Architecture Blog

Church Kitchens and Accessibility - 5 Issues to Consider

Posted by Eric Mac Inerney on October 23, 2015

Accessibility issues can be particularly complicated and challenging for churches.  When it comes to church kitchens and accessibility, there are a surprising number of gray areas in applying building codes and permitting requirements.  Here are five issues that need to be considered early in the planning of your kitchen:


  1. Volunteers are not Employees and not all that goes on in a Church Kitchen is work.

Most commercial kitchens in restaurants, schools, conference centers, and the like are considered "Employee Work Areas" by the accessible codes and thus are exempt from most of the accessible requirements.  Since church kitchens are often used by a variety of people and volunteers and since the kitchen often serves as a social hub of the church rather than just a place to make food, these spaces usually have trouble meeting both the 'employee' and the 'work' requirements to get this exemption. 

Abidng love Lutehran Kitchen Design

Abiding Love Lutheran Church, Austin Texas

This kitchen is a hybrid between commercial and residential.  The church's current uses allow it to not be a commercial kitchen, though we have designed it to eaisly convert if necessary.  The City required the vent hood over the residential equipment and it is sized to handle commercial equipment should the Church decide to change.  The kitchen has a separate hand sink and counter both to meet the accessible requirements and future commercial requirements.  We have also prepared for a grease trap, though we did not install one at this time.

The counter top at the roll down door is at accessible height since it is a serving surface.  The microwaves, though in a close fitting alcove are not built in or hardwired--They can be removed from their openings and placed on the counters if needed.

  1. The newer accessible requirements for storage in a kitchen are a real eye opener.

In the latest accessible codes (we typically work with the 2012 Texas Accessibility Standards which are in turn based on the current ADA requirements) the storage requirements for a kitchen have been updated to specify that 50% of the shelving needs to be accessible.  This means that 50% of the shelving needs to be above 15" and below 48" from the floor.  If you think about a typical counter height of 36" and then 12"-14" of clearance above a counter, you can see that most of the upper cabinets won't be accessible (They do make some interesting pull down elements for upper cabinets).  One of the best things we have found to work with this requirement is to have a section of full height cabinets.  In the picture below we have drawers in the lower section and adjustable shelves in the upper section.  Since the vast majority of this section is accessible, we can easily make up for any uppers cabinets that occur. Some of the less tall users of the kitchen may appreciate this as well.

Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, Austin, TX

This kitchen is a full-on commercial kitchen, but we still have accessible requirements.  In this case we have two hand sinks as required by the city reviewer.  We used the large full height storage cabinet to handle the accessibility requirements for storage.  The island and dishwashing areas are at typical commercial heights while the counter along the wall is at accessible height.  This kitchen also has a walk-in cooler which is typically exempted by accessibility requirements.

  1. Hand Sinks are the way to go.

In an accessible space, 5% but not less than 1 of the sinks provided must be accessible.  Accessible sinks in church kitchens can be problematic because the knee clearance requirements do not allow for a very deep sink.  To solve this, we like to use a separate hand sink. This way the hand sink meets the requirements for accessibility and then the rest of the sinks can be whatever you desire. Also, if the kitchen is a commercial kitchen the hand sink is usually required anyway.

  1. Counter Heights

An accessible kitchen not only needs at least one accessible sink, but also a 30"-36" work surface is required to be at 34" above the floor.  Though this section does not require a knee clearance, the height is lower than the common 36" counter.  We have found that setting whole sections of counter at 34” can be a good idea becuase some of the kitchen users prefer a lower height anyway.  However, keep in mind that some appliances will not fit under a 34" counter.  Also, if you are using some of your counter space as a serving counter, it needs to meet the accessible requirements for the people being served.

First United Methodist, Temple, Texas

This kitchen is more residential in scope although it is very large.  The city did insist that they have a full sized grease trap but allowed residential vent hoods.  We used a hand sink here to free up the other sinks for accessible requirements.  In this kitchen, the diners actually flow into the kitchen so we have one set of islands for prep and one set of islands for serving.

  1. Not a Kitchen?

The defining piece of what makes a kitchen or a kitchenette is a fixed piece of cooking equipment like a range, a built-in oven, or a built-in microwave.  Oddly enough a plug in microwave that sits on the counter is often not counted as a built-in piece of cooking equipment.  Not being a kitchen can exempt you from the 50% storage requirements, though you still need to have 5% and at least 1 of each storage type accessible.  A 'break room' with no cooking equipment does not have to meet the 50% storage room, but does require knee clearance under the sink.  If the sink is for 'mixing drinks' only, you actually can classify it as a 'wet bar' (or coffee bar) which not does not require the 50% storage rule and does not require knee clearance.  



Of course, all of these issues should always be reviewed in advance with the authority having jurisdiction.  Be proactive.  Request your Architect or building professional address these issues in advance to avoid problems later. The questions about church kitchens and accessbility don't fit into neat categories so the local official may have to use discretion in determining what is are accessible, but still reasonable solutions.


