Bracing for the Storm

Volume 50, Issue 1 :: Ethan Anthony, AIA

Blending restoration and safety in the design of worship spaces

Members of St. Joseph’s Church

Members of St. Joseph’s Church gather in front of the destroyed structure, amid which is the main altar, undamaged. Photo: Steven Beatty

Over the past 15 years we have received several RFPs from church communities that have been the target of disaster both human-caused and natural. In many cases the congregation was faced with a crisis when their house of worship was either completely destroyed or damaged to the point that it was in imminent danger of destruction.

In one case, a priest in Louisiana who had taken over a church rebuilt in a contemporary fashion after being totally destroyed by Hurricane Rita wanted to add gargoyles to its tower. In another, the interior of a historic Cram and Goodhue church was destroyed by hurricane water damage, and was in danger of renewed interior destruction due to a leaking roof. A church in Iowa City suffered total destruction from a direct hit by a tornado; a handful of parishioners survive the storm, seeking shelter in the basement. Another church in Rhode Island was condemned due to ongoing structural failure. Others too numerous to mention were threatened with existential crises due to the combination of age and deferred maintenance issues. Some church interiors change to address the needs of the elderly and disabled, while others are updated to deter sexual harassment and abuse.

Emphasis on Safety and Security

Safety and security are prominent issues when we approach our design task. Increasingly, the emergency is a response to severe weather. Often an older building that has stood for a century or more is devastated by a storm that it was never designed to withstand. Codes, where they existed in the 1880s and ‘90s, permitted construction that managed well enough in prior decades, but can no longer resist increasingly violent wind and rainstorms today.

The functional purpose of building is to provide shelter from the elements of nature; much of the form of human shelter is based on that function. Design must anticipate seismic, human, and climate events that in the past would have been considered unlikely.

The devastating 1992 Hurricane Andrew in Florida resulted in a dramatically upgraded Florida building code in Miami and Dade counties and significantly stiffened regulations throughout the state. The state now requires Florida-engineered and approved products and procedures for all construction. Nationally, newer codes have been promulgated to improve fire safety, disabled access, air quality, energy efficiency, and worker safety. The trend toward tougher codes is appearing in other parts of the country that have not experienced recent disasters but may, through location or history, have the potential to do so in the future. In the past decade nearly every project we have designed has been influenced to varying degrees by anticipation of natural disaster.

One example of a church designed with a heightened awareness of natural disasters is the recently completed St. Kateri Tekakwitha Catholic Church in Ridgway, Illinois. Ridgway is located at the southern end of Illinois, an area close to the New Madrid fault (inactive since 1812, but recently under increased scrutiny by geologists), but better known as a target of frequent flooding of both the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. The most famous flood was in the winter of 1937 in the depths of the Great Depression the towns from Evansville, Indiana to St Louis, Missouri were swamped, including Ridgway, miles away from both rivers.

More important in the design of the church was the tornado that plowed through nearby Harrisburg, Illinois, on February 29, 2012, taking the roof off a large apartment complex. Minutes later the twister struck at the first large structure it came upon in Ridgway: St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, built in 1894.

The roof was lifted off of the church and slammed into the rectory next door, narrowly missing Father Steven Beatty on the second floor. Father Beatty crawled out of the wreckage of the rectory thinking others in the area would have been affected by the devastating blow from the tornado, but soon realized that the damage was not as severe elsewhere. When the damage to the church was assessed it was discovered that only the bells and the fine Carrera marble altar had survived.

Even before the twister struck, St. Joseph’s had been subject to other forces that seemed determined to tear it apart. A 65 percent reduction in population in Gallatin County between 1960 to 2000 resulted in fewer parishioners, along with a nationwide reduction in the number of priests. The Belleville Diocese decided to build a brand new church on the St. Joseph site, named St. Kateri Tekakwitha (for the recently canonized Native American saint) The new church would consolidate four parishes in the area. Partner parishes St. Patrick in Pond Settlement, St. Joseph in Equality, and St. Mary in Shawneetown would serve as chapels for one weekly Mass.

Father Beatty (who became the new pastor of St. Kateri) and the building committee chose our firm as architect in fall 2013. They desired a church that would be as familiar to them as St. Joseph’s but stronger and more tornado resistant, resilient. The plan would be cruciform, centered on the surviving Gothic marble altar as the centerpiece of the new church as it had been in St. Joseph’s and a new cross that would hang over it. The nave was sized to accommodate 425, with stained glass windows from another church that had been closed in the diocese. There would be a gabled slate roof possibly reusing some of the slate salvaged from the wreckage of St. Josephs. The three salvaged bells would be re-installed in a new bell tower.

