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Form = Function?

A new facility at Word Alive International Outreach in Oxford, Ala., helps put a new spin on the old architectural adage

As published in Worship Facilities, Jul/Aug 2011

Form follows function, an architectural principle associated with 20th century design, basically suggests that the shape of a building should be dictated by its intended purpose. For Word Alive International Outreach in Oxford, Ala., linking three disparate buildings to create a massive, unifying “Connection Facility,” perhaps form equals function would be more appropriate.

Word Alive International Outreach is a nondenominational church with satellite campuses located in Gadsden, Ala., Tanzania, and Argentina. Luke Varvell, worship leader for Word Alive, says, “We’ve been blessed to have a really diverse crowd. We’re between Atlanta and Birmingham right on [I-20]. You turn off the freeway and—boom—there we are. We’re right by Talladega Motor Speedway. Honda’s here, Anniston Army Depot is here, Fort McClellan is here, so we have a pretty good blend on Sunday morning.” The facility is also home to Word Alive Academy, an educational ministry for children Kindergarten-aged through sixth grade.

The back-story

Initially, on the main campus proper, it would take a trip across the parking lot to get from one of Word Alive’s three existing structures— the old sanctuary, a new sanctuary, and a children’s ministry building—to another.

“Their goals were to tie together three existing metal buildings with one building that connected them all—a building that served as a foyer/connection area/common space for all their buildings.”

“We’ve been here for 10 years on this property,” Varvell says. “We built an original sanctuary to start with. When we outgrew the old sanctuary, we then built a new sanctuary, across the parking lot on our campus here. Then we built a third building so there were three buildings total on our property—an old sanctuary, a big new sanctuary, and a kids’ building. Then, we actually covered up all three of these buildings under one roof and made one huge building and added a gymnasium, a restaurant, a book store, and a café that’s open to the public during the week.”

The ensuing Connection Facility undertaking was motivated by a number of factors, including the desire to build a gymnasium for the Academy to use and to serve lunches in, as well. And even though Word Alive had three buildings, there was no real place on the campus for the congregation to enjoy fellowship. As Varvell says, “We didn’t really have a place for fellowship. We didn’t have any kitchen, or seating, or any way for the church to get together and [have] fellowship, outside of emptying our sanctuary of chairs and putting up round tables and chairs, and even then it was a tight squeeze.”

Church design consultants and builders R. Messner Construction Co. of Wichita, Kan., had met previously with Word Alive Pastor Kent Mattox and administrator Josh Van Wycke to discuss the venture. Contractor and project manager, Richard Messner, recalls, “They had heard about us and I went and met with them the year before, when they were contemplating the project and they were talking to other builders. And then a year later Josh called back and said, ‘OK, we’ve decided to use you guys,’ and we just came and started right then.”

Messner credits the church leadership with having clearly defined goals, but still allowing Messner’s firm to be creative in coming up with the facility design. “Their goals were to tie together three existing metal buildings with one building that connected them all—a building that served as a foyer/connection area/common space for all their buildings,” Messner says. “When we met with them they said, ‘We want to create a connection space, connecting all these buildings and we really need a fellowship area.’ That was the main purpose of the connection building, which also acts as a really nice foyer area, sitting area, bookstore, café, and reception for children’s ministries.”

Construction challenges

As is often the case in construction, the project was easier said than done.

“All of the existing buildings were at different elevations, and we had to overcome this by creatively incorporating transition ramps and stairs within a multi-level area.”

Messner recounts, “All of the existing buildings were at different elevations, and we had to overcome this by creatively incorporating transition ramps and stairs within a multi-level area.”

And once the design was set, Messner and his company had to cope with issues on site. As Messner reports, “The site preparation took a little time, and we had to relocate an existing sewer line between the buildings and incorporate a new storm water drainage design to accommodate the new building.” In addition, the gym building required special soil and foundation treatment.

The addition is constructed of structural steel and concrete block. And due to the expanse of the Connection Facility, steel columns and bar joists were used to support the roof. Attaching the new to the old was not without challenges, as well. “We had to create fire separations between the new building and all of the existing buildings,” Messner says. “This included a large firewall between the new foyer and the existing sanctuary building.”

Then came the challenge of tying the look of the three existing buildings to the newer building. Messner had a solution for that, as well. They applied an Exterior Insulation and Finishing System (EIFS) product—a building exterior wall cladding system that provides exterior walls with an insulated finished surface and waterproofing in a composite material system that provides a stucco-like appearance. As Messner says, “We resurfaced the exteriors of all the existing buildings with EIFS in a way that complemented the new exterior design. It looks very good and all of their complete campus looks new.”

More than doubling the original available square footage, the construction of the Connection Facility provided Word Alive with a total of 125,000 square feet of worship, gymnasium, classroom and fellowship space. The majority of the funding for the project came from Bank of the West, based in Walnut Creek, Calif., although the church also provided some of the funds necessary for construction.

Varvell says, “The most impressive thing about the Connection Facility is the mezzanine—just the grand, open space. It is breathtaking when you walk in. It looks like a huge brand new mall. It really is beautiful.”

Zoned out digital signage

There are 32 flat panel monitors distributed throughout the Connection Facility for digital signage. The system, running software from Tightrope Media Systems of St. Paul, Minn., was designed and installed by Orlando, Fla.-based LMG Systems Integration.

“During the day it runs different zones for us, so in the café it has the menu, [and] in the main connection area it has two or three rotating slides of upcoming events for the church,” reports Varvell. “Sunday we go live with what’s happening in the sanctuary. And the kids play area and a few other areas are zoned [so] that we can have separate things going on there as well.”

Messner notes, “This project is the ultimate example of how to take some existing conditions—[including] buildings that are not quite aesthetically pleasing—and turn them into one very nice building.” And he continues, “In church design, the trend has been toward open spaces, the mall concourse, oversized corridors and spaces, and the creation of open connection-area spaces. Well, this job epitomizes that. In addition, it provided the opportunity to rework and change the exterior look/design of their existing metal buildings.”

The response? Truly affirmative, according to Varvell. “It took a few months for people to realize and start to really take advantage of it and put some wear and tear on it, which was what we wanted. Now, every day, every night—this place is lit up. It’s amazing how much people have enjoyed it,” he concludes.

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Three original buildings once made up the campus of Word Alive International Outreach in Oxford, Ala. But the church had a vision to bring those buildings—along with its congregation and visitors—together for fellowship opportunities.

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With the help of R. Messner Construction Co. of Wichita, Kan., the three existing metal structures were tied together into one new building, known as the Connection Facility.

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Word Alive International Outreach’s connection building acts as a grand foyer, bookstore, sitting area, and café. The goal is that once guests and members are inside together, they have a number of activities to choose from that can help keep them engaged and united.

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According to Worship Leader Luke Varvell, a digital signage system helps the church keep everyone present on the same page, displaying café menus during the day, upcoming church events, and live action in the sanctuary on Sundays.

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CALLING ALL KIDS A children’s play area at Word Alive International Outreach also offers digital signage to keep moms, dads and families up to speed on church-wide events. According to Worship Leader Luke Varvell the kids play area and a few other areas of the new facility are zoned to display specific, space-relevant content.

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“All of the existing buildings were at different elevations, and we had to overcome this by creatively incorporating transition ramps and stairs within a multi-level area.” —Richard Messner, Project Manager, R. Messner Construction Co., Wichita, KS