We have some great information on designing your church kitchen.  Click below and download this essential resource: Tips for Church Kitchens.

Tips For Church Kitchens  

Topics: Church Design & Construction, building codes, Codes & Permitting

Successful Stained Glass Back-Lighting

Posted by Eric Mac Inerney on October 7, 2015

In the past stained glass back-lighting has been quite difficult.  The fluorescent and incandescent light sources we had to work with created heat, were hard to access, and had color issues.  The stained glass never looked good compared to the natural lighting provided by sunlight.  However there are some new LED solutions that are making it much easier to have a beautiful installation without light from the outside.

Back lit stain glass with altarAt the recently completed Parish Life Center for the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, the Parish Administrator found an existing piece of stained glass that we felt would add the right amount of reverence to the new multi-use space we were building.  This was especially important because for the next year the congregation would be worshipping in the PLC while a new Narthex is added to the existing worship space.


Back lighting the glass panel provided a number of advantages.  First we could control how much light we would have by dimming the lights with the dimming system for the PLC.  Second the semi-circular arch top did not match the style of the existing buildings so we could have it inside here while the exterior windows could still relate to rest of the campus.  Finally, there is a covered walkway on the exterior of the building that would have created strange shadows, even if we had chosen to use outside sunlight.

What We Did:

First we had the framers create an arched-top niche that was about 5" deep--we couldn't be any deeper because of structure.  We then installed the Tivoli Illumiwall system in the shallow recess.  The system has a power bar that allows warm white LED strips to plug in 4" O.C.  The strips were then cut to length to match the arch.  This gave us an extremely consistent high-powered dimmable light source behind that fit within our narrow gap.

Another important part of the installation is the wooden stain glass frame has a translucent plexiglass panel behind the glass so the LEDs are diffused--other wise you might see the tiny points of light through the more clear sections of the stain glass.  The long life of the lamps allows for an install that does not rely on having to provide regular access for lamp changes.  However, the dimmers do need to be remotely mounted in an accessible space.


The Rough Opening


Tivoli Illumiwall Installed

The Stained Glass in the Space

The Stained Glass at Night

Topics: Church Design & Construction, Liturgical Arts, Technology

Adaptive Reuse: From Church to Cabaret in Canada

Posted by Ben Heimsath on January 6, 2015

Adaptive-Reuse-Canadian-Church-to-CabaretWhen several communities north of Montreal were merged in 2005, an unused church building, formerly known as Sacré-Coeur-de-Jésus (Sacred Heart of Jesus) became the property of the new township. A straightforward adaptive reuse program kept the exterior of the old church, while on the inside, the old Sacred Heart was transformed into a musical theater venue.

The new village of Mont Tremblant renamed the landmark “Première Scène à l’église du Village,” which roughly translates to “First Stage at the Village Church.”   The name rather clearly describes the municipality’s approach to the adaptive reuse program. It is obvious that their intention was to keep an identifiable landmark, so the image of the village church remains unchanged. Once the exterior was preserved, they gutted the interior. The inside renovations included a new stage, theater lighting, heavy curtains over the windows, and casual cabaret seating.

From the outside, the landmark still looks like a place of worship. The classic façade and bell tower rise out of the trees above the lake. ApproaAdaptive-Reuse-Church-Mont-Tremblantching the building from the parking below, a broad staircase invites visitors up to the expanded landing, an outdoor plaza that takes full advantage of the lake views.

The outdoor plaza is fairly large. It is propped up with large wooden supports that project out from a supporting stone wall. One suspects that it wasn’t built for the original church. Even though church gatherings or special ceremonies would have benefitted from such a large entry space, it isn’t hard to see that the structure, the railings and the walking surface are all new. Perhaps the stone wall is original. If so, then the stairs would likely have connected to a much narrower gathering space for the old church.

Except for the overall shape, there’s almost nothing on the interior to indicate the original church use. The foyer is pretty narrow, probably a holdover from the church, hence the need for the exterior gathering plaza. The rest of the interior renovation, however, seems to have produced a fine performance space. Exposed wood finishes may have been added, or perhaps are refinished boards from the old church interior. The interior offers a wide audience area with flexible chairs, stools, and tables. The effect creates a warm and welcoming environment for many kinds of performances.

Adaptive-Reuse-Canadian-Church-Now-Cabaret-InteriorWhen I stopped in for a visit, a vocal group was practicing by the piano. The acoustics were well tuned for their voices. Visibility in the main seating area and in the balcony was excellent. Though I wasn’t able to stay for the performance, I was impressed with the space. It certainly is well suited for its new use.

I was saddened, though, to see so much of the old church history lost with the new interior. But I really can’t fault this approach to saving the old structure. The program went to great lengths to make sure the original church exterior was fully restored and preserved. Even the exterior sign for the new theater was designed to look like it belonged to the church. The community got a very useful, and apparently well-used theater space, and they kept intact the distinctive image of the historic building.

