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Monument Heights Baptist Church
By: Jennifer Walker-Journey

The dedication of the new education and welcome center for Monument Heights Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia, was more than a celebration. It was a shining example of how taking a new approach to projects can result in great rewards.

Monument Heights was founded in 1950 and was comprised of four connecting buildings. The first buildings were erected in 1951 and 1955. A sanctuary was added in 1967, followed by another wing in 1978.

Around 2005, the church began to focus on future development. They wanted a central area to welcome members and guests before services, corridors that allowed for easy flow of traffic from one area to the next, and updates to its preschool area.

The two oldest buildings, one of which housed the preschool, were beginning to show their age. Accessibility was difficult, hallways were cramped, and cracks revealed problems with the foundation. The obvious answer was to tear down the two buildings built in the 1950s and construct a new, modern facility.

The church hired William Henry Harris III, architect and owner of William Henry Harris & Associates Inc. Architects & Planners. Harris had a long history of church design and drew up plans for a new building.

"Our initial design was to doze the 1955 building, which was behind the 1951 building in a T-shape. The 1951 building would stay until a future date when it would be removed and replaced with a new wing," Harris said. "But, as the project progressed, the cost of construction became a determinant."

The church's budget was tight, and the more plans were reviewed, the more Harris realized that the best and most cost-effective plan would be to renovate the existing buildings. It took some convincing, but Harris eventually sold church leadership on his idea.

The result was what Harris calls a good example of sustainable design.

"By reusing something that was built 60 years ago, we were able to get away from dump fees and the cost of taking debris to another site. So, in a backhanded way, it's right in step with [the "green" movement that] is happening in the U.S. today."

What it enabled them to do, he added, is get about 14,000 square feet of renovated space for the same price that they were going to pay for 8,000 square feet of new space.

The old buildings were completely gutted. Classroom walls were blown out. Asbestos that was in the old preschool area was carefully removed by professionals. And, the sagging foundation was shored up by using structural piles, similar to huge steel screws that bore deep into the ground and allowed the new foundation to hold in place.

A new interior partition layout removed non-conforming corridors and stairs, replacing them with more accommodating and accessible spaces for children and adults. The preschool wing was equipped with new child-sized bathrooms and cabinets, and rooms allowed for small group gatherings. Lighting was upgraded and security points improved.

The building was also equipped with new insulation, energy-efficient heating and cooling systems, energy-efficient windows and doors, and accessible bathrooms.

A new entrance was also created, providing a covered drop-off and pick-up area and, thus, immediate entry into a commons area. Additional parking was also created as part of the site preparation.

The exterior was given a face-lift to complement the existing traditional style of the sanctuary. The brick façade was kept in place, but cornices were replaced with new ones made of a low-maintenance acrylic-type material.

The end result was nearly twice as much space for less the cost of what a new building would have gotten them.

"We are thrilled with the final result, wrote Senior Pastor Randy Clipp. "You should see the place furnished – wow!"

It took six years from the time the church hired Harris until the project was completed – a process Harris calls an odyssey.

He said, "It's been a long and winding road, but we finally found the best way to do the project and keep within the church's budget."

William Henry Harris & Associates, based in Richmond, Virginia, specializes only in church-related design projects. Established in 1983, the firm offers complete design services from programming and master planning through complete project design and construction contract administration, www.harrisarchitects.org

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