by Steven P. Fridsma, AIA, LEEDAP

For more than three centuries, the Church of Jesus didn’t possess its own physical place of worship. Our spiritual ancestors often met at the Jewish temple, in larger homes of fellow Jesus-followers, and in underground catacombs to escape persecution. Despite not having buildings, the early Church of Jesus grew exponentially and changed many aspects of human history.

By the fourth century, in order for a town to be under the protection of a Roman militia, it had to erect a basilica. This public building was a symbol of Rome’s imperial power, order and civilization. It had prescribed proportions and design features: an entry at one end; a hall with columns to either side, along which commerce took place; and a raised semicircular dais in an apse at the far end, upon which a local magistrate presided. The center hall was higher than the sides in order to allow natural light to illuminate the central space. If you were selling or buying togas, or if you had a property dispute with your neighbor, you came here. The basilica was both your shopping mall and your courthouse.

In A.D. 333, when Constantine legitimized Christianity for the Roman Empire, something very interesting happened. As Christianity spread, unchecked by persecution and even encouraged by Imperial Rome, it became natural for Christians to gather in larger groups. Constantine, wanting to further institutionalize his newfound faith for Rome, sought to establish a standardized Christian church building. He rejected the prevailing form of religious gatherings of the time, the pagan temple, whose form too closely followed the function of specific pagan worship practices. Instead, he selected the common basilica already present in every Roman town to represent this official new Church of Rome. Early iterations merely swapped out the magistrate’s chair with an altar, and there was no seating. Through the ages, the footprint of the basilica is still reflected in many cathedrals. In fact, some Catholic churches are today called “basilicas,” still bearing the name of this ancient secular marketplace and courthouse building.

Fast forward to today. This year, American churches are expected to spend about $8 billion on new construction. However, in our Midwestern church design studio, we’ve recently completed a number of projects for churches that wished to transform various types of existing buildings into houses of worship. In a way, these churches are searching for the 21st-century version of the fourth-century basilica, this time in a grassroots way and through many types of built forms. Just last week, a realtor representing a church called for information about adaptive reuse and potential future design services.

What factors appear to be leading churches to seek out existing facilities to renovate?

Lower First Cost

Most of the churches we’ve worked with who choose this method of creating ministry space are younger, meaning they have both smaller financial resources and a higher tolerance – or even preference for – nontraditional ministry space. Since an existing building is typically already functioning for some previously intended purpose, the cost of the building plus code upgrades plus renovations for ministry is often, but not always, less expensive than an equivalently sized new building project. Much of this depends on local real estate conditions, building code requirements, and the level of finish expectations of the church. If the local economy or real estate conditions favor purchasing an existing building, churches may actually have quite a range of building types from which to choose. As cultural and spiritual norms of what constitutes a “church building” soften, churches appear more willing to put up with a wider range of building types – and what might, at first, appear to be glaring inconveniences. Not all existing buildings are appropriate for use as a church. A very common challenge is the existing structural bay size and working with columns in the main assembly space. While costs can be kept down, do not underestimate the cost of code compliance in converting non-assembly occupancy to assembly occupancy. There are much more stringent requirements in assembly occupancy for items such as exiting, toilet count, accessibility and fresh air intake, just to name a few project factors.

Faster Occupancy

Since at least the superstructure of a purchased building already exists, the site is already somewhat improved, and at least rudimentary engineering systems are already in place, the duration of construction can be greatly reduced. In cold climates, the project can commence at any time of year without concern for winter conditions and their associated premiums. Additionally, churches may even be able to get a partial occupancy permit for areas of the building that will be unaffected by the renovation, such as offices or storage, and then gradually transition to the new site until full occupancy is granted.

Increased Proportion of Volunteer-Ready Work

From a total project budget standpoint, an adaptive reuse project has a greater proportion of work that is appropriate for the skill sets of volunteer crews. For a church that is trying to save costs or is blessed with a few construction tradesmen among its membership, an adaptive-reuse project is an especially great opportunity for a church to leverage sweat equity and in-kind donations of material and labor. As opposed to a new construction project requiring specialized trades such as steel erection, masonry and elevated concrete slabs, many of the construction trades required on an adaptive reuse project are within reach of a wider range of construction skills. Additionally, construction managers are more likely to tolerate qualified volunteers in the construction zone because the risk of injury is reduced.

