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When building expansion becomes stewardship

Adaptive reuse facilities are fiscally and environmentally responsible.

By Doug Spuler

Adaptive reuse of existing buildings for churches is an environmentally responsible solution as well as being financially effective. If done well it can also be inspiring — bringing churchgoers together in an appropriate, comfortable and stimulating worship space.

By choosing to reuse an existing space, instead of building new, churches can often save millions of dollars over the construction of a new, similar facility. In this tough economic climate, congregations want to see church funds stretched as far as possible. Adaptive reuse can enable expansion without stripping important programs such as missions and community outreach projects of their funding.

In addition to reducing project costs, adaptive reuse limits waste and answers the call of a growing population of church members who want to practice a philosophy of stewardship by being economical and respecting the environment.

Especially good choices

A variety of building types lend themselves well to adaptive reuse for churches. Theaters, warehouses and power retail centers can be an especially good choice as they usually provide ample parking, sufficient utilities/infrastructure and are often easily accessible. In addition to relatively inexpensive square footage, these building types typically provide sufficient ceiling height. A ceiling height of 20 feet or more is a common-place minimum for a primary worship space because it is less constricted, more open and allows for greater flexibility.

Once you have identified a few buildings as adaptive reuse options, analyze the front-runners in more depth. One important factor to keep in mind is whether to work around structural columns and potentially compromise sight lines or work toward eliminating those obstructions during adaptation. Because visual connection is important to the worship experience, a diminished line of sight can be a key element in the analysis process.

Large structural columns and low, flat roofs can act as barriers, separating worshipers from the sermon. However, there are several solutions that can be incorporated into the adaptive reuse program to mitigate or eliminate these barriers. One slightly more expensive, but highly effective solution is to raise the roof and insert long-span trusses to support the new roof structure without columns.

Visual connectivity

In addition, several churches have chosen to create a sloped floor, raising the seats in the rear and creating an auditorium space to increase visual connectivity for worshipers in the back rows.

McLean Bible Church in Vienna, VA, purchased and adapted the 230,000-square-foot National Wildlife Federation building in a Washington, DC suburb. Part of a two-phase project, RNL, in association with Grimm & Parker Architects, designed a new 2,400-seat “performing arts” worship auditorium and a new 17,000-square-foot lobby/fellowship atrium after demolishing about a third of the existing building.

To accommodate the large seating requirement, we determined that the most effective solution was to build-out new space for the church’s primary worship space, gymnasium and lobby/atrium. McLean’s fellowship atrium took advantage of space planning techniques to create a variety of breakout areas based on scale and to provide connection to the existing building.

The balance of the building (approximately 130,000 square feet) was converted into classrooms and administrative space for only around $50/square foot, far less than had they built new (by a factor of three to four times less expensive). In addition, the existing dining hall was converted into a fellowship hall and
main kitchen area for the church.

As churches grow, by congregation size and facility size, maintaining a meaningful connection with worshipers in adaptive reuse is paramount. Innovative audio visual technologies, such as image magnification (IMAG), mitigate the distance between the church leader and the congregation. Many churches that have chosen to adapt and reuse existing structures have incorporated state of the art audio visual equipment in lieu of adding expensive square footage.

Leverage the space

This new equipment is an excellent way to leverage an existing space to increase its effectiveness and make worshipers feel more involved in the experience. It also helps mitigate the line of sight issues that are inherent with a large, flat floor. By locating screens high on the front walls, your congregation can see the pastor’s face instead of the backs of the heads in front of them.

An excellent example of a large thriving church that did this is Flatirons Community Church in Lafayette, CO. Since the church opened in 2000 in a renovated Country General supermarket, they have grown from 200 to 7,400 members. Michael Koehn, finance director for the church, indicates that their success with adaptive reuse has prompted them to expand their facilities yet again into a nearby Wal-Mart and Albertson’s supermarket in lieu of building approximately 160,000 square feet of new space, saving millions of dollars.

Natural daylight is also an important element in adaptive reuse. Many spaces that lend themselves to reuse, such as warehouses and theaters, can lack natural lighting. Evidence suggests that access to natural light increases comprehension in educational environments and generally makes a space “feel healthier” to its occupants. Our own RNL offices, located in a multi-story building that lacked optimal natural light in the deepest interior spaces, was fitted with solar tubes which allow natural light to filter deep into a building’s interior. These solar tubes allow us to greatly reduce the amount of electric lighting required and save money. Skylights are also an option to ensure adequate natural light is introduced into your classroom spaces and support facilities.

The leadership at River of Life Christian Church in Santa Clara, CA, chose to adapt an existing building rather than constructing a new facility from a 135,000-square-foot industrial warehouse. Initially they converted 63,000 square feet of the building into useable church space. As the church grew, the leadership brought on RNL to master plan and program an additional 100,000 square feet which would entail adding a second floor to the church.

Unlike McLean Bible, River of Life only chose to raise a portion of the roof to create a column free worship space on a flat floor, supported by significant AV infrastructure. One important note would be to also analyze the potential existing building’s electrical and mechanical capacity for such an adaptation.

Encourage fellowship

Another factor in choosing a space for adaptive reuse is the amount and type of square footage being allotted to common areas. Many congregations are choosing to create large lobby or atrium spaces to encourage fellowship, but using interior design techniques to establish varying degrees of scale. By using effective lighting, ceiling treatments, furnishings, efficient space planning and a warm color palette for finishes these atriums provide a large, inviting common area, areas comfortable for small groups, as well as smaller, private spots that sanction intimate or sensitive conversation. These spaces are vital as they provide opportunities for all ages and generations to connect before and after services.

Finally, adaptive reuse may provide a more “approachable” church solution to many who are either unchurched or have fallen away from their faith, because they are in a building that is more comfortable and familiar than traditional church buildings.

Doug Spuler is principal of RNL, Denver, CO. [ www.RNLDesign.com ]

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