Churchgoers at the newly renovated Athens Church in Athens, Ga., will attest that sometimes visiting (and worshipping) in uniquely designed spaces can spark new ways of looking at things.
Over the past two years, Bradfield, Richards, Rhodes & Associates Architects Inc., worked with the Athens Church to breathe new life into a dilapidated strip mall, using repurposed items. The overall design optimizes flexibility of space, thus ensuring a sustainable church facility prepared for future growth.
"Renovating an old strip mall can be a real head-scratcher," admits Tom Rhodes, principal architect at Bradfield, Richards, Rhodes & Associates in Atlanta. "Along the way, I started having a major paradigm shift that perhaps we could do something really wonderful with this thing and save a lot of money in the process."
Regular Athens Church attendees include a large number of young people, college students and millennials.
"So we decided - as we stripped everything away to the bare bones of the shopping center - to leave much of it exposed," Rhodes said. "It's more of an industrial, loft feel that I think is much more relevant for millennials, and it saved everybody a lot of money in doing so."
Athens Church, which is a strategic partner of Northpoint Ministries, began more than a decade ago as a portable church, first setting up in Cedar Schoals High School in January 2005. In the summer of 2007, it had grown considerably so the church moved to the Classic Centre in the heart of downtown Athens, where it stayed until 2011. During that time, it was still a portable church.
The site of an old abandoned Walmart building came up for sale, and the church was able to purchase the property at a fraction of its once-appraised value. They moved in and installed a 1,300-seat auditorium and related classrooms. As the church continued to grow, by 2014 it again needed more space.
The rest of the strip mall was not doing well. Businesses were closing, and it was becoming a blight on the community. The timing was just right, and the church was able to purchase the remainder of the mall in order to expand.
"It was a crazy chain of events that were aftershocks of the Great Recession," said Matt Stevens, director of stewardship at Athens Church.
The church as a nonprofit got a great deal, the developer who was losing money was able to get out the property and get a big tax break, and the city got a blighted property improved.
"A huge value in our city is environmental stewardship, sustainability, repurposing and reclaiming things," said Stevens, who points out that iconic parts of the city are represented in the church's various design elements. "We've received positive feedback from people who think it's great that we took a part of the city that was falling apart and revitalized it."
By acquiring the remainder of the mall, the church was able to increase its footprint to 310,000 square feet.
"Any time we design a mega-church, we always start with the parking lot," said Rhodes, whose firm focuses on church-related projects. "Having more than 2,000 seats means there will be a lot of cars."
On a typical weekend, the church welcomes 4,000 to 5,000 guests combined for its two services.
He notes that this renovation project was more of a challenge thanks to a badly leaking roof and unclean conditions left by restaurants that had packed up and left the mall in a hurry.
The biggest design hurdle was the church's main building in the middle of the campus. They ultimately put a 2,200-seat auditorium in the room, and did it column-free and with the necessary height for rigging and lights. The goal was to make it feel more like a performing arts center and less like a TJ Maxx with a bunch of chairs, according to Rhodes.
"The structural engineer came up with a cool scheme where we could put posts in the corners and pop the roof up to give us the necessary height," he said. "Once we were able to do that, everything else started falling in place."
Other important design considerations included making sure there were adequate number of bathrooms, starting points, guest services, and a variety of children's services.
The children's spaces were divided into four areas: Waumba (birth to pre-K), Upstreet (elementary), Transit (middle school), and Inside Out (high school). Waumba and Upstreet are located on one side of the campus, and then children transition to other side of the campus once they hit middle school.
For the Inside Out high school area, around a dozen old shipping containers were repurposed as actual classrooms by stacking them up, cutting doors out, and installing lights, HVAC, carpet and furnishings.
"High school kids can be terribly abusive to sheetrock and normal finishes, but it's kind of hard to tear up a shipping container," said Rhodes.
Another existing room with a fairly large ceiling in the high school area was converted into The Attic, a performing stage for teenagers and high school students.
Total building renovation costs topped $9 million before audio/visual and lighting expenses, and Birmingham-based contractor Brasfield & Gorrie handled the construction.
Stevens says the positive response from new and regular attendees is priceless. "What we have realized is that when people come into environments like what we've created, it sparks perhaps a new curiosity about Jesus," said Stevens.