Use this link to see some of my other posts concerning the adaptive reuse of churches and other buildings.


Need more information about older structures?
Here's our suggestions for owners and supporters of historic buildings.




10 Tips for Care & Feeding Historic Buil

Topics: Adaptive Re-use, Historic Preservation

Adaptive Reuse: Church Converts to Bakery

Posted by Ben Heimsath on September 10, 2014

Adaptive-Reuse-Church-to-Bakery-main-signSave the churches! No, this isn’t a blog about threats to religion or a particular denomination; it’s about the buildings we use for worship. Many churches, temples, and religious buildings are at risk. I blogged last year about the growing threat to historic worship spaces. As congregation members are aging and as populations are moving, many old churches are suffering from neglect and are threatened with demolition or abandonment. In the past, a new congregation could readily move in when another moved out. But that doesn’t necessarily happen as before. Today, accommodating a new use may be a church’s only hope for salvation. But designing an adaptive reuse for a church is extremely difficult.

By chance, I recently discovered one example of a church successfully adapted to a new use in mid-town Fort Worth. The Bluebonnet Bakery happily inhabits an old historic church and has become a special landmark for an appreciative community.

 We were driving from downtown along Camp Bowie Road when we noticed something unusual projecting from what looked like a normal church building. It was a vertical neon sign, more typical of a restaurant or bar than a church. We slowed down enough to notice that the sign was for a bakery, so clearly this religious structure had undergone a major conversion.


The design made smart use of the existing building footprint. The nave became the new dining area with the iconic round tables and metal chairs for seating. A row of booths, formed with old pews, was a fun reminder of the original building. Along the other side, bright cases displayed enticing offerings. The old chancel, or altar area, became a special seating place, set aside for small meetings or groups. The original stained glass window remains in place, an overtly religious symbol, but one that feels appropriate in the space. The baking area, offices, bathrooms and storage fill the old church offices and classrooms off to the side, behind the counter.

Adaptive-Reuse-Church-to-Bakery-under_stained_glassI asked one of the staff if anyone from the old church had come in to see the bakery. “Yes, and they love it!” She recounted a recent visit from an elderly couple. They sat in the raised seating area and told everyone that this is the place where they were married. “They were so happy we’d save the old building.”      

 Fortuitous timing appears to have given this church its new life. When it was listed for sale, neighbors raised the alarm. Frontage on a prominent commercial street made this location a prime spot for a restaurant or retail center. People assumed that a new use would mean a new building. The closed church would certainly be demolished.

Several blocks away, the Bluebonnet Bakery, coincidently was looking for a new place to expand. So it made sense for the owners to look into the old church for a new locaAdaptive-Reuse-Church-to-Bakery-side_entrytion. They bought the church and implemented a very sensitive renovation. They not only met their needs for more room, but also created a truly unique landmark for the business.

Both inside and out, the look of the old church has been preserved. However, one very important change contributes architecturally to the success. I noticed the ceremonial entry appears to have been modified. A new entry vestibule leads from the parking lot behind the church building. A side door also opens on to the street. A welcome gesture to sidewalk traffic, but scaled-down entry compared to the typical ceremonial church entrance.

The effect of both these doors is to create a neighborhood character for the entrances. If someone had any lingering concerns about going into a church by mistake, the doors, and the brightly painted signage are reassuring invitations to come in and enjoy the transformation. And, of course, get some very good coffee and some sweet pastries as well.

Need more information about older structures? 
Here's our suggestions for owners and supporters of historic buildings.

10 Tips for Care & Feeding Historic Buil

Topics: Adaptive Re-use

Church Reuse is a Magic Carpet Ride

Posted by Ben Heimsath on April 21, 2014

If you don't already know of one, there's a good chance you'll be seeing an abandoned church sometime soon.  Last year, I noted that experts in historic preservation convened a conference in New York to begin examining this growing phenomenon.  Many older cities, experiencing population declines, have become painfully aware of the loss of their major landmarks.  As congregations either move away or close down, older, often gorgeously adorned edifices are being lost to the wrecking ball.  

But this isn’t just a rustbelt issue.  With major shifts in population demographics, many communities here in Texas are experiencing church closures.  In my blogpost about the church preservation conference, I mentioned how important it is to find new, appropriate, and creative uses to preserve these special structures.  So I was particularly impressed by photos of an exciting church reuse, of all places, in Morocco, Africa.Church ReUse Casablanca resized 600

The old basilica church, Sacre-Coeur Cathedral in Casablanca, has, at least temporarily, been given an amazing new use by light artist Miguel Chevalier.  The interactive installation spreads a magical carpet of light on the floor of what once was the central nave.  Visitors are invited to engage with the changing patterns of colored pixels, swirls and grids.  Though decidedly not a liturgical activity, it appears from the video below that people are genuinely engaged with the space.  The soaring vertical room is re-energized by the playground of colors and textures covering the floor.