Designing for Disaster

Braced steel framing to increase wind and earthquake resistance.

Braced steel framing was used throughout the new church building to increase its wind and earthquake resistance. Photo: Ethan Anthony

An early design consideration related to resilience and security was to set our design parameters to avoid future natural disasters. The last great flood in Ridgway reached several feet above the grade around the future church. We instructed the surveyor to establish a benchmark for our first floor level of one foot above the 1937 flood. Analysis of sub-surface conditions at the building site revealed that the water table fluctuated between 10 and 18 feet below the surface. This meant that we had to plan for dewatering if the spring was wetter than normal. This was the case, and it was necessary to dewater for three months to lower the ground water sufficiently to begin construction of the foundations of the vault.

Due to the high water table, buildings in Ridgway have traditionally been constructed on slabs, leaving residents with no shelter from an approaching tornado. Provision of a tornado shelter large enough to provide protection for the town residents was beyond the means of the church. Instead, we incorporated a large mechanical vault under the narthex of the church that could provide shelter without meeting the full requirements of an official public shelter. The vault’s waterproof construction included placing dewatering pipes under the foundation leading to a sump, and placing a membrane under and around the concrete foundation before it was formed and poured. The interior of the vault is equipped with dual sump pumps powered on a large emergency generator, making the vault the safest place in town to ride out a tornado. These and other emergency measures required the provision of a propane-gas-powered 50KW emergency generator, which is supplied from a 2,000-gallon underground tank, which would provide power for several days.

The old altar, which survived the tornado, graces the new church's chancel.

The new church’s chancel contains the St. Joseph’s old altar, resurrected from the tornado disaster. Photo: Lindsay Adams

Being within 100 miles of the New Madrid Fault, the church’s steel frame and masonry construction were designed accordingly. The frame included many large moment plates and extensive X-bracing is concealed within several interior walls. Because of the open interior there was little opportunity to introduce shear walls, so even interior walls have X-bracing that, in places, reduced the number and size of openings. The steel frame had so many welded connections it took three months to complete the welding. This and resistance to wind loading and other requirements increased the cost of the steel frame significantly, but it was necessary to resist an earthquake such as is considered likely within the next 50 years on the fault line (there have been several Richter 2.5+ earthquakes since the church was completed).

All our churches, which often have high towers, are routinely fitted with lightning protection. Lightning rods or aerials are placed along the roof ridges and on the highest points of the tower, often pinnacles that rise above the balustrade or the point of the steeple rising above the roof of the tower.

Steel stud exterior walls are clad in 4-inch Wisconsin limestone veneer produced nearby, trimmed in cast stone produced by a national supplier. The roof is clad in slate-look Eco Star composition shingles produced from recycled tires. Such a roof can resist hailstorms–frequent accompaniments to violent rain and wind storms. The shingles are also highly resistant to uplift and wind, making it an ideal material for the area.

Windows are an aluminum frame system fitted with double-pane insulating glass units. An extra stop on the interior of the frame provides a mounting location for future stained glass panels. This serves two purposes: a permanent, energy-efficient exterior glazing that protects the stained glass panel from hail and wind storms, and also allows for art glass to be installed after construction.

Finally, exterior doors are constructed of a multi-layered system with true wood plank on the interior and exterior faces over a plywood interior core. In Florida, these doors have not been possible because each opening must be tested and certified by an engineer as meeting Florida wind codes. In practice this may be prohibitively expensive. The alternative is commercially available doors produced and tested to pass the Florida code.

Bracing for the Future

The newly constructed St. Kateri Tekakwitha Church

The newly constructed St. Kateri Tekakwitha Church on the site of the demolished St. Joseph’s. Photo: Lindsay Adams

Storms have become more severe, floods are anticipated to be higher and longer in duration, and severe weather that will exceed the violence and strength of past storms must be planned for. These are circumstances for architects today; whether traditional or contemporary, our designs must respond to these environmental factors.

Tightening codes provides one response, but the architect can exceed the codes to make the building safer. A heightened awareness of the ways the designer’s decisions can accommodate occupants either sheltering in place or escaping from danger should be uppermost in the architect’s mind throughout the design process.

The author is the Principal of Cram and Ferguson Architects, LLC in Concord, Massachusetts.