including quicker installation, durability, fire safety, reduced insurance premiums and operating costs. Although the process requires the walls to be designed to exact in-place conditions, the process is without a doubt much more conducive to a tight schedule. For the church’s new facility, the entire building was erected in a week’s time once the panels were in place.

A tilt-up project begins with site preparation and pouring the slab. The crew then assembles the panel forms with wooden pieces that are joined together. These wooden forms act like a mold for the panels and provide their exact shape and size, doorways/ window openings, and ensure the panels meet the design specifications and fit together properly.

Put in place by a crane

Once the panels have solidified and the forms have been removed, the crew connects the first panel to a large crane with cables that hook into the inserts. The size of the crane depends on the height and weight of the panels, but it is typically two to three times the size of the largest panel. The crane lifts, or tilts up, the panel from the slab into a vertical position above the footings. Workers help to guide the panel into position and the crane sets it into place. They connect the braces from the tilt-up panel to the slab, and attach the panel’s embeds to the footing and disconnect the cables from the crane.

The crew then moves to the next panel and repeats this process until the entire building is formed.

As with any building program, unexpected difficulties will inevitably arise as construction progresses. The Blackshear expansion proved very challenging due to the various thicknesses and height of the panels, as well as the unique design.

“Most tilt jobs are pretty straightforward,” says Terry Williams, project superintendent for Griffin. “This project had different angles and elevations, a unique colonnade and cantilevered beams, and several corners were radius and a few were square.

These factors made for a more exciting tilt-up project.” Some panels were 24-inches thick and 40-feet tall and weighed more than 160,000 pounds. Lifting and placing the panels was a challenge.

Demand is growing

Tilt-up construction has long been regarded as one of the least expensive ways to construct buildings. The demand for tilt-up is growing rapidly as the industry moves into other markets, such as church facilities.

For projects less than 50,000-square-feet, steel is generally the least expensive alternative. The reason is because of costs associated with the actual tilt of the job. For example, large cranes have to be rented to stand the walls up to a vertical position. As projects become larger, the price of concrete starts to offset tilt-up’s fixed costs, and the method becomes cost-competitive based on materials and labor prices.

The location of the project also influences if steel or tilt-up concrete is the best option. Churches in agricultural or lightly populated areas have fewer building code restrictions placed on them. The closer a facility is to a large city or densely populated area, the more stringent the fire codes and municipal standards. Tilt-up is also a smart alternative when facilities are located close to one another, as steel buildings require a larger plot of land, as well as more space between structures.

The end-use for the facility will also influence if tilt-up is a viable option for a church. Tilt-up construction is particularly good for buildings with high ceilings, like narthexes and sanctuaries, where traditional wall systems are very expensive because the floor-to-floor height is very high. Tilt-wall also offers a unique fire protection system because the walls provide separate spaces for classrooms, lobbies, worship areas and pastoral space.

More than meets the eye

Although constructed from concrete, these types of buildings are not your run-of -the-mill flat painted surfaces. As with all churches, the building needs to be eye-catching, so walls must have depth and relief. Ways to satisfy this need include casting brick and granite into the concrete to enhance its appearance. The church also features decorative radiuses and windows to add visual appeal. New innovations in design and wall finishes have changed the face of concrete so it can look like any other building.

After 23 months of renovations and new construction, the dust finally settled at Blackshear Place Baptist Church. In November of 2007, the church welcomed more than 3,000 worshippers, including Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, for the grand opening celebration. The refurbished sanctuary features stadium-seating, a new balcony and flat-screen televisions for better viewing.

The new tilt-wall expansion houses a children’s wing complete with a preschool facility called Small Town. In addition, the new children and youth ministries wing provides some much needed space for Sunday school classrooms and welcoming areas. A pastor’s guest reception area was also added adjacent to the worship center. The new space and upper lobby provides room for fellowship and a coffee house for morning refreshments. The church also features a distinguishing steeple that can be seen for miles.

Adapting the facility from a steel structure to a tilt-wall building saved the church more than $550,000. Blackshear Place Baptist Church may have used non-traditional construction methods for their expansion, but members and visitors continue the traditions that have made their church one of the largest in northeast Georgia.

Scott Henwood is a project manager for R. J. Griffin & Company General Contractors, Atlanta, GA.

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