Off the Beaten Path

A rural location and forward-thinking facility design allow Tuscaloosa, Alabama's Soma of Christ to become one with its neighbors

Just as the human body has many parts that each play a vital role, the varied components of a worship facility, including the land it sits on, all perform functions that are essential to realizing a ministry’s goals.

Travel the rural roads outside Tuscaloosa, Ala., go past the trailer park and boat repair shop, as instructed by Soma of Christ’s brochure map, and you’ll be certain you missed a turn. But then a grassy field filled with 50-year-old oaks and red cedars will appear. Carefully positioned among them is a welcoming, charming structure that at first glance, and considering the remote area, does not appear to be a church. “Typically, churches move into a more upscale or busier area,” says Soma’s pastor, Shaun Faulkner. “We chose to be off the beaten path.”

Soma of Christ (Soma is the Greek word for body) has built its ministry on I Corinthians 12:12 “For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ,” (NKJ). Founded by Faulkner and his wife, Charele, in February 2006, Soma exists to demonstrate the love of Christ and to encourage others to seek out their special purpose in His kingdom. After meeting in rented space for several months, Soma members moved forward by purchasing property in an area where they knew they would find a diverse mix of individuals and families that were searching for truth and ready to serve.

"[The appearance of the church] makes you feel like you're coming to a friend's house for a gathering." Graves Watkins, president, B.G. Watkins Construction Co., Tusc aloosa, Alabama.

Since the purchase of the seven acres and an existing four-bedroom, two-bath house in September 2006, the expansive and beautiful property has been utilized for community events like Family Movie Night and a springtime outdoor festival. Meanwhile, the house became Soma’s meeting place, but put a cap on future growth. “People were being turned away from services because the house could not accommodate any more,” says Bruce Mitchell, associate principal with Tuscaloosa’s Marcum Architects and Soma’s project architect.

Through the contributions of church members, but primarily financing, Soma was able to embark on the first phase of a three-phase master plan in September 2007. “We desperately needed space, so we decided the best avenue was to finance the project and then raise money through a capital campaign after completion,” says Faulkner.

Fortunately, construction was nearly complete when the recession hit, though regardless of the national economic climate, Soma members began with a budget and a commitment to stick to it.

Preserving Potential

Interior designer for the project and Soma member Shannon Dogan recalls that the house embodied the warm, non-intimidating personality that defines Soma. “That same home-like feeling is what Pastor Faulkner wanted to carry into the new building,” Dogan says.

Pastor Faulkner was also adamant about saving as many of the half-century-old trees as possible. “Our church loves the campus and uses the grounds for family pictures, picnics and weddings. We didn’t want to lose those opportunities,” says Faulkner.

The result of Faulkner’s wishes is a need-meeting building that works in tandem with the original house, which remains an interim youth and children’s building, and surrounding nature for an overall well-designed and inviting location for ministry.

The project wasn’t without challenges though, and the biggest one came in the form, or rather the absence of, water. After retaining a site permit, the church was denied a building permit due to lack of water pressure in the older, rural area of Tuscaloosa. However, God provided the solution and a means of blessing and connecting with neighboring residents when the city agreed to split the cost of updating the pipes with the church.

“This could have been a project killer,” says Faulkner. “But now, the new waterline provides fire coverage for our facility and the community. Homes that did not have adequate coverage before our project now have it.”
A Facility with Purpose

Once all the fires were put out, full construction on the 6,000-square-foot facility began. According to Graves Watkins, Soma’s general contractor and president of B.G. Watkins Construction in Tuscaloosa, a pre-engineered metal frame building system was chosen for economic value and versatility.

“It was a challenge to make a metal building look like a church while keeping a residential feel, but by using a variety of exterior finishes, a low eave height, and adding a wrap-around porch we were able to achieve what we envisioned,” says Dogan.