Location, Location, Location

Renovating an existing building often allows churches to locate in a denser area of development – where people already are – instead of locating on undeveloped land on the outskirts of town. This also allows churches to be closer to utility and transportation infrastructure, and not contributing to urban sprawl. Being closer to greater population density and multiuse development increases the opportunity for the facility to be used as community space, hosting recreation opportunities, after-school programs and coffee shop ministries. Churches that pursue adaptive reuse should be prepared for a possible push-back from certain government entities, who may not want to see prime real estate disappear from property tax rolls.

Environmental Sustainability

We’ve all heard, “reduce, reuse, recycle.” When churches purchase and adapt existing buildings, they model holistic stewardship for their communities. Depending on the degree of renovation and finish expectation, an adaptive reuse building project is by its very nature a more environmentally conscious project than would be new construction. What is the most environmental building product? Bamboo? Cork? Photovoltaic panels? The most environmental building product is the one you never use. Adaptive reuse spares a tremendous amount of raw material from ever needing to be manufactured in the first place. A nice by-product of approaching a church building project through adaptive reuse or from a sustainability standpoint is that the practice is still novel enough that the local media loves the story. Churches can get a lot of free publicity from being green or from buying an empty department store. Building green is also a growing expectation of the public, especially among young people, and is beginning to be mandated through building codes and zoning ordinances in some communities.

Cultural Familiarity and Mission

A few of our clients have specifically wanted an “everyday” sort of place, approachable and familiar to people who are far from God, regardless of cost benefit. While hard to quantify, there has been a feeling that whether new or reused, building types with which people interact on a daily basis might be more universally accessible to unchurched people, especially those who may have had negative church experiences. A lot here depends on each particular community of faith’s mission, vision and values, and the story they will tell with their facility use. In one controversial and highly publicized local example, a very historic, downtown church in Grand Rapids, Mich., sold its beautiful stone and stained-glass building to a condominium developer in order to renovate a former maintenance shop in which to do street-level ministry. The church leaders had prayerfully determined that their mission could be better carried out in a less intimidating building that was also more sustainable and easier to maintain.

Experimental Freedom

We have witnessed a lot of creative experimentation coming from churches who have adapted an existing building. Some strategies of these sanctuaries include sculptures being hung from exposed steel inside the space, a van driven inside to be part of a skit, murals painted and repainted on walls or floors, and a concrete cross poured right on the worship platform. These multi-sensory forms of worship may be more readily accepted because the building, by its very nature, is intrinsically raw and not perceived to be “precious.” Some of us may remember dealing with parental pressure to carefully preserve our brilliantly white back-to-school sneakers beyond September. Adaptive reuse worship facilities appear to enjoy freedom from that kind of “preservation tyranny” from day one.

Convergence and Meaning

In rare cases, an existing building may have a particular physical characteristic that especially lends itself the application of spiritual meaning. One example is Grand Rapids’ Monroe Community Church, which adapted a warehouse in a downtown area of turn-of-the-century brick and heavy timber structures which are being converted to art galleries, urban lofts, restaurants and microbreweries. One interior wall of this warehouse church is actually the exterior brick wall of an adjacent century-old warehouse that long ago had the windows enclosed with concrete masonry. The church had one of its artists paint contemporary stained-glass window murals within these blank window frames, allowing an architectural feature that had not seen the light of day for perhaps 50 years to once again provide a form of illumination. We have also seen a church highlight existing cross-shaped structural plates to create symbolism, and another integrate its factory’s heavy timber structural language into its logo as a cross. In these ways, adapting and reusing the quirks of a particular modern-day “basilica” can be made into an especially meaningful metaphor for God’s grace which accepts us, failures and all, and makes us each into a new creation.

Please stay tuned for Part 2 of this discussion, which will look at several recent case studies of adaptive reuse projects, the challenges each existing building created, and the lessons learned from each design solution.

Architect Steven P. Fridsma, AIA, LEEDAP is the worship environments leader at Progressive AE in Grand Rapids, Mich. Passionate about examining cultural and spiritual forces as they relate to existing forms and new models for church architecture, he is a frequent national speaker. He’s planted churches and served as a worship leader, digital artist and the worship design team leader at CentrePointe Church. He’s also a guest instructor in architectural design and theory at Calvin College and recipient of the AIA Grand Valley chapter’s “Young Architect Award.”