A redemption theme appears in many church projects. Athens Church of Athens, Ga.'s, purchase and renovation of an empty shopping center, use of found materials and reuse of existing technology is a prime example.
A redemption theme appears in many church projects. Athens Church of Athens, Ga.’s, purchase and renovation of an empty shopping center, use of found materials and reuse of existing technology is a prime example.
Athens Church was planted by Alpharetta, Ga.-based North Point Ministries in 2005 and spent five years graduating to ever larger temporary spaces until purchasing 40,000 square feet of vacant retail space and an adjoining 11 acres. According to church Director of Operations Josh Jones, the old Wal-Mart was immediately configured into a 1,300-seat auditorium and support spaces, but was outgrown in short order. That’s when the owners of the shopping center approached the church about purchasing the remaining property—a total of 340,000 square feet and 40 acres. “At the time it seemed ridiculous to own that much [space],” says Jones, “but it was adjoining property with buildings already on it.”
Images courtesy of Bradfield, Richards, Rhodes & Associates, and Clark, both of Atlanta.
Shortly after the purchase in 2013, Atlanta-based architectural firm Bradfield, Richards, Rhodes & Associates (BRR) was hired to complete a master plan, but quickly realized full remediation of the interior had to come first, shares Principal and Project Architect Tom Rhodes. The next step was gutting all non-load bearing walls to provide a true blank canvas. BRR and Athens Church then invited the first phase’s lead designer, Sandy Gibbes, now of Equip Studio in Greenville, S.C., to collaborate on the master plan.Fracture vs. Connection
A defining goal for the master plan was relocating the main auditorium and entrance from a corner of the shopping center to its middle. Another was establishing a logical flow for attendees to move from kids’ spaces to adult spaces and back again. Instead of relying on the fractured exterior sidewalk and entries, BRR’s solution was to “move the sidewalk indoors” and design an interior transom connecting all ministry areas.
Also, since a core tenet of Athens Church is investing in the next generation, children’s spaces were a top priority, especially high school. All in all, the plan would build out 160,000 square feet of the shopping center to provide 20,000 square feet each for pre-K, elementary, middle school and high school, and 80,000 square feet for adult worship and gathering spaces.
“We prioritized square footage over elaborate design because we tend to fill up what we build. We wanted enough space to buy us a few years, and give people a good experience,” says Jones.
Construction commenced in 2015 and the new spaces were ready for use in July 2016. Athens Church’s exterior is now a compliment to its surroundings—something the church and community are pleased with. The original split-faced concrete blocks and storefront doors and windows were transformed with paint, the addition of new windows and by emphasizing entries with rusted steel.
The new main entrance is announced with the church’s logo prominently displayed. Two garage doors were added, as well, and when the weather is nice they’re opened to create an indoor/outdoor gathering plaza.
"We weren’t trying too hard, we just wanted it to be functional and for people to have a good experience inside."
—Tom Rhodes Principal and Project Architect, Bradfield, Richards, Rhodes & Associates, Atlanta, GA
The buildings form a semi-circle punctuated by multiple entries that all connect to the interior corridor and progress in age from left to right with adults in the middle. On the other end of the strip, high school students have their own entrance—no parents allowed. Inside, students encounter about a dozen shipping containers repurposed as small group breakout spaces. BRR simply cut out doors and added HVAC and lighting.
“The shipping containers didn’t save any money, but they add a factor to that environment that students are drawn to—it feels like an old warehouse,” says Jones. Doing more with less
Repurposed elements were creatively utilized in the other youth spaces, too—palettes, corrugated pipes, paint cans as office inboxes, even a camper and a Volkswagen—all in keeping with the building’s overall industrial feel.
The interior corridor connecting the children’s areas to the adult space also serves as general circulation. It spills into the main entrance lobby that drives home the minimalist industrial vibe and leads into the new 2,100-seat auditorium. Exposed structural systems, concrete floors and open spaces define the aesthetic.
“Architects spend a lot of time and money covering structural elements up, so we decided to leave everything exposed and go very industrial,” says Rhodes.
The auditorium space, a former TJ Maxx, was the biggest design challenge of the project, according to Rhodes. The 18-foot ceiling needed to grow to 30 feet to accommodate rigging and lights, and the numerous support columns needed to be removed so they wouldn’t impede sight lines.
Every contractor that interviewed for the job was asked what their solution for the auditorium would be. The best idea belonged to Brasfield & Gorrie of Kennesaw, Ga.—demo the roof, leave the walls, and build a new steel support structure within.
“Basically, we left the exterior walls in place and built a new structure inside them. The space left in between is now the hallway surrounding the auditorium,” explains Rhodes.
The auditorium’s seating combines non-fixed seats on a flat floor and riser-style seating in the back. “We used carpet squares in alternate patterns to help with chair set up, and to get an even floor for banquet tables,” says Jones of the space that is multipurpose in nature and hosts large events throughout the year.Infrastructure for Performance
Attaining performance venue function on a modest budget required a great deal of planning, Jones reports. That’s why Athens Church hired Atlanta’s Clark for AVL design and integration early in the project. The church also needed help designing around existing technology and deciding when and where to spend on new gear.
According to Houston Clark, Clark co-founder, a cornerstone of his company’s process is up-front involvement. “We’re good at designing systems, but we realize those have to be supported by infrastructure, so we want to be involved as early as possible to be a part of budgeting discussions,” says Clark.
Clark’s senior project engineer, John Stewart, also shares that the church wanted the ultimate in flexibility on stage. This is where early involvement really helped, because Clark’s team was able to work with architects, engineers and Athens Church’s own creative team to plan and budget for the necessary infrastructure. One of the highlights of the infrastructure design includes a cable and power trough laid into the stage floor. The trough allows the church to put various signal wires and power cables anywhere on the stage and keep them concealed for a clean look on stage during services.
Meanwhile, blending new and existing equipment afforded Athens Church with state-of-the-art AVL system design on a college budget. For instance, new amps and subwoofers were purchased, but Clark found used speakers from another client church that were in perfectly good condition. In addition, by using an already owned lighting console, the team was able to outfit the entire auditorium with LED houselights. “The nature of the project was looking at what [Athens] already had and determining what to buy now or replace soon—to only spend what needed to be spent,” says Clark.
For video, Clark assisted in determining what size side screens were needed, but the church secured a demo LED wall from Mankin Media for its center screen. “It’s currently 30x10 feet, but we can add to it as we raise the money,” Jones says.
Rhodes estimates that Athens Church saved 30%-40% on project costs due to repurposing space, systems and technology. “Repurposing really can be a winning situation for all involved, and it’s certainly a redemption metaphor,” he concludes.
[Editor's note: Find a comprehensive equipment list of the AVL gear used at Athens Church at (visit link