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Shades Valley Community Church
By: Jennifer Walker-Journey

It seemed that every time the members of Shades Valley Community Church in the small Birmingham, Alabama, suburb of Homewood, got settled into a building, they were uprooted by circumstance.

Founded in 1991, the members first met in homes before moving to an office building. By 1993, when Mike Garrigan became pastor, rent was raised so high that the group moved its worship services to a high school gymnasium. A few years later, the city tore down the high school, leaving the church to search for yet another place to call home. They eventually moved into a warehouse on the west side of town. From there, the congregation grew.

The location seemed ideal in the underserved community. However, being nestled in an industrial complex didn’t provide the sense of community the church longed for. 

“We wanted a walk-up facility, the type of church in a community that people could walk to and feel a part of,” Garrigan said.

To achieve this goal, the church had to find a building in a community setting that they could afford to renovate. The solution came as a most unexpected answered prayer.

In a comfortable neighborhood, just steps from an elementary school, a large building stood vacant. It was a landmark of sorts, having housed a popular ice skating rink for several years before it became a sports arena. People still referred to the 30-year-old building as the “old Alpine Ice Lodge.” Vacant, the building was becoming an eyesore for those living in the area. But, to Garrigan, it offered hope. It would just take a little creativity to make it a church home.

Because the building served as a sports arena, transforming it into a worship center would take a lot of money, posing a challenge for membership. A steering committee was formed and they discovered that what the church lacked in funds, the membership excelled in talent. With a lot of hard work and a little determination, the old ice-skating rink could be the place the church called home.

On a pro bono basis, Dungan Nequette Architects developed a design that included a sanctuary and offices. John Hudson, of Hudson Architecture LLC and member of the steering committee, served as the volunteer project architect.

The first phases utilized only 50 percent of the massive structure and included a 300-seat sanctuary, fellowship hall, children’s classrooms, youth meeting space, study and prayer rooms, and staff offices. The fellowship hall, sanctuary, and classrooms would occupy the first floor. Dramatic stairs in the lobby would lead to second-floor offices, meeting space, and a youth loft.

Members and friends provided free or greatly discounted services and products. Even more members came forth in droves to hammer panels to the wall or to balance on scaffolding and press insulation into the ceiling panels. Whatever they could provide, members put in countless hours of hard work. What they were building, it seemed, was more than a church.

“It was the best Bible study, the best men’s fellowship,” Hudson said. “This team became my spiritual support group. It was a really good way to bond with the church.”

As other churches in Birmingham and beyond built massive sanctuaries and sprawling new additions worth millions of dollars, Shades Valley focused on items left behind in the old sports arena. The existing bleachers were salvaged, refinished, and utilized as decorative paneling within the sanctuary and fellowship hall. Cedar posts were milled into tables and guardrails. Even some of the Plexiglas that encircled the rink was integrated into the design of the sanctuary as an alternative “stained glass.” Lockers from a local store’s going-out-of-business sale were transformed into the main stairwell. Overstock and remnant carpeting was placed in the playrooms and sanctuary. Donated furniture provides seating throughout.

To help reduce maintenance and operating costs, an inexpensive insulation system was applied to the roof and low-flow plumbing fixtures were installed. Compressed paper panels, also known as Homasote, were applied to some of the walls with a decorative fastener pattern to reduce finishing and painting surfaces and speed up the project. The walls also provided the added benefit of serving as a sound attenuate and enabled art to be easily tacked to the walls for display. Natural light was also made to pour deep into the sanctuary and fellowship hall through translucent panels and walls. The concrete floors were left intact, providing strength and durability as well as adding to the simplistic design. Two shades of brown painted on minimal surfacing blended well with the Homasote-paneled walls.

Perhaps the church’s one indulgence is the pair of 300-year-old wooden doors purchased from a nearby antique shop. The doors separate the sanctuary from the fellowship hall and offer a dramatic “old world” feel to the overall design.

In the architects’ pro bono report, the project was summed it up this way: “The spiritual parallel between the reclamation of the building and the reclamation of hope was pervasive through the project.” Garrigan agreed, calling the recycling of old materials in the church a redemption of sorts. 

After about a year of volunteer sweat equity, the church opened its doors for worship. 

“I think the space is beautiful but also irreverent,” Garrigan said. “It’s non-threatening.”

He hopes to make the church a bigger part of the community by renovating the large unfinished space and turning it into a gymnasium for local kids to use.

Hudson Architecture, based in Birmingham, Alabama, specializes in residential and commercial architecture, www.TheHudsonStudio.com.

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