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Church of the Highlands - Birmingham - Alabama
By: Jennifer-Walker Journey

Nine years ago, Chris and Tammy Hodges moved their family from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to Birmingham, Alabama, to plant a new church where Christians could influence and encourage the entire community, one life at a time. It was a bold task, but Pastor Chris formed a team of 34 people who committed themselves to helping make his dream a reality. On February 4, 2001, with 350 gathered in the borrowed space of a local high school, Church of the Highlands held its first service.

Those were the humble early days, when Pastor Chris would hold meetings at the nearby Starbucks or at his home office. As membership grew, so did the church's services and venues. Office space was leased in a strip mall, adding a 400-seat auditorium and providing another location for Sunday morning and Wednesday evening services.

When the senior pastor of another local church passed away, that church chose to merge with Church of the Highlands, not only adding to the membership but providing another location where the congregation could meet.

"It had a capacity of 300 seats and enough land for future growth," said Scot Montgomery, associate pastor missions/facilities. "We've since grown and now host four services on Sunday morning at this location."

To say Church of the Highland's has had explosive growth seems almost an understatement. The church has three other "video campuses" throughout Alabama and also offers a separate Hispanic service. About 10,000 people attend the church each week, earning it the prestigious title of the fastest-growing church in America by Outreach magazine. The magazine also listed Church of the Highlands 71st on its list of the 100 largest churches in America.

It was during the early days of the church that Aubrey Garrison III, president and principal-in-charge at The Garrison Barrett Group (TGBG) architects received a postcard in his home mailbox announcing that Church of the Highlands had formed in his neighborhood. Garrison said he had a feeling the church was going to grow and prosper. A few months later, he contacted Pastor Chris and invited him to tour the TGBG offices to discuss plans for building a church someday.

 "Pastor Chris even joked at the time, saying, 'We must be doing something right if an architect is already calling on us,'" Garrison said.

The architects were right. There needed to be a facility that could accommodate the fast-growing congregation. But church leadership didn't want the facility to take away from the church's mission. They wanted a beautiful, simple, and functional building.

"We are more interested in people than buildings and would rather spend our money reaching the people instead of adding additional cost to the building project," Montgomery said. 

It wasn't long before the church leadership began interviewing architectural firms to build out its dream. Montgomery said that TGBG was an easy choice, as the architects seemed to truly understand the church's goals and needs.

Church of the Highlands encourages small groups that meet throughout the city in homes, restaurants, and offices. However, for its larger gatherings, it needed a big auditorium.

"We needed seats for people to sit in on Sunday morning and enough nursery/preschool and children's areas to handle the need," Montgomery said.

TGBG responded by designing a 2,400-seat worship room. The worship room needed to be state-of-the-art yet flexible to house many different types of events besides worship activities. The plans provided for a commons area outside the worship room, equipped with a café or coffee shop. It also included a children's wing with two 250-seat auditoriums and an indoor playground. The nursery had more than 20 classrooms for infants through preschoolers. Upstairs provided room for administrative offices and a 500-seat youth auditorium.

Early in the process, church leadership decided on concrete tilt-wall construction for the exterior of the building. Using tilt-wall proved to be both cost effective and faster to install.

"The challenge was to incorporate joint patterns, paint color patterns, areas of glass, and landscaping that would overcome the pre-conception that tilt-wall is primarily used for warehouses," said Craig Krawczyk, TGBG project architect. "We used large amounts of glass at the building entries, high clerestory windows along the Children's Commons to let light into the center of the building, and punched openings in the administrative offices. This helped to break up the tilt-wall facades and give interest to the building form."

The entire project would cost Church of the Highlands about $20 million. Instead of holding a capital campaign or asking for pledges, Montgomery said, "We simply asked people to ask God what they should do."

By 2006, the church was able to begin construction. The biggest challenge was preparing the site for the building.

"The terrain was such that we worked for five months moving direct and rock in order to create a building pad that we could begin construction on," Montgomery said. "Throughout the course of the project, we moved approximately 1.3 million cubic yard of material."

Otherwise, construction went smoothly.

"Overall, there was great synergy among the project team, the contractor, and our firm," Garrison said. "This 'team' was exceptional in obtaining the maximum use of space within the church's budget, the development of a design image that corresponded with the church's desired image, and all within the financial goals established."

By June 2007, the building was complete, and the result was an overwhelming success. The building offers ample space for the large church, yet there is still plenty of room for it to grow. Architects designed and graded areas for future parking that could easily be paved as the need arose. An area between buildings also was designed for expansion of administrative offices and preschool classrooms. Also, the front yard of the building was sized and located to allow a place for a future 6,000-seat worship room.

"All of these spaces can be built out without interrupting or reconfiguring parking lots or driveways," Krawczyk said.

More phases also are on the horizon to accommodate larger crowds. A 1,000-seat youth auditorium is in the works, and future phases allow for a wedding chapel and a second worship space that would seat between 4,000 and 6,000 people.  

The Garrison Barrett Group, www.garrisonbarrett.com, is based in Birmingham, Alabama. TGBG designs both contemporary and traditional churches throughout the Southeast.

In a Nutshell

Church: Church of the Highlands

Denomination: Nondenominational 

Location: Birmingham, Alabama

Project Goal: To build a worship center for a new, fast-growing church

Size: 120,000 square feet

Cost: $20 million

Challenge: Recently named the fastest-growing church in America by Outreach magazine, the church needed to anticipate future explosive growth.

Solution: Architects designed and graded areas for future parking as well as space between buildings that could be built in for more administrative offices and preschool classrooms. The front yard area also is sized and located to allow for a 6,000-seat worship room.









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