Miguel CHEVALIER Tapis magiques 2014 Casablanca (Version courte) from Claude Mossessian on Vimeo.

According to one travel site, the cathedral has been in disuse for many years, a remnant from the days when Morocco was a colony of France.  The church was constructed in a modernist style, mostly of cast concrete by French architect Paul Tournon in 1930.  Though stripped of its liturgical elements, the shape and volume of the space mark this as an unmistakable worship environment.   

Spots of color from the large walls of stained glass appear to be the only distinctively church-related element that remains.  The windows, however, work surprisingly well with the colored light installation.  One important aspect of a successful church re-use has to be compatibility with the original church design.  The sensitivity of the artist, Miguel Chevalier, is in evidence as the church volume, the stained glass, and the light show all work together beautifully.  

The art world, at least, as taken notice.  The website, Designboom has a nice writeup.  But don’t think that lights alone will successfully salvage every old church.  As I’ve mentioned many times, re-using an old church is never easy.  When someone's work is as successful and beautiful as Chevalier's, it is worth taking notice.



Topics: Worship Space, Sacred Architecture, Adaptive Re-use, Historic Preservation

Is Demolition OK? – Six Essential Questions

Posted by Ben Heimsath on March 14, 2014

Is Demolition OK  tractor resized 600Before you demolish any building, remember, the decision is final.  Whatever value, history or opportunity for reuse that might have been possible will be gone forever!  Our firm has long been associated with historic preservation and creative re-use of older buildings, so it may seem surprising that this blogpost is about tearing buildings down.  I served for seven years on Austin’s Historic Landmarks Commission, and our firm has won awards for our preservation and renovation projects.  We’ve salvaged and rescued buildings that other professionals had declared a total loss, or beyond repair.  However, there are times when we are asked, “is demolition ok?”  Sometimes the answer is, “yes.”

But, before our firm will make a recommendation to tear down any existing building, we make a concerted effort to consider alternatives.  Once those have been exhausted, the tough decision to demolish must be faced.  Here’s a checklist of six essential questions that any owner should consider before deciding it is demolition time.


Can the existing structure be modified or moved to accommodate your current needs?

Renovations, additions or even small adjustments can, in many cases, completely change an existing space.  Compared to new construction, this strategy can save money and conserve resources.

In one project, changing the location of several walls was all it took to convert a floor of empty dentists offices into a terrific space for new church offices.   For another congregation, we expanded the fellowship hall instead of having to build new.  This was done by tearing down walls to incorporate some adjacent storage rooms.

These simple expansions and renovations made old or unused spaces completely functional; as good or better than new construction.  It required us to take a fresh look at these spaces and work creatively to turn what existed into a successful program.

Is Demolition OK  House Moving resized 600

This wood-framed house was saved by moving it to a new location where it was given a complete restoration.


Can you adapt or modify the structure for new uses?

On several occasions, we’ve worked on converting an old fellowship hall or sanctuary into offices and classrooms.  For one project in particular, the congregation was determined to build a new sanctuary and tear their old building down.  With some planning, we determined that the old structure was placed perfectly to serve as an administration wing.  It connected to the new foyer and was close to the parking lot.  If we had torn the building down, we would certainly have needed to put the same square footage of new construction in the same location.  

So, be sure you aren’t throwing away a good opportunity by tearing down, when an existing building could be re-used effectively for something else.  

Is Demolition OK  Parish House resized 600This existing building was not adaptable to new uses.  Note the temporary ramp and the window unit for air-conditioning.  A new, vastly improved office and classroom wing was built to replace it.

Is it possible (and practical) to fix structural problems?

With modifications, repairs, or reinforcement many problems can be addressed.  A creative collaboration with a structural engineer can sometimes make the difference.  

When pieces of the columns on Our Lady of Guadalupe’s tower fell off, the Diocese was concerned, and asked us to look into various options to fix or remove the cupola.  After several site visits, and a follow up meeting with a structural engineer, it was determined that wood framing inside the cupola was in good condition and just needed some reinforcement.  The columns, though badly damaged, were non-structural.  Previous patches and repairs were actually increasing their deterioration.  

We recommended a comprehensive repair program that reinforced the structure, fixed the columns, and addressed number of other deficiencies, including major roof problems.  The cost, compared to a total rebuild of the cupola, was pretty reasonable and not a lot more than demolishing and capping the old tower.  The project was recognized by the Association of General Contractors with an award for quality construction in preserving history.

Is Demolition OK  Masonry Fail resized 600This two-story building had major structural problems.  Note the large cracks in the brick wall and near the windows.  This was one case where the problems were beyond reasonable repair and the building was demolished.


Does the building have historic or cultural value?  

Always check with your local historic agency to see if your building is recognized or designated with historic landmark status.  There could be significant regulations limiting or prohibiting an owner’s ability to modify or demolish their building.  A thorough understanding of the building’s historic merit may help in determining what options, if any, are available.

