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First Presbyterian Church
By: Jennifer Walker-Journey

The sound of sirens cut through the cold, crisp Saturday morning in March 2008.

"A short time after that, I got a call and they said, 'Pastor, it's the church,'" Rev. Al Polito, Jr. recalled. Black smoke poured out of the bell tower of the century-old First Presbyterian Church in Monticello, Iowa. The fire started under the sanctuary floor, ultimately breaking through at the pulpit. Flames engulfed the basement kitchen and gutted the sanctuary floor, melting away the baby grand piano. Bystanders watched in horror, doubtful that anyone could save the old building. 

Church leadership knew if the building could be restored, they would need professionals specially trained to handle fire restoration. They hired Guide One Taylor Ball Construction Services (GTB), a construction company strictly developed for the purpose of reconstructing houses of worship and other associated facilities.

"Large church fire restoration projects require extensive pre-planning and scheduling prior to the start of the reconstruction process," said Paul Nilles, executive vice president of GTB.

When disasters strike, time is of the essence. GTB was notified of the fire the following Monday, and that afternoon, GTB staff were on site.

"Inspections and surveys must be completed on the structure to verify the physically integrity of the building for safety of the contractors and the owner. Structural repairs and abatement issues must be addressed before the start of the reconstruction process and often even before and/or during the demolition and removal process," Nilles said.

Based on an initial assessment of the damage, GTB project manager Dave Franklin thought that it would take about a year to restore the church and that crews working on the church should hold regular meetings to anticipate any problems or delays and redirect work accordingly.

However, even before the subcontractors could bid on the interior projects and begin the reconstruction process, significant safety and access issues had to be addressed. The sanctuary ceilings rose nearly 30 feet high, not including the 9-foot-high basement below. An elaborate scaffolding and elevated platform system with full decking and stairs was needed both inside and outside. The custom scaffolding would cost more than traditional scaffolding, but "it was simply the safest system available for this project," according to Nilles.

Meanwhile, GTB began the value-engineering process with church leadership.

"The real challenge was to address their financial needs, while at the same time trying to address the congregation's desire to change in some aspects, yet maintaining tradition in others," Nilles said. "We presented two substantial value-engineering items: proceed with pre-manufactured plaster moldings in lieu of custom plaster moldings, and proceed with a digital sound system in lieu of the 10-rank pipe organ."

By taking these options, the church could afford to change the wood floor system to the bar joist/deck/concrete floor system, thus giving them with more open space in the Parish Hall. The additional space worked in conjunction with the expansion and modernization of the kitchen. The church added increased air conditioning for added comfort during funerals and Sunday services, and more and larger hanging lights.

The restoration involved removing and replacing the plaster walls and curved ceilings, and the ornate molding within the church. The stained glass windows would also need to be removed, refurbished, and reinstalled. The roof system needed replacing. All electrical, HVAC, and finished needed to be removed and replaced. The brick chimney would need to be dismantled.

The building also had to be thoroughly cleaned to remove soot from the fire and eliminate the smoky smell that lingered within.

"The smoke/odor control was a real challenge due to the very slow and smoldering nature of the fire," Nilles said. "We believe this was the worst case of smoke/odor control in our company's history."

Even after the interior had been soda blasted (a cleaning process using sodium biocarbonate applied with compressed air), a very faint smoke odor remained in isolated places. While the odor would likely have dissipated in time, "we opted to err on the side of caution and proceed with some additional soda blasting and then sealed the entire structure again," said Nilles.

He said, "Then we invited the entire Building Committee to conduct a walk-through of the building for an official 'sniff' test. After an extensive two-hour inspection, approximately 20 noses confirmed the smoke odor had been eliminated."

Thirteen months after the fire, the restoration was completed, and First Presbyterian held its grand re-opening services on Easter morning 2009. The project was completed on schedule and under the $3.2 million budget at $2.9 million.

"GTB delivered on their promise to restore the church and peace of mind within the congregation," the Rev. Polito said. "Our entire congregation feels truly blessed to have had the good fortune of working with them."

Guide One Taylor Ball Construction Services provides a variety of construction services including recovery of damaged facilities or structures, as well as new construction projects, www.GuideOneTaylorBall.com.

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