Before the economic downturn hit, one South Carolina church merged ancient practices with modern materials—leaving an example of structural efficiency for churches today
Greenville, S.C.’s Prince of Peace church is a contemporary traditional building. In its design, church leaders and design team members used modern materials and ancient practices to get at the heart of Catholic tradition.
Prince of Peace selected architects Craig Gaulden Davis (CGD) through an interview process focused on local firms. Because of Diocesan rules governing design and funding, CGD developed a program, preliminary design, and budget estimate in less than 60 days. The design team learned, informally and through “Town Hall” meetings, that many of the parish’s expectations were informed by a generation of worship in a contemporary space some dubbed “the rocket ship.” Interestingly, the most traditional voices were young, mirroring a return to orthodoxy apparent in many traditions, including Catholic.
Monsignor Steven Brovey, then pastor of Prince of Peace, remembers instructing architects to “find a balance between Romanesque tradition and contemporary tastes.”
In addition, the design for the new church was to be governed by some other challenging expectations:
To avoid creating a reproduction or a theatre piece, CGD began by revisiting Romanesque architecture. They found height-to-width ratios that typically approached 2:1 and more color than expected, as well as simple massive structures punctuated by arches. Used repetitively, the arches often reinforced processional aspects of traditional Catholic worship.
A room for more than 1,000 people, with authentic proportions, could have been more than 100 feet high. CGD designers instead resorted to a Renaissance-era “trick”—angling one of the side walls by 10 degrees to narrow the room at the altar end. At 70 feet, the room is taller than newer auditoria, but the false perspective achieves the verticality of older designs.
As an aesthetic and economic guide to the design team, the architects shared an odd but simple narrative based on images of Coventry Cathedral, the bomb-ruined structure near Birmingham in the United Kingdom that’s maintained as a memorial: “Imagine that if anything catastrophic were to happen to the building, we’d still be able to hold services there.” It meant that the design should be characterized by a core structure of rhythm and substance, and that all other elements could be relatively lightweight and expected to change over time.
In response, the walls that constituted the main part of the structure were originally imagined as either load-bearing masonry or poured-in-place concrete. Concerns about the time required to reach full height and enclose the building led to consideration of precast concrete.
“Construction has its own traditions. Precast concrete is usually either structural or architectural, not both,” explains structural engineer John Arrowood. The former is meant to be covered up and is often crudely made; the latter is usually hung on a primary steel structure, essentially requiring the building to be constructed twice. Designers wondered if the architectural precast could be used structurally; most suppliers resisted, afraid of the quality that might be demanded of them. As it turned out, Metromont, a local structural precaster, had recently acquired an architectural plant and was willing to try.
There was, initially, some resistance from the church to the idea of using concrete as a finish. CGD designers remembered that many of the revered forms that define traditional churches started as practical solutions to technical challenges: “How do you put a roof over a crowd that no longer fits in a house? Try a vault supported on arches. How can we introduce windows and light into massive load-bearing walls? Consider a buttress. What’s the best way to reconcile multidirectional forces? Use a compound column.” In some ways, precast concrete used well is more traditional than other, older materials.
The walls were eventually constructed entirely from precast concrete, with no interior steel frame, left as the final finish. The assembled components are four-feet thick and hollow, aligned and fastened with stainless steel pins—and carry the weight of the balance of the building. Conventional metal studs, brick, and curtain wall complete the envelope.
With carpet and fabric banned, room acoustics could have been compromised, in fact, even awful. Working with acoustics consultant David Egan, designers used acoustical decking to reduce reverberation times to manageable levels. Hard surfaces at the back of the nave and transepts took on dramatic convex geometry to diffuse sound. Carefully focused vertical array speakers focus sound without “lighting up” the room acoustically. In addition, mechanical equipment sits atop low volumes on each side of the nave, staying out of sight.
The hardest system to hide, according to Dave Alber of Greenville’s DMA Lighting Design, lighting designer on the project, was the lights. And the hardest lighting issue to solve in such a tall room was how to change the lamps. Taking advantage of the deep walls, Alber reports that he and the architects worked to locate fixtures in the cavernous recesses adjacent to clerestory openings. “Lamps are changed from the outside, by reaching in through a nearby window,” Alber says.
Time is the enemy of most architecture. Given enough of it, most colors and details fade from fashion. To hold that off as long as possible, CGD used materials in their natural states—warm gray concrete, dark mahogany, clear aluminum and red terra cotta. Relatively small amounts of gypsum wallboard were painted quiet colors. An exception to this approach was the deep red and purple used on the exposed ceiling structure, intended to give depth without defaulting to theatre black.
The most important finish, of course, was the exposed concrete structure. Because of limitations in the manufacture of structural precast concrete (with tolerances of up to one inch), designers relied on simple, deep reveal joints at seams between stacked elements. Pairing strong geometric shapes with soft-looking, salt-finished floors gave what might have been a crude palette a rich look.
Part way through the design process, the design team met Howard McCall, a local, retired engineering executive who was a first-rate blacksmith, and glass artist Lou Ellen Beckham-Davis. The architects and liturgical consultant Pietro Smith worked with McCall and Beckham-Davis to incorporate theological concepts and images into door hardware, light fixtures and a baptistery cover. Each leaf of the entry doors is five-feet wide and 14-feet high, and is fitted with bronze pulls in the shape of sheaves of wheat. McCall built vertical bolt latches that are opened with a bronze-tipped boat pull. Other doors depict shepherds’ crooks and bouquets of lilies in iron.
Energy usage was not a primary consideration in the design of Prince of Peace, but other decisions made along the way conspired to help the project. The orientation of the church on an east-west axis, for liturgical reasons, placed long walls along the north and south and its internal focus minimized exterior openings. In addition, four-foot thick exterior walls reduced insulation requirements to nearly zero. Large glass openings on the north and south transepts—intended to make expansion easy—use high performance glass in varying combinations depending on its exposure.
Fittingly, given the effort made to incorporate and conceal artificial sources, Brovey is happiest with the natural lighting. “Since the first day, the quality of light has been remarkable,” he says. “We get sun from the east end at early services, and it comes through the clerestory windows later in the day. It always seems to find the altar for a pretty dramatic effect.” Indeed, most services are enhanced almost entirely by natural illumination.
Ron Geyer, AIA, NCIDQ is ministry and cultural studio leader at Craig Gaulden Davis (www.cgdarch.com) in Greenville, S.C. He helps churches—new and old—make smart decisions about the buildings and spaces they inhabit and use in ministry. Find his blogs at www.churchthatmoves.com and www.wfdesigner.com.