But even without historic designation, there are many ways that an older building can have historic value.  For many of our church clients, an old sanctuary is associated with decades of weddings, funerals or baptisms.  Individuals feel a strong bond with these places and recall seminal moments of conversion, celebration, or grief.  Making even small changes can evoke overwhelming responses.  Without careful planning, and a truly pastoral approach, and these responses will generally not be positive.

Historic buildings often have problems due to deferred maintenance.  One of Heimsath Architects’ partners, Sandy Stone, offers a great resource for maintaining historic properties. She calls it “the care and feeding of your historic building.”   Check it out and see proper care can help keep historic buildings in top shape for many years.

10 Tips for Care & Feeding Historic Buil  


Are there entitlements or permitting advantages that will be forfeited?

Once the existing structure is removed, governing agencies may not honor previous privileges or non-conforming aspects of the existing structure.  

Several years ago, a neighbor of ours wanted to update their old garage.  Their contractor demolished the existing garage, but they were red-tagged when they started framing new walls on the same foundation.  It turns out that the old slab was too close to the property lines to meet the current codes.  

Through the simple act of removing the old structure, the contractor had forfeited their “non-conforming” status.  I helped them with several rounds of hearings in order to get the required variances just to build back on the exact same footprint!

There are a surprising number of ways that old structures can have value based on changes or updates in development codes.  And it’s not just the building that may be impacted.  Be aware that many site development, parking, or landscaping requirements may be triggered by new construction, but may be exempted for a renovation of an existing building.


Will you spend more for new construction?

Have you factored in the total cost of demolishing the structure?  These include the costs for permits, utility disconnects, and hazardous materials testing and remediation.  Add these into the cost for new construction, and the numbers may prove that new construction is more expensive.

Of course, the opposite may sometimes be true; to build new or replace an old building  may cost less. At times we’ve gone ahead and priced new construction as an alternative just to establish that the older building is sufficiently valuable to justify the additional cost.  Sometimes people are willing to pay a premium to restore or preserve a certain building, but generally there is a limit.  Especially with historic properties, some of our clients have been willing to invest more to preserve the past.


Is Demolition OK  historic addition resized 600This historic church was too small for the growing congregation.  A respectful addition was a better alternative to abandoning the old church and building new.


After considering all six of these question, if you can answer, “NO,” then it may be best to tear down an old building.  There are times that the wrong building in the in the wrong place just has to go.  But at least consider good stewardship when you opt for demolition.  Some elements, like windows, doors or ornamental details can be re-used or recycled.  Some lumberyards specialize in turning old timbers into flooring or finish lumber.  There’s a market for salvaged bricks and stones.  Old cement can be ground up and re-used in new concrete.  

Remember that an old building is something passed on from a previous generation.  As a present-day steward of this asset, it's up to you to determine what is best.  

Topics: Adaptive Re-use, building codes, Sustainable Deisgn, Historic Preservation

Chapel of the Holy Cross Proves Architectural Ideas Take Time

Posted by Ben Heimsath on December 11, 2013

How did an unrealized design concept for an urban cathedral eventually give rise to a desert chapel?  Some architectural ideas take a long time to develop, but this one really took some interesting twists and turns. This fall, I visited the Never Built:  Los Angeles show at the A+D Architecture & Design museum in Los Angeles.  I was surprised to discover an early, though vastly different, antecedent to the Chapel of the Holy Cross.  This intimate chapel is a major icon of modernist architecture and spiritual design, but evidence suggests it started with an idea for a soaring skyscraper.  It took several decades, but this architectural idea eventually did get built, and in a very different form.  The tower was planned for Los Angeles, but the idea eventually came to fruition in the deserts of Arizona!

Chapel of the Holy Cross (Sedona, Arizona), exterior and landscape resized 600

According to a wonderful piece on the Gateway to Sedona website, the story began in 1930 when, in New York City, a young heiress saw one of the newly built skyscrapers and envisioned the façade with a soaring cross superimposed upon it.  Marguerite Staude was a devout Catholic raised in California.  She commissioned Lloyd Wright, the son of Frank Lloyd Wright, to realize her vision with a design for a new Cathedral Tower in Los Angeles.


Holy Cross Chapel Cathedral Tower precedent resized 600Evocative sketches for the 50-story tower were on display at the A+D exhibit, along with a much less expressive model constructed from lego blocks.  The architect’s roughed-out drawings show a Greek-cross plan of a 4-sided tower.    Each of the identical facades is formed to feature the massive cross that runs the entire height of the building.   Though a site was never selected for the project, the gargantuan size of these crosses would have been hard to miss.  For comparison, Houston’s celebrated Transco Tower (now the Williams Tower) is 64 stories.  One of Philip Johnson’s late career designs, its iconic image can be seen for miles.


The exhibit notes offers a short explanation that the Archbishop of the LA Diocese rejected the offer and the project was abandoned.  No mention is made of any other projects or relationships.  Frankly, discovering the connection with the Holy Cross Chapel took some additional research and came as a complete surprise. 

