‘Re-Pitching the Tent’ Downtown

Volume 47, Issue 3 :: by Marc Manack, Photographs by Pease Photography

A congregation shares space in an innovative design that makes the most of meager resources.

Exterior of the revitalized abandoned industrial warehouse, now the new home of North Presbyterian Church.

Exterior of the revitalized abandoned industrial warehouse, now the new home of North Presbyterian Church.

North Presbyterian Church houses a unique congregation in urban Cleveland, Ohio. With dwindling or relocated congregations, urban churches from a variety of denominations (including Presbyterian) are being closed and decommissioned at a staggering rate within Cleveland’s urban core. With a congregation from diverse socioeconomic and faith backgrounds, North Church has fought to continue its ministry within the blighted neighborhood it calls home. To sustain its ministry, North Church made the choice to move out of its over-sized and costly-to-maintain historic building. The congregation functions on a shoestring budget funded largely by donations from partner churches; thus the new facility had to be extremely low cost to build, operate, and maintain.

Floor and reflected ceiling plans.

Floor and reflected ceiling plans.

When considering possible sites for the project, it was critical that the church find a new location within its current neighborhood, where the church’s parishioners primarily reside. Although the required parking spaces are provided on an existing parking lot across the street, the majority of the church’s congregation either walks or uses mass transit to attend meals and services at North Church. The new church’s location on Superior Avenue affords it access to one of Cleveland’s major transit thoroughfares; five bus stops are within two blocks of the site. Thus, out of necessity as much as desire, an ethic of resourcefulness was central to not only the project’s location, but also its design, an ethic shared by the congregation and by our firm, SILO AR+D.

The facility for the new North Church is an existing abandoned industrial warehouse building where the church is strategically collocated with a series of affiliated nonprofit social organizations. