Amazing Grace

In suburban Minneapolis, a massive church with room for 4,500 worshipers recognizes that it must still think small to keep its ministry growing.
August 11, 2010

By almost any measure, the design and construction of Grace Church in Eden Prairie, Minn., must be judged a remarkable achievement. Despite its almost gargantuan physical properties — a total of 342,000 sf, with seating capacity for 4,500 worshipers — the project was brought in within $7,000 of its $38.7 million budget.

Grace Church, which is not affiliated with any specific denomination, has a number of features not found in traditional ecclesiastical buildings: a 1,200-sf coffee shop (the "Divine Grind"), an adjacent 350-seat dining room, a 3,500-sf bookstore ("Living Grace"), and a 700-sf, scent-free room with a special HVAC system for people with allergies. The structure also encompasses 34 children's classrooms, 16 adult classrooms, and a gymnasium. Brossardt Corp. of Minneapolis was the construction manager.

Attempting to visually minimize the church's massive scale was the project's greatest design challenge, says John Justus, project principal with the church's A/E, Hammel, Green and Abrahamson of Minneapolis.

"We've designed many churches with 1,000 seats," he says. "At 1,500 seats, the buildings start not feeling like churches. When sanctuaries are designed for 3,000 or 4,000 persons, they become auditoriums. They just don't have that sacredness or transcendence."

To reduce its apparent scale, the sanctuary is organized in three sections — the main floor, a middle tier that wraps around main floor seating in a horseshoe shape, and a balcony. Each section can seat 1,500 persons.

Grace Church makes its sanctuary available to local high schools for graduation ceremonies. With the exception of the Metrodome, the only larger assembly venue in the Twin Cities area is a 5,100-seat facility at the University of Minnesota.

Saving energy was high on the list of project priorities, according to Larry Martin, a church member who served as project coordinator. Before construction began, he asked the area's electric utility, Xcel Energy, to review the new facility's electrical demand. By limiting additional peak power load, the utility might be able to forestall the need to provide additional generating capacity.

Xcel's electrical consultant calculated that, under the original design, the new facility's electrical charges would have totaled $360,000 a year. Martin says that for a capital investment of $86,000, the church was able to reduce these costs to $240,000. The additional expenditures were basically for equipment upgrades. Blower motors were equipped with variable speed drives, so that air is barely moved in a room that is unoccupied. CO2 sensors were incorporated into the HVAC system so that outside air is introduced only when the CO2 levels require it.

The utility provided a one-time rebate of $106,000. And because the church was willing to accept interruptible service — it has a 300 kW emergency generator that will kick in to supply one-third of the church's electrical needs in the event of a power outage — Xcel provided a 10% rate reduction throughout the year.

Installing two light switches in each classroom — one that controls two-thirds of the lights, the other that controls the remainder — further reduced electricity costs.

The church has 11 networked lighting control centers, making it possible to determine whether lights are on in a particular area. "We calculated that it would take a janitor three hours to walk through the building to turn off the lights out at night," Martin says.

In its old building, the church used emergency lighting units whose batteries had to be replaced every three years. For an equivalent installation cost, the new church has a central system.

Lighting and staging

The lighting and staging systems were designed to meet the church's need for sophisticated facilities to handle its Easter production (with a cast of hundreds), two Christmas pageants, and several annual children's programs. The church also regularly brings in nationally acclaimed Christian musicians.

Located above the football-shaped main worship platform is a steel gridiron structure that supports scenery, lighting, and motorized curtains, according to Michael Burgoyne, project manager with the church's theater planner, Schuler Shook of Minneapolis.

At the front curve of the worship platform is the "Venetian," the space's most elaborate curtain. Its 16 electric motors can raise the entire curtain or just the center, creating a scalloped opening.

A sophisticated lighting system utilizes 600 dimmers. The goal architecturally and aesthetically was to provide state-of-the-art production-level capabilities without compromising the church's architectural lighting or the dignity of the worship space, says Burgoyne.

Although the integration of modern systems into new church construction can be challenging, says Burgoyne, new construction does provide greater flexibility in locating video screens and concealing lighting equipment than is the case with the renovation of an existing church.

Building with a mission

During the planning phase, Martin, the full-time volunteer project coordinator (he's retired from the foundry business), visited 30 churches comparable in size to Grace, spending at least a day at each. He says his purpose was to make sure the resulting church would be "a ministry tool, not-a-brick-and-mortar project."

Instead of having the customary committees ("sometimes they're self-perpetuating," he says), Martin solicited ideas from project consultants and presented them to focus teams of church members. Once that team reached a decision on an issue, it was disbanded.

Grace Church draws members from 60 ZIP codes in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. A single worship service typically fills about half the sanctuary, but considerable attention was given to the future needs of the church's ministries. "We built for growth," Martin says.

Members who are uncomfortable with the scale of the main sanctuary have the option of attending fellowship groups of 30–60 persons that meet in the building's classrooms. "We've found that the bigger you get, the harder you have to work to remain small," Martin says.