Waiting on God’s plans for our lives to unfold is always difficult, but it comes with the territory of being human. Remaining submissive when plans change compounds the difficulty, but obedience will assuredly reap a greater reward. Birmingham, Ala.’s Church of the Highlands (COTH) has set the bar high for not only seeking His plan, but especially for surrendering and rolling with the punches.
In 2004, three-year-old COTH was busting at the seams meeting in a high school’s fine arts center. By 2007, they’d teamed up with a Birmingham architecture firm, Live Design Group, and commenced planning a 120,000-square-foot, 2,400- seat worship center as part of an overall master plan prepared for their 128-acre Grants Mill campus.
Much care was taken to plan for the future and provide maximum functionality, but cost was also considered. “The church was young and it was important to the pastor to send a message that money wasn’t being spent on an extravagant building,” says Whitney Simon, a graduate architect with Live Design. For economic and time efficiency, the space was constructed using tilt-up concrete. The fan-shaped worship area is a combination of stadium and flat floor seating, which allows the space to be set up for seated banquets. A commons area with a coffee shop, a children’s wing with two 250-seat auditoriums and 20 classrooms, as well as a second floor with administrative space and a 500-seat youth auditorium, completed the space. However, it wasn’t long before it all filled up and it was necessary to take the next growth step, to accommodate youth in particular.
Prepared for change
At the outset of Phase II, COTH faced a totally different financial climate than in 2004. Daunting as the outlook seemed, the perceived challenges netted a more dynamic design process and end result. “Better questions were asked, like ‘How can we best maximize this space and be better stewards of our resources?’” comments Michael Trent, Live’s lead collaborator. “The recent economy and a new generation of thought toward church facilities are coming together at a great time—leaders are leaning to multisite, alternative venues and mixed-use environments. Often, small is the new big.”
Chuck Dowd, design engineer with Alpharetta, Ga.-based Clark, the project’s audio-visual and lighting (A/V/L) designer, shares that the technology end of COTH’s expansion was not indicative of church projects elsewhere. “Clark has primarily worked on building renovations or system upgrades within the last few years, COTH was new construction,” he says.
The Live Process, Live Design’s creative methodology, was employed to ensure the new space was not only designed to be what COTH needed in terms of space and function, but also to maximize current resources and serve the church for generations to come. The first step is design and dialogue, and consequent steps are built around a core of communication and all-party involvement. The central idea arrived at was to create a building that was straightforward with all areas clearly visible from the commons vantage point. “[Attendees] can’t get lost and it’s very visitor-friendly. It also cut down on wasted corridor space and simplified the floor plan,” says Simon.
Live Design’s use of Revit, building information modeling (BIM) software, further involved all parties and created a clear picture of the end objective. “Three-dimensional modeling was particularly helpful in making sure that the addition and the original building were harmonious,” says Simon. “It [basically] enabled us to design in front of the client.”
As construction proceeded with Birmingham’s Brice Building, COTH’s attendance numbers soared, and the project that began as a youth auditorium quickly became an overflow auditorium, too.
A seamless unification
The exterior of Phase II is a seamless extension of Phase I. “We always intended to have this space, and we planned Phase II so it would look like the two facilities were built together,” says COTH Associate Pastor Scott Montgomery, who served as the project manager. Tilt-up was again used to save costs and blend with Phase I. Metal panels and storefront make up the façade that is complemented by cable-suspended awnings over entrances and interrupted by angular concrete swatches. COTH has 360-degree parking, so a planned outdoor courtyard between the Phase I and II buildings was enclosed to create a second grand entrance, according to Montgomery.
The interior work extended Phase I’s commons area, adding a bookstore and expanding the coffee shop to allow outdoor seating and a separate exterior entrance—a foundation tenet for successful Third Place ministry, according to Aubrey Garrison, Live Design’s principal. The same rich earthen colors used in Phase I cover the walls and floor, and contemporary detailing, including no up-keep, polished concrete in the café, unifies the open space. “A visitor can’t get lost here. It’s very transparent and inviting,” says Montgomery.
The focus of Phase II was the 1,000-seat theater. Originally intended solely for youth use, it is now the most heavily used space on the campus. A wide and shallow seating layout ensures that each occupant is close to the platform. Stackable chairs and polished concrete flooring make the space multipurpose, in addition to serving as a video venue for Sunday’s four services and a youth theater for 1,000 students on Wednesday nights.
Clark, Live Design and Brice had worked together before, and therefore under- stood one another’s design infrastructure. Working closely with Montgomery, the team programmed the theater according to the vision of the church. “From that point it was a matter of communication and working as a team to make decisions and get information,” says Dowd.
The A/V/L components of the space were designed with high-energy worship services in mind. Audio was built around a line array and fill speaker geometry to avoid delay loudspeaker positions, and a sub-bass horizontal array was also used. In addition, Clark installed acoustical treatments. “[This] allows the sound system to function at its best without problematic reflections or long delay times,” says Dowd.
Four motorized projection screens above the stage—and the capability for two more to flank—form the foundation of the theater’s video system. A Spyder video processor allows technicians to spread one image across the multiple screens, or to “window” material in a variety of ways, according to Dowd.
To properly outfit the space for future flexibility, Dowd installed large amounts of conduit, included extra inputs in the floor pockets and video routing system, and provided patch bay and rack space for additional wireless microphones. The technology was planned for the people that would be running it by dividing the operator controls into functional groupings that matched those in the existing worship center. “Therefore, a volunteer in the new production room will still be handling the same role as in the main production room,” explains Dowd.
An increasing number of attendees resulted in the need for increased staffing for COTH, too. Therefore, the original second-floor youth auditorium was retrofitted to house up to 50 team members. A serving kitchen was also included to accommodate food service for numerous conferences COTH conducts each year.
The open arms of the church are exemplified in this project. Planning for one group, and enthusiastically amending those plans to accommodate God’s, has proven an immeasurable blessing for COTH. “We set out to build for those who weren’t here yet, and now we’re already full again,” concludes Montgomery.