 Holy Cross Chapel Cathedral Tower Sketches resized 600

According to the LA Times 1988 obituary, Marguerite Staude went on to become an artist and sculptor in her own right.  She was also recognized as a patron for the arts.  The obituary mentioned the Holy Cross Chapel, but said nothing of the Cathedral design.  One look at the Chapel exterior makes it clear that the idea of a dominant cross-form superimposed over a building facade are related.  Having the same patron makes the connection even more direct.


But the links between the two projects are more than circumstantial as the idea nearly took form in Europe.  A conversation with Anat Geva, professor of architecture at Texas A&M and an authority on sacred architecture, confirmed the next twist in this story.  After getting rejected in LA, Marguerite commissioned Lloyd Wright to develop her vision for a congregation of nuns in Hungary.  Plans were underway when World War II brought the program to a halt.  In the years after the war, Marguerite decided to focus on her adopted state of Arizona, so the monastery project, like the tower, was abandoned.


Sometimes, the historic trail takes a false turn.  As I dutifully checked the Wikipedia page on the Holy Cross Chapel, the history noted that Lloyd Wright’s father, Frank Lloyd Wright, was the one Marguerite turned to when she tried to build in Hungary.  But the conversation with Professor Geva put this notion to rest.  “I lectured on the Chapel just recently.  Lloyd Wright, did both the previous designs, and Stuade really wanted him to do the Chapel.” 


Apparently, Lloyd Wright wasn’t interested in the Arizona chapel project when Marguerite approached him in the 1950’s.  So the work of fulfilling her life-long vision was imparted to the San Francisco firm of Anshen and Allen, where project architects Richard Hein and August Strotz finally developed a concrete reality for Marguerite’s long-held vision.    The selection of the site was also quite a story.  Eventually, with the help of Sen. Barry Goldwater, the Chapel was built on National Park land in the Coconino National Forrest.


This time, the local Catholic Diocese accepted her project.  A nearby parish continues to maintain and administer the Holy Cross Chapel and holds some worship services there.  The chapel is non-denominational and has become a popular pilgrimage site for tourists and seekers of all denominations. 


The Chapel is designed with a precise, distinctively modernist exterior that is juxtaposed against weathered rocks of the canyon wall.  But it is the singular, concrete cross that dominates.  The cross rises between two rock formations, as though a force from heaven planted it there.


The Never Built: Los Angeles show did remind me of an early lesson from my days in architecture school.  I recall hearing at least one critic say, “that’s a good idea, but not for this program.  Why not save it for the next project?”  From even the few sketches of the Cathedral Tower, it is clear that the concept may have been a bold idea, but it didn’t make sense for a Cathedral.  There was no indication of a worship space, and the Diocese would have little or no use for what must have been 50 floors of offices.


Eventually, decades later, the Diocese of Los Angeles did build a new cathedral, the Cathedral of the Angels.  It has a warm and beautifully proportioned interior worship space, and a modest wing for the Diocesean offices (not nearly a tower's worth of offices).  I did notice one element on the exterior façade, a simple panel of stone with a superimposed cross, that does reminded me of Holy Cross Chapel.  I can only speculate, but perhaps Rafeal Moneo was influenced, if somewhat indirectly, by the image of the Holy Cross Chapel when he designed the exterior of the Cathedral of the Angels.  Perhap’s Margurite Staub’s vision did have an influence on the LA Cathedral after all.640px Cathedral of Our Lady of Angels, Los Angeles resized 600


How do you create a spiritual place? Ben Heimsath writes about his own convictions for a successful design process in his recent article in Faith&Form magazine.  Download the article now.
Download Faith&Form Article

Topics: Worship Space, Sacred Architecture, Church Design & Construction, modern architecture, Architects and Construction, Design Process

Architectural Design Process Shared - Faith & Form Article

Posted by Ben Heimsath on December 2, 2013

The national journal, Faith & Form, published Ben Heimsath's article "A Shared Process of Creation."  He wrote about the architectural design process as a collaborative venture.  A design created in a truly shared process has the potential to express a unique sense of spirituality.  The journal does not post on-line, so the editor has given us permission to copy the published article for download. 
Download Faith&Form Article
A shortened version of the article is reformatted for the current blogpost. 


Can we determine whether a new or renovated environment built for prayer is going to convey a sense of spirituality?  I believe we can if a congregation has a highly engaged process whereby this fundamental goal is shared equally by the architects and the community.  In more than 30 years of work with faith groups, our firm has developed a process for design and project implementation based on our belief that groups can find spirituality as they share in the creative design process.

describe the imageThis highly interactive process includes the collaborative session that we call a Design Retreat Workshop.  We utilize many established community design principles whereby people are actively engaged in the design process.  Held in a neutral setting, the Design Retreat Workshop includes components of both a leadership forum and a problem-solving charette. However, unlike these traditional formats, the event is compressed into one day, and the architects and congregation leaders participate equally in generating design ideas.  The goal for the session is simple: everyone present must feel that the group, in the end, has developed one solution that is the "best." A major advantage of this early engagement of the congregation leaders is that the creative interaction continues throughout the rest of the building process. Many significant contributions come from ideas generated or refined from the Design Retreat Workshop.

