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Building Blocks of a Different Nature

It's not just bricks, mortar and stucco anymore

Early worship facilities like Noah’s Ark and Solomon’s Temple involved explicit instructions regarding design, materials and utilization. Millennia later, times have certainly changed, as have the materials options for worship facilities’ construction. The more things change, though, the more they stay the same, perhaps with new applications or a fresh approach to timeless and natural resources such as hardwoods and bamboo.

Nontraditional materials and unique applications of old standards can enliven a building and add vibrancy and help churches establish identity, or they may be a cost-effective and sustainable option to traditional bricks and mortar or stucco. Regardless, keep in mind the original vision for your property and facilities and the ultimate goals.

“Whether you have a small or a large budget, the key is to have the priorities that were established in the master planning phase guide the decisions made regarding the selection of building materials,” says Viviana Varnado, principal of Viviana Varnado Architects in Broken Arrow, Okla. “Church facilities and buildings need to be looked at in their totality, always keeping in mind the overall master plan developed at the beginning of the planning process. Just as the master plan should reflect the vision of the church and its ministries, the materials selected should align with the mission and priorities established.”

In and of itself, steel is nothing new as a construction material for worship facilities, but technological innovations involving its flexibility—both in terms of application and actual pliability—and sustainability make it an intriguing option, especially for multipurpose buildings. Steel’s ability to span long distances makes it especially suitable for church sanctuaries/auditoriums, multipurpose facilities, gymnasiums or any structure requiring column-free spaces with high ceilings that steel can provide, Varnado says. Steel’s durability, coupled with the fact that today’s fabricators are conscious about reducing waste and using recycled materials in their final products, make this material an environmentally friendly option. Steel structures’ outer walls also can be coated with a number of different materials that can give the appearance of a stone or stucco structure.

“We are talking with many churches now that want to use their buildings more than just Sunday, so a steel material allows you to provide large clearspans so as to accommodate a multi-purposed environment, allowing the church to use the facility for many different purposes,” says Jeff Whittle, president of Rock Hill, S.C.-based Ecclesia Construction Co.

Steel can be used aesthetically, too. At Steele Creek Church in Charlotte, N.C., Ecclesia used steel sheets of four different colors—representing different nationalities attending the church—in constructing a new sanctuary that also included glass and stucco. The four steel panels, arranged asymmetrically, help establish and convey the church’s identity, Whittle says.

Steel, bamboo and even straw-based materials are emerging as primary components of wall systems, as well. Las Vegas-based K-tect Sustainable Building Systems uses light-gauge fabricated steel with an expanded polystyrene insulating core in its wall, floor and roof systems; the core eliminates the negatives of thermal conductivity and sound bridging found in traditional metal framing and other building systems, according to the company.

U.K.-based Stramit StrawBoard is reportedly seeking to establish U.S. manufacturing for its wall systems made of straw, such as wheat and rice. The straw fibers are heated and pressure fused using the material’s internal resins to create a sustainable, tough bonded external surface between 35mm and 60mm thick. Similarly, bamboo wall systems are developing as a sustainable and durable alternative to traditional materials, reports Michael Williamson, president of San Franciscobased Green Tek Haus. Even better, many of these alternatives give churches the option of employing sweat equity, thereby cutting costs during construction. Williams points out that it’s important for congregations to discuss the do-it-yourself aspect with designers and contractors before starting construction, though.

“Even for a church, you can frame a $5 million-$10 million project in a few days to a week, and you don’t need a lot of manpower,” Williamson says. “That’s going to allow the congregations that do want to save money and use some sweat equity to really go for it. With the economy the way it is, if a church really needs a new building, one thing they should really look at is a material that allows them to do some of the work themselves.”

One important element of the construction process can prove thorny without appropriate diligence: making sure materials suppliers and subcontractors are paid. Not only can a compensation crisis reflect negatively on your organization, it also can shut down a job if legal action results. Ecclesia, a general contractor itself, works with both general contractors, subs and suppliers to make sure each is adequately compensated and cuts a check for labor and then a separate check for materials with subcontractors and materials contractors on the check, Whittle says.

21st Century Revival

Fabric structures for worship facilities also date back to the days of Moses and have played an important role in the traditional American tent revivals of the past 200 years. These days, though, fabric structures are made of materials like PTFE Fiberglass, PVC and Kevlar—the material used in military and law enforcement body armor—that’s durable and flexible enough to last decades.

Companies such as Sprung Instant Structures and Birdair typically fabricate and customize tensile structures and then deliver and install at the jobsite, which tends to compress construction schedules, again, offering cost-saving opportunities.

“Tensile fabrics are an innovative way to create a unique identity for a church or a ministry within the church,” Varnado says. “They can be used as accent structures to define a main entrance, a youth/student center, a children’s playground, or they can become the roof to an outdoor amphitheater. They can provide shade to a walkway and protection from rain to a drop-off drive or to a parking area.”

Whittle has been working with tensile structures for more than a decade and   lists both pros and cons. He likes that they’re easy to erect, the materials are readily available, and they can be used to create a warm, inviting environment. They also make a great screen for projected images and colors, especially when used as lobby space, and can be used to display information and images if you have a guest speaker involved in foreign missions, for example. On the flip side, expanding tensile structures can be complex; the fabric has to be replaced after approximately 10 years and it can be difficult to deep clean, especially in humid environments, Whittle says.

See and Be Seen

For the building envelope, glass is an attractive alternative in today’s churches that open themselves to the community, Varnado says. Its transparency makes the building inviting by revealing activities and spaces in its interior. It also makes interior spaces visually larger. One cost-conscious option involves using storefront windows in lieu of curtain wall systems. Curtain wall systems include structural components that to span long vertical distances, which increases the cost of materials. Storefront windows are smaller units that span shorter distances and, when resting on steel beams, they can give the appearance of a continuous window wall.

Budget-conscious churches also have the option of residential-grade windows that can significantly reduce costs, Varnado says. Glass and window systems and manufacturers also are consistently making strides to improve energy efficiency and meet Energy Star and Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards. LoE-272 glass works well for hot or cold climates, and LoE-366 glass works especially well for hot climates, she says.

All these options, from bamboo to recycled steel to glass curtain wall systems, can complicate materials decisions, but they also create opportunities to be creative and expressive, and even to reduce costs. It’s essential to delve into options early in your planning and building program to understand what’s available and ensure that your design/architect and contractor teams also grasp all the alternatives.

“I would suggest partnering with a builder that has used a diversified selection of materials on buildings and that keeps up with costs, and let them provide possible solutions and ideas as to what tells the story of the church,” Whittle says.

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