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Alternative Worship Spaces

As published in Worship Facilities, Jun/Jul 2005

While buildings used for worship spaces come in all sizes and many different shapes, a growing trend is for churches to use creative alternative structures and spaces for their Sunday morning worship. Some of the innovative spaces include Sprung structures, monolithic dome structures, panelized and pre-engineered structures, creative renovations to existing buildings and live or video venues in every type of rented or leased space imaginable.

Most often, churches seriously consider alternative worship spaces because of unforeseen or unplanned needs. Cross Timbers Community Church in Argyle, Texas is a church that grew from 17 people to over 3,000 in attendance in their first three years. Operations Pastor Bob Palmarez says that a key component to their growth was making sure they had additional worship capacity at all times. Like many churches, Cross Timbers has used a combination of adding worship services as well as new facilities to house their growth. Their current worship facility is a 1,500-seat Sprung structure. Palmarez says that the church was desperate for the new facility, and that their contractor, Rowland Companies, performed a minor miracle by beginning construction in January 2003 and having it ready for worship by Easter of the same year. "The primary reason we chose a Sprung structure was cost and how quickly we could be in the building," says Palmarez.

This near-instant addition of worship space, a Sprung structure may be the ideal answer for many churches. Named for its inventor, Philip Davis Sprung, Sr., this insulated high-tech structure is an engineered stress-membrane structure constructed of extruded aluminum arches, integrally connected to an all-weather outer architectural membrane. The specialized architectural membrane is certified flame retardant. The rustproof extruded aluminum substructure provides a high strength/weight ratio while being virtually seamless. It is cost-effective, lightweight, and easy to assemble, often going up in just days. Insulation is placed between the outer membrane and the inner membrane, creating an insulation factor of R-28. Structures are engineered to withstand high wind loads and shed snow.

Speed and flexibility are major selling points of Sprung structures. The inside of the dome-like structures can be finished any way a church desires. Some churches put up drywall to create traditional rooms while others use the structure as is, moving in only furniture.

Total cost of erecting a Sprung structure depends on how the building is finished and equipped; the more interior build-out and equipping that is needed to support the ministry of the church, the higher the cost - just like any new facility. But typically, the total cost per square foot for a Sprung structure without many interior walls averages about $20 to $35 per square foot less that other pre-engineered buildings, and approximately $60 to $75 per square foot less than the typical traditional worship center. The manufacturer guarantees the exterior membranes for 20 years. According to Sprung, a Sprung structure can be restored to like-new by replacing the exterior membrane, at a fraction of the cost of a new facility.

Another option in alternative structures is the monolithic dome. Monolithic domes are modern day versions of the 1800-year-old Pantheon in Rome, and the geodesic domes introduced by Buckminster Fuller in the 1940s. The new monolithic domes are more appropriate for commercial structures and are becoming increasingly popular among churches. Monolithic domes are insulated concrete thin-shell structures created by using an inflated air-form skin that is sprayed on the inside with three inches of polyurethane and completed with rebar and sprayed on concrete. This simple construction can be completed in a timely fashion, even in adverse weather conditions. Monolithic domes are very "green" buildings, utilizing modest amounts of the world's resources in the construction and even smaller amounts for heating, cooling and maintenance. Monolithic domes as churches are versatile, cost-effective, esthetically pleasing and comfortable. They're also virtually permanent and extremely strong against some of nature's harshest elements. These structures provide near-absolute protection from tornadoes and hurricanes. They are invulnerable to fire, mold, mildew and termites and meets the FEMA guidelines for a safe shelter. Generally, the construction of a monolithic dome costs less than that of a conventional structure of similar size. Dramatic differences in energy use result in significant ongoing savings – sometimes more than $100,000 a year. Because of its superior insulation – polyurethane foam – the dome needs less energy for heating and cooling and less equipment maintenance, repair and replacement.

Faith Chapel Christian Center in Birmingham, Alabama completed an 87,000-square-foot, 3,200-seat dome worship facility in 2002 that includes a grand entrance hall, classrooms, offices and a state-of-the-art sound and acoustic system required for the church's television ministry. At a construction cost of $11.7 million, Faith Chapel is the largest monolithic dome built to date. "We wanted a monolithic dome for three reasons," says Debra Blaylock, the church's administrator. The first reason, she says, is safety. "We get tornadoes." The second reason is "the dome is quick to build and the cost is reasonable." The third reason is "the ongoing energy efficiency and the resulting savings."

A completely different type of alternative worship solution is to use renovated existing buildings. Renovations to existing buildings or shell buildings are also typically less expensive and can also be completed in less time than building a new structure. Joshua's Crossing Church leased an existing building on the square in old downtown Fort Collins, Colorado, and afterwards decided that it needed to be used during the week to serve the community, so "Everyday Joe's" coffee shop was formed. Their goal was to make the church's presence in the community relevant to the community. Tamera Manzanares of Coloradoan Magazine interviewed church board member Daryl Dickens who said, "We make an effort not to be a Christian coffee shop. We just want to be a good coffee shop where believers and non-believers are comfortable." The article also quoted the manager of Everyday Joe's, Suzanne Sinclair, who commented, "We are crazy about coffee, but even more so about creating a place to benefit the Fort Collins community."

Another creative example of using an existing commercial space is what National Community Church is doing with rented theatre facilities in Washington, D.C. National Community rents the theatres at Union Station and Ballston Common Mall in Washington D. C. for its services on Sunday. Both locations are on the Metro transit train system in Washington D. C. Pastor Mark Batterson says "The church's greatest limitation is often its own imagination." The church's long-term vision is to have worship locations throughout the Washington D. C. area in theatres on the Metro transit system.

Using multiple alternate venues in existing commercial buildings (like National Community Church) is a method of expanding or diversifying worship space that is rapidly growing in popularity. Multiple venues add additional space quickly, and enable the possibility of using different styles of worship experiences. In fact, many multiple-venue churches today have four or more choices of worship locations. Multiple-venue locations may be located near the primary church campus or several miles away. The common denominators in many of these multiple venue settings are a casual, relaxed atmosphere, with a host and live worship, and a sermon that is frequently brought to the venues via video.

Pre-engineered or pre-manufactured buildings have been used for many years as alternate structures to conventional site-erected church structures. The most common examples of these types of buildings are pre-engineered steel structures and modular buildings. Each of these buildings has positives and negatives associated with them. In their most economical form, both pre-engineered steel and modular buildings are very inexpensive, but not very attractive. However, some churches are finding that the exterior appeal of these structures can be significantly improved with a façade or architectural treatments added to the building.

Most of the pre-engineered steel structures rely on steel alloys to produce a rafterless, columnless design that allows complete use of interior space and provides protection against fire, wind, rain, snow, ice, hail and even earthquakes. Like a monolithic dome, a steel building is impervious to termite damage. Also, steel will not shrink or swell from humidity over time, and this contributes to better drywall and exterior appearance and better fit of doors and windows. Steel buildings that are either unpainted or light in color reflect heat in warm climates resulting in lower cooling costs. Steel does not require pesticides, resin adhesives or other chemicals that are needed to treat wood framing.

As you can see, when you are in need for new or increased worship space, you are not locked into a single option. Depending on how critical your need for new worship capacity is at your church, and even if you do not have time on your side, you certainly have choice on your side.

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