Journalist James Surowiecki wrote "The Wisdom of Crowds" to explore the extensive economic and sociological research documenting numerous ways that groups of people, large and small, outperform even the most talented individuals in predicting and problem solving.  Surowiecki however, offers little insight into the reason this happens. When individuals gather together and find a connection or common purpose, the experience can become so tangible that it may be felt or expressed as an actual presence in the group. In the course of many of our Design Retreat Workshops, this energy has been called many things; the “Holy Spirit,” “God’s Presence,” or a similar expression appropriate to the various religious traditions that have participated. These creative design experiences seem to embody the genius of communal worship. Each experience is remarkably similar, regardless of what it is called.

Unity Church of the Hills

A case study of the Unity Church of the Hills in Austin, Texas, illustrates the process with the creation of a successful spirit-filled environment. This project involved the relocation of the church to a new, undeveloped site. The process for Unity's design and implementation typifies our approach to working with congregations and provides an opportunity for commentary.

In 1999 two-dozen congregation leaders assembled at a local restaurant reserved for the Design Retreat Workshop. Structured discussions focused on what made the two-and-a-half-year-old ministry special. Participants assessed information from a previous small group tour of the existing facilities that helped to generate priorities for the new 14-acre site. The morning exchanges helped to identity the spirit that members felt within the congregation. While many groups describe this spirit through stories of their history, the Unity Church group stressed the connections members already had made with the undeveloped property. One participant shared his revelation when he saw the seller's name, Guthrie O'Donnell, abbreviated as "G O'D" on the subdivision documents. Nearly everyone described a feeling of peacefulness under the canopy of trees even though buildings surrounded the property on all sides.

In the afternoon session, the architects explained that the group should consider itself the authors of the final design. The architects noted that they would be refining the concept, but the basic plan would emerge from this retreat. The Unity participants were separated into brainstorming groups and asked to work with one of the architects to imagine as many solutions as possible. As the brainstorming wrapped up, 11 sketches adorned the walls.

Two preferred plans located buildings in the same clearing near the center of the site. They both featured circular plans for the Architectural Design Process Unity DRW sketch resized 600sanctuary. The architects explained that the circle is associated with sacred geometries, and that Renaissance builders saw the circle as a perfect form. The ministers noted that the circle is a powerful symbol in the Unity theology. One plan showed a large entry arch over the narrow drive connecting to the main commercial street. The other featured a masonry wall that parted to emphasize the transition from the parking area to the interior of the site.

The architects suggested ways to merge the two solutions. The entry arch and the parted stone wall could both be used to create a path symbolic of the spiritual journey towards worship. The building placement and the circular sanctuary shown on both plans could become an octagonal plan.Architectural Design Process Unity Plan resized 600

The session ended with an affirmation by each participant that the group had developed an inspired design for the property. The ministers, in their closing prayer, cited Unity teaching in describing the powerful goodness of God that had been present in the day's proceedings. The plan sketch from the Design Retreat Workshop closely resembles the completed building, featuring an octagonal sanctuary that stands on the site today.

The collaborative process continued to produce fruitful results. Only four trees were removed to accommodate the parking, drives, and building. The entry arch concept violated numerous codes, but variances were approved unanimously by city agencies.Architectural Design Process Unity Exterior resized 600

Sharing the Spirit

Most architects are not trained to share the design process with groups. They often see creativity as an individual effort that is only compromised by outside participation. This approach can cause strained relationships particularly when the client is a church or spiritual community. This unwillingness to share seems particularly incongruous, considering how many architects equate the creative spark with divinity, even suggesting the process of design creativity as a metaphor for understanding God.

Theologically, most contemporary denominations don't believe their buildings contain God. Rather, they share some form of the belief that God is present when "two or more are gathered in God's name." As the Unity process illustrates, something special also happens when people gather to design in God's name. The sense of spirituality so greatly appreciated by the congregation today has its roots in the spirituality experienced by its members as they engaged in the process of creating it.


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Topics: Worship Space, Church Design & Construction, Architects and Construction, Design Process, Building Committee, Master Plan

Adaptive Reuse for School in Austin

Posted by Ben Heimsath on September 26, 2013

Construction haAdaptive Reuse School constructions begun on the newest elementary school in Austin, and most of the work is indoors.  The new school is an adaptive reuse of an empty commercial building, an innovative solution for the Austin Independent School District.  For the past year, Heimsath Architects, in joint venture with Architecture Plus, has been working on the conversion of an old manufacturing facility as the best location for a new school to relieve crowding in surrounding facilities. 

