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Modern Materials Meet Classic Symbolism

Church Design for Today's Generation

“The Gothic Cathedral was designed to inspire awe and thoughts of transcendence. Megachurches celebrate comfort, ease, and the very idea of contemporary suburban life.”
- Paul Goldberger, The New Yorker columnist and Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic
Sweeping spires and walls of sun-splashed, pictorial windows characterize the enduring exteriors of the cathedrals of the past. These elaborate churches, containing interiors with Biblical scenes sculpted on every available surface, reflected the religious ideas of the day.
Traditions and doctrines may remain, but the design of youth ministry center Studio Grace--the most recent addition to the campus of megachurch McGregor Baptist (Ft. Myers, FL) -- shows that the architecture of welcoming people to faith has changed dramatically.
Where churches of old had vaulted, painted ceilings, “Studio G”, as the students call it, has industrial loft-like spaces. Rippling metal walls and large video screens replace stained glass; wooden pews are exchanged for padded chairs, and in the entryway, intricate stone flooring has been swapped for modern polished concrete.
 With a weekly attendance of a staggering 6,000+, the stated mission of McGregor Baptist Church: “Doing whatever it takes to develop fully devoted followers of Christ,” pervades all operations, including the design and construction of buildings—and perhaps extends down even to choice of flooring. The façade and interior of Studio Grace were blueprinted to convey a familiar, welcoming, and modern atmosphere for the youth, using a warehouse-inspired theme for the ministry center. “We wanted a space the students could relax and have fun…a place they could hang out,” says Hank Garner, Minister of Communications for the church. Any large group of energetic teens “hanging out” means high volume foot traffic, so the flooring in the entryway, halls and foyer, “Had to be durable,” according to Garner. The floors required a material that could stand up to constant use. Enter polished concrete, arguably the toughest flooring application on the market today. “Polished concrete is extremely durable and rarely damaged… it’s the wave of the future,” comments John Groom, owner of Concrete Designs & Resurfacing (Tyrone, GA) and head of the floor-finishing crew on the project.
Executive Pastor Russell Howard points out that in addition to durability, the use of polished concrete helps to “Establish the distinct, unique identity of the building,” from the rest of the more formal church campus. According to Hank, their plan worked well for the youth: “When the students walked in they were really excited…really blown away by the building.” The design also appealed to the older members of the congregation: “At the open house, there were several comments about the shine of the floor,” explains Mark Bricker, Pastor of Education. In Garner’s opinion the floor, “Just looks cool!” and adds to the overall architectural aesthetic of the space.
In addition to visual value, the polished flooring application provided other end-user benefits including simple cleaning, economy, and flexibility in design options. “ The floor is exceptionally beautiful,” comments polishing contractor John Groom, “and as long as the floor is cleaned properly—with a neutral cleaner and auto-scrubber—they won’t have any problems at all… it will be easy to maintain.” He continues, “They won’t have to go back in seven or eight years to redo the floor.” This helps with the overall economics of a building designed for the long term as maintenance costs are a large budgeting factor. Garner says the church saved money on the front end and will continue to in the future. “We [also] had a lot of flexibility in the design and appearance of the floor at the beginning of the project,” Hank says, adding that there was a wide variety of options available. The team had choices of color and levels of finish; the entryway is non-colored concrete, simple gray polished to a high shine, while the “Alley”, the church nickname for the foyer/hangout uses color and pattern.” In the end, it looked even better than we expected,” adds Garner.
The decision to specify polished concrete was a joint effort between the design team and the church and the architects; Hank says, “We had seen polished concrete used grocery stores and liked the look.” The architects agreed that polished concrete would add to the plans. “They specedit at our request,” Hank adds. The church chose Orlando-based general contractor H.J. High Construction to oversee all aspects of the project, including the hiring of tradesman. Shari Secrest, general contractor Projects Manager, involved floor polisher Concrete Designs & Resurfacing from the beginning.
“We were involved from the start so we were able to specify the type of process and curing needed to complete the project,” says Groom. “The advantage of new construction concrete vs. re-finishing an existing floor is that the end result can be defined at the beginning of the construction process as long as the flooring contractor is involved from the pouring stage on…It is easier to please the customer when they have a good idea of the outcome at the beginning,” explains John Groom. Cooperation between the general contractor and polishing crew was key; Concrete Designs & Resurfacing worked closely with H.J. High to coordinate the specified wet-curing process. “The building was pre-engineered, which required the concrete floor to be poured first, even before putting up supporting columns and metal tresses. The flooring was in the open air, with no ceiling,” explains Secrest.
This fact that the structure was literally built around the floor required that H.J. High faced the difficult task of protecting it during the six-month interim building process before the floor could be finished.” We initially covered the floor with melamine plywood, but the high reach equipment and nails used still did some damage to the flooring.”  The biggest problem was all the heavy equipment coming in and out, often running over nails and creating divots. Shari says they had to be diligent in clearing the area of waste, especially nails, during the building process. The team also double checked the tires of the heavy equipment to guarantee the high-reach equipment was not dragging in metal debris. Shari’s team surprised that the concrete held up as well it did to the abuse, “John Groom’s crew used the right mix…they did a really good job,” she says.
Fortunately, any floor depressions matched the post-industrial ambiance. One pastor agrees: “A few dents just add to the look of the floor,” minister Hank Garner. “The building has a warehouse-type theme,” he says, adding that the flooring helps give a worn-in feeling.
H.J. High called the Concrete Designs & resurfacing team back to finish the floor when construction was nearing the last stages. “All the drywall was up and painted,” says Secrest, “We were about three months away from getting our Certificate of Occupancy.”
Two types of finishing were done in different parts of the building: the entryway and back halls were left with a natural finish, melded seamlessly with a black and brown pattern in the U-shaped foyer. “[The polishing] was same process for both areas,” Groom explains, “First we polished using a 70 metal-bond grit, followed by a 120, then switched to a 50 resin-bond, then 100, 200, 400, 800, 1500…when we were done we used a densifying hardener all over.” 
In the foyer, the black and brown interwoven design follows the pattern of the high tech looking metal grids floating overhead. The look was accomplished by using two shades of acetone-based dye after the 400 resin-bond polish step. John’s team used blue painters tape attached to plastic sheeting to covering the area to be colored brown. “We did the black first so any stray brown dye wouldn’t show up later,” mentions John Groom. An extra benefit of time-efficiency sped along the process: “We had scheduled two and a half weeks for the polishing, but it was done in one week…it went faster than we thought,” says Shari.
Upon completion of the 51,500 sq. ft. space, The McGregor Baptist Church Student Ministries Building was nationally recognized for excellence in construction by winning the Associated Builders and Contractors Eagle Award-- the highest honor given for projects in the range of five to ten million dollars. Judged by a board of architects and highly-qualified industry experts, the Eagle Award is “Fantastic…like the Emmy for building projects,” says Secrest.
Studio Grace represents an updated church design for the next generation. Though new materials and architecture may not permanently replace classic religious symbolism, the use of non-traditional flooring applications will continue to spread. In the words of John Groom, “Polished concrete is the wave of the future.”