At the top of a colorfully landscaped circular drive is a covered drop-off supported by four stone columns and exposed steel trusses. From there, the eye is drawn in by the palette of warm and comforting colors and textures that define the main structure. Small, white-trimmed windows sit under low eaves and stand out against crimson walls. Below them, the porch roof is supported by light gauge steel tube columns with a stacked-stone base. The porch itself runs the length of the front of the building and wraps around the east and south sides to provide a covered walkway to the youth and children’s space.

“The architecture of the church was designed to blend in with the surrounding neighborhood in material and scale,” says Mitchell. “At the same time, materials and colors were selected to provide warmth and an organic setting for gathering and worship.”

“[The appearance] makes you feel like you’re coming to a friend’s house for a gathering,” comments Watkins.

Double wood doors mark the entrance to the building and open into an airy vestibule filled with light from clerestory windows, which is reflected by taupe ceramic tile flooring. Another set of double doors leads into a spacious foyer used for gathering. This space flows into a wide corridor that continues on to the staff offices. Vinyl faux wood plank tile was installed in the foyer for its durability, cost-effectiveness and aesthetics. “By using the faux wood planks we were able to achieve the rich beauty of wood without the high cost,” says Dogan, who offered her services free of charge and independent of her firm. “It also adds to the residential feel we wanted to achieve.”

Dogan adds that the large windows and taupe color scheme are accented by golden-bronze architectural elements and a crimson-schemed seating area tucked beneath a rectangular soffit.

Through a third set of doors is the 200-seat sanctuary where a richer shade of taupe on the walls is complemented by red and gold broadloom carpet and chocolate brown and golden beige interlocking, movable chairs. “We chose two different colors to add dimension to the room,” says Faulkner. “Our building is also equipped with a warming pantry just off the sanctuary, so the chairs were ordered and placed with the fellowship function in mind.”

At the base of the four steps leading up to the chancel are altars that were crafted from wood donated to the church. At the top of the steps, the pulpit is pronounced by a crimson semicircle soffit overhead.

“The chancel wall has a cultured stone veneer and a large storefront opening to help create a focal point,” adds Mitchell. “The center mullions of the windows form the only cross in the facility.”

To maximize useable square footage on the platform, a sunken baptistery was installed. “A carpet-covered plywood top with recessed handles is used to access the baptistery when needed,” says Mitchell.

Midway through construction, MediaMerge of Chelsea, Ala., was brought on board to design a full A/V/L system, but in the interest of moving forward debt-free, Soma will wait to purchase and install equipment until after adequate funds have been raised. “We are focused on having space for our work first,” says Faulkner.

He concludes, “We felt as though the Lord was leading us to design a unique facility that would draw those who didn’t normally feel comfortable in church. We just sensed that we had a unique part to play.”

Soma of Christ At a Glance

Weekly Attendance: 100

Location: Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Denomination: Non-denominational

Style of Services: Contemporary and Pentecostal

Special Events: Family Movie Night, 3rd Friday in August, with outdoor movie and refreshments, open to the public; Spring outdoor festival, April, with preaching and music, open to the public

SIDEBAR: Flexible Steel

Metal buildings are often viewed as restrictive and unimaginative, when in fact they can be a canvas for inventive and functional design. In the case of Soma of Christ in Tuscaloosa, Ala., choosing a metal building system was the economically feasible way to quickly create space for ministry without having to compromise on the style that church staff had envisioned for their facility. The metal structure also provided a flexible future by allowing Soma to incorporate nonbearing partition walls between the sanctuary and office corridor. When the time comes, those walls can be removed to add square footage to the worship space and increase sanctuary seating from 200 to 280, all with a minimum cost and time investment.

“The ability to do this is one of the benefits of a metal building system,” says Graves Watkins of Tuscaloosa-based B.G. Watkins Construction Co., Soma’s general contractor. “Since the roof-bearing structure of a metal building is along the perimeter, the interior walls have no structural value and, therefore, the interior of the building is extremely flexible and adaptable.”

This adaptability plays out well when a church begins to grow. “It is such an easy and economical means of allowing the church to expand. They will literally knock down the wall, do some finishing work, and the space will be ready for use,” adds Bruce Mitchell of Tuscaloosa’s Marcum Architects, project architect for Soma of Christ.

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