When completed, the school will be the largest elementary in AISD.  The yet unnamed campus will have classrooms on two floors, a new gym and new cafetorium all within the walls of the existing structure.  A portion of the expansive roof will be left in place as a shade cover for an outdoor play area.  
Adaptive Reuse School Central Corridor resized 600
The adaptive reuse school presents many green building advantages.  Compared to a total demolition, the amount of material waste on the site has been minimal.  The program has been designed with skylights in the tall ceilings that will bring natural light into every instructional space.  A major investment in new roof-top solar panels will generate a substantial percentage of the school’s energy needs.  With these, and other innovative green building elements, the District is applying for a LEED gold certification.

The architects have been working closely with the District, and with Flintco Construction.  One of our local television reporters recently toured the construction site and produced a fine report on the early progress of turning a warehouse into a school.

Adaptive reuse school news report resized 600

Too often people assume that demolition is the only answer when you have an older building.  Though this project didn't include a historic property, many of the same issues confront adaptive re-use projects.  We confront some of the major myths that perpetuate the idea that working with an older building isn't as good as new construction. Download this great resource now.



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Topics: Adaptive Re-use, Austin, Campus Architecture, Sustainable Deisgn, Schools

Architectural Watercolor Prompts Questions During Tour of Spain

Posted by Clovis Heimsath on August 11, 2013

Architectural Watercolor Sa JeronomoWhat draws American architects to Europe, generation after generation?

This question came to mind as we were leaving Madrid for Chicago, a long flight home after travel in Spain and Portugal. Maryann and I celebrated our 57th wedding anniversary with a tour around the coast of Spain and France.  We’ve been able to see much of Europe over many trips, but this was our first visit to Granada, Seville, Lisbon, Santiago de Compostela, Bilbao, Madrid and Toledo.

We’ve loved our past visits to Spain.  Our most recent trip introduced us to Barcelona. However, decades earlier, we spent a year in Rome on a Fulbright Scholarship, so we know much more about Italy.  We’d been looking forward to this tour, a boat trip around the Spanish coast, as a chance to expand our understanding of the culture, and of course, the architecture.

Architectural Watercolor Lisbon GateIn the 19th century the Grand Tour was essential education for American architects. For several generations, the study European architecture brought first-hand knowledge of great architectural monuments – inspirations for the classical designs eagerly desired by American patrons and practitioners.  This era gave way to the modern movement. And while there are a number of modernist icons worth a visit, the typical itinerary for American architects continues to favor the old grand monuments.  Why then do architects keep going back when supposedly the design world has moved on?

One answer may be in the relative young age of our monumental buildings.  The incredible Toledo Cathedral, the third largest religious structure after St Peters in Rome and Westminster Abbey in London, was completed in 1492. The Toledo Cathedral took 300 years to complete - the aspiration of generations of sponsors, architects, stone-masons and craftsmen.

For an architect, the skill and commitment required to produce such a structure is overpowering to consider. Each stone was quarried, moved, hoisted inArchitectural Watercolor Toledo Cathedral Ext place with technologies in practice before Columbus even left Spain for the New World.

In the hours I spent painting a watercolor of the Toledo Cathedral, I noted the distinct features the evidenced various periods of design. For example the tower began with a square footprint reflecting Moorish architecture of the time.  The top was added later - with Gothic and Baroque ornamentation. 
This is fascinating for an architect.

Studying historic structures is recognizing the scale and proportion of each element, working together to create a whole.  In doing the watercolor of the Cathedral I noted that the two arched openings at the top of the rectangular tower are reflected by three rows of pilasters cascading down the tower above a solid base. And the various periods are reflected at the entry. The Gothic portico is superimposed in front of an earlier higher volume behind.

Our plane home was halfway across the Atlantic when more of the pull of Europe came to mind.  I have always been interested in curvilinear forms. Looking around on the 747 and it is an interior filled with curved wonder. I made a connection; the freedom to work with non-linear shapes isn’t entirely new.  Days earlier, I had just finished watercolors of two curvilinear buildings in EuropeArchitectural Watercolor San Michael.
In Madrid we discovered San Miguel, a Counter Reformation Jesuit church with its curved façade, as if the church were bursting out onto the street.  This design uses one-dimensional curves, that is the curves are generated by a single axis.
The other curvilinear building was a new one, Frank Gerry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.  I painted a scene from above.  The Guggenheim is curvilinear but designed using double curvatures, that is, curves generated by multiple axes. In the U S I could see Frank Gerry buildings but could not compare them with facades designed in a different age and aesthetic.
 Architectural Watercolor Gugenheim Bilbao
Architectural Watercolor M&C on the BoatAs we landed in Chicago, I relished the thought that I was back in only one day, not the weeks of sailing it took 19th century architects to cross the Atlantic.  I was home full of creative ideas, happy to share some of my watercolors with the next generation interested in architecture.Architectural Watercolor Sea Cloud II


Topics: Church Design & Construction, Architects and Construction, Master Plan, Presentatons