Monroe Community Church (CRC) in downtown Grand Rapids, MI, had the unique opportunity of renovating a 17,400 sf, uninsulated, raw, 1963 industrial building into their new church home. They knew this would be an interesting renovation, as construction codes and downtown zoning had changed drastically over the 56 years since the building had been built. What made the process especially challenging was that the project had started in programming and planning in late 2019. We all know what happened in March of 2020!
Since the building had already been purchased, the small church made the prayerful decision to push through the process of finalizing design, creating the construction drawings, holding a capital campaign, and completing construction during a season where they primarily met on Zoom. Committee meetings would be held virtually or outdoors. Architect Steve Fridsma, with Elevate Studio architecture.design, and who at the time was also MCC’s interim worship leader, would head down to the construction site during the Zoom benediction and give virtual hard-hat tours of the project as the congregation watched and interacted. The capital campaign committee and council would also give updates after worship on Zoom. The fact that this much got done while we were not meeting in person was a testimony to the resilience of this congregation. It may even have been that the promise of a new building at the end of the pandemic helped the congregation be willing to put up with anything. MCC was largely spared any “in-person vs. online” or “masks required vs. optional vs. no masks” struggles that faced many churches.
One of the principles that leaders held to was for the building to be useful to the church, but also to strategic ministry partners and the general public.
They were adamant that MCC would not fund all of this work for the building to lay dormant 5 days a week. During the design process, Monroe signed a contract with the local YMCA to host a 44-child licensed daycare on the site. This involved some design changes for rooms to be the right sizes to maximize child/teacher ratios and meet state licensing requirements. Additionally, during this time, Monroe’s leaders befriended pastor Dave VanderWoude, who had a vision for an RCA/CRC church plant modeled after the worshipping body at Benjamin’s Hope in Holland, MI. This church, CityHopeGR, would be a church for people who had disabilities and their families, friends, allies, and advocates. They preferred meeting for worship on Sunday afternoons, so the schedule would be synergistic. MCC loved the idea of sharing the building with a church with this vision, and an agreement was struck.
Elevate Studio architecture.design discussed the arrangement with Dave, who anticipated a few facility-based needs, many of which were thankfully already in the project. He was happy to see flexible, lightweight worship seating that could be easily modified for wheelchair seating, a generous ramp to the worship platform, a family toilet in case a worshipper needed help from a spouse or personal attendant who might be of the opposite gender, powered main entry doors, and coffee service and children’s check-in counters that included a section for wheelchair-users’ knee space. The A/V/Tech system contained Bluetooth technology for hearing aids, and some of the tech controls were on the main floor in case a wheelchair user wanted to serve in this ministry. The Children’s ministry had a Sensory Room for children who might need a calm space to settle down. Some new thoughts emerged that hadn’t already been considered:
- An adult sized changing table. Some of the families Dave was starting out with had adult children that parents typically had to change on the floors of public bathrooms.
- A separate, windowed family room with views of the worship center for people who wanted to attend worship but might feel like they disrupt fellow worshippers if they could not control the noises or movements they make.
Elevate Studio also submitted the project’s progress plans to Kent County Disability Advocates for a review of Universal Design principles, and received a response within a week. By and large, the reviewer gave the building a great review. However, they did recommend expanding some openings and widening approaches to bathroom doors beyond what construction code and the ADA required.
MCC moved into the building in August of 2021, and CityHopeGR joined them 2 months later. Several synergies emerged: the glassed in viewing room became a well-used “cry room” for MCC families with young children, and they ended up equipping it with foam blocks and other quiet toys. As many as four families have been in this space at once during MCC’s worship services, having their infants roll around on the foam blocks. It has also been useful as a meeting space for both churches. Additionally, MCC had requested a large, 20’ wide overhead coiling door between worship and fellowship. MCC’s former building did not have a separate “lobby” or narthex space, and they sought to continue to blur the line between worship and fellowship. CityHopeGR loves that some of their members who have sensory issues can utilize this large opening and experience worship from the quieter lobby, where they can move around without distracting others. The building has zones in the lobby and family room where the worship service can be heard and not seen, seen and not heard, or heard and seen, but from a distance. The worship center has seating along the back wall, at hi-top tables, at café tables, and the traditional rows of chairs. All of these ways to experience the worship experience allow for a variety of degrees of engagement, especially for those who have sensory issues.
A few other strategic building design features were included. The MCC Prayer team had wanted an obvious place for people to come for prayer after the worship service and feel private, but not feel whisked away to a “star chamber”. Elevate Studio designed and built a nest-like structure of fire-treated 2x lumber to create a special, semi-private but obvious space in the lobby for prayer that also doubled as the back of a welcome/greeting center. MCC had several young families whose parents described wishing to be able to prepare communion elements or coffee before worship, or stay longer in the building after worship and socialize, but not hold up child-care volunteers. Designers created a gated PlayZone in the lobby which is used by all 3 organizations for indoor play, where one adult can supervise a group of children.
The downtown Grand Rapids building has also been well-used by the community in its short lifetime of just over 2 years.
It has hosted 3 ArtPrize exhibits, winning 3 Artist Awards and was awarded the 2022 Best Venue out of 144 venues. It has hosted events for the Monroe North Business Association, Downtown Grand Rapids, Inc., Gilda’s Club, Laughfest, New City Neighbors, the Boardwalk Condo Dwellers’ Association, Artists Creating Together, the Crossroads Prison Initiative, the CRC’s Great Lakes RAVAH gatherings, and many family-based and wedding-related gatherings.
This was a very budget-conscious project, and the renovation was accomplished for less than $100/sf in 2021. MCC benefitted from the donation of some used materials and equipment from Sunshine CRC, along with volunteer labor during demolition and installing A/V/Tech. The project received the 2022 Small Commercial Design Award from the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects.
All of the users have learned from sharing the building. There remain a few Universal Design improvements: the need for powered bathroom doors, a powered door at a secondary entry vestibule, and Braille signage. The building’s partners are also realizing that such a well-utilized building cannot be managed effectively by volunteers and are in the process of hiring a facilities manager. For now, the building is working extremely well as a ministry tool for Monroe Community Church, CityHopeGR, and the Child Care Center with the YMCA.