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Church Construction: Contemporary Meets Gothic Architecture

A fresh approach in design succeeds in expanding this timeless church ministry with modern elements and a more welcoming contemporary feel.

The first thing you notice when entering the Church of the Incarnation is the beauty of its scale.

Bright and sweeping vaulted ceilings draw attention skyward over generous corridors with ambient light which spills inside through large windows. "One of my great joys is seeing little kids run down the halls of the education building," shares Church of the Incarnation's Bishop, Anthony Burton, with a smile. "The scale and natural light make people feel happy and elevated."

That scale was something that Bishop Burton wasn't completely sure about in the initial design phases. "When looking at things on paper, you can see that the proportions are good, but you don't know how it will feel when you walk inside of it. In constructionwhen the initial beams went upI could experience the scale and knew it would feel good."

The sanctuary and welcome center both share the unique ceiling which has exposed glue lam trussesmuch like an inverted ship. The timbers are 30 plus feet long in the ceiling, and the visual they create draws your eye to create an inspired experience.


The original campus contained buildings from different eras. The original chapel from 1927, a sanctuary constructed in 1954, and a multipurpose building from 1966. The Gothic style of architecture makes Church of the Incarnation a readily recognizable fixture from its position on Interstate 75 in Dallas. And while the real estate is perfect for easy access, the plot along the highway is long and narrow making it a challenge for campus layout.

"The existing campus spanned two city blocks," explains Bruce Woody, president of HH Architects, located in Richardson, Texas. "The site is very lineara good size, but long shape." Initially, the church had hoped to purchase land that would square off the campus, but the owners of the property were not ready to sell. "Sometimes challenges inspire superior solutions than what you would come up with otherwise. The narrow site prompted us to close off a street and design a Gothic-style linear progression that makes everything look like it was designed at the same time."

Jordan Wallace, project manager for Lee Lewis Construction adds, "The long, narrow building site created a difficult platform for designing and building this large of a space (60,000sqft), but it was a rewarding exercise in combining cost-efficient construction practices with old-world design concepts."

The $31 million campus expansion includes the 450-seat Ascension Chapel, a centralized welcome center—- that serves as one of the main entryways to the campus, a three-story education wing, and a homeless teen center.

Gary Kirchoff, principal at HH Architects mentions, "One of the specialty solutions to create continuity between the expansion and the original structures was in the brick.  The manufacturer, ACME Brick, came out to see what was there and created an exact match.  Of course, it wasn't enough just to match the brick. We also had the mason to match the mortar of the existing buildings."


One problem common to Gothic-style churches is that the architecture can feel impressive, but closed. People disappear behind the doors.

"The existing building had no big front door and no sense of where people were gathering," says Kirchoff. "That was a big downfall of the old architectural stylesthere is no place to gather as a group.  The new construction provided an opportunity to change that."

"When we closed the street [between the city blocks]," says Woody, "it needed to respond to people entering from both I-75 and McKinney Ave. The solution was to create dual front entries. It also allowed us to place the welcome center over the enclosed street to form a hub."

"We wanted the life of the church on display to the neighborhood," highlights Bishop Burton. HH Architect's design met this challenge by repeating Gothic shapes with windows in the circulation spaces to create that sense of transparency.

In return the new windows also welcome the outside in, by providing views to the adjoining neighborhood and park.

Behind the scenes, the architects worked through all of the code issues and modern day requirements that weren't a part of the equation 1,000 years ago when the aesthetic was initially introduced.

"The fellowship hallwhich we call the Welcome Centerwas an important part of this project," adds Bishop Burton who realized a very real danger of the congregation evolving into two separate parishesone traditional and one contemporaryif there wasn't a place for the whole church to connect together. "We have a very strict cookie policy which limits their consumption to just the Welcome Center. It's one of our instruments of Unity," grins Bishop Burton.


The Ascension Chapel looks like a traditional Gothic chapelnot an obvious choice for contemporary services which tend to favor black box theatre styles. The thing about the contemporary service at Church of the Incarnation is that it is steeped in tradition. This is where the Ascension Chapel bends rules of iconic architecture and technology.

"People love the new Chapel. In fact, it grew by a third overnight.  That was very niceof course, now we are putting out chairs on Sunday. It's been fantastic for morale," offers Bishop Burton.

Careful acoustic design controls the sound energy without killing the sense of volume in the space. Steve Reed, senior consultant and VP of Idibri led the acoustics and technology design for the project explains, "On a large majority of the walls facing the Chancel, BaswaPhon, a sound absorbing wall plaster system was used to help control sound reflected back to the chancel area and provide sound absorption in the room. The speaker system was a L/R EAW Anya array. These speakers were chosen for their broadband pattern control to aim the sound where the people were seated and keep it off the windows, walls and ceilings."

The video system has 80" displays for graphics, lyrics and presentations. There is also a small video production system that is used for streaming and recording. It includes 2 PTZ cameras a static camera and switching system.

"The technology is designed to create high impact when it is in use and to disappear, when it is not," continues Reed.

This is most evident with the LED lighting which dramatically changes the look of the space. The cove lighting and color washes create an energy not often found in traditional architecture and can be used to cue the mood of the space. The lighting was also designed to enhance the stained glass windows which will eventually be installed.

The large stained glass windows scheduled for the Chapel have taken almost three years to create. The creatively traditional design is much closer to the style of modern graphic novels than to stiff Victorian and are being crafted in Canterbury, England using the same methodology employed in the 13th century.  Handblown glass is flattened by artisans as it cools giving the glass beautiful imperfections in texture and color that cannot be replicated with machine fabrication.

"These windows actually revived an industry," shares Bishop Burton. "There is a lot of buzz about it in the glass-making world."

The first window will be installed in March 2017 with others to follow over time.


"Our church feels very called to reach the teens in the neighborhood. There is a high school across the street with a large population of at-risk kids. There are around 170 homeless kids showing up for school. We wanted to build something for them," says Bishop Burton.

The teen center is strategically located so that no one has to do a walk of shame' where friends can see that they are making use of the services. "Homeless kids don't want people to know that they are homeless," observes Bishop Burton. "We purchased an office building and renovated the first floor as the teen center with administrative offices for this ministry and other outreach ministries located on the second floor. Our hope for the homeless teen center is that they would outgrow the current buildings."


"When you start an endeavor like this you are braced for a natural skepticism," confides Bishop Burton. "There was none of that here. I think it was a combination of obvious need and the wonderful Dallas go-ahead' business culture. People like to make things happen. It was a lot of fun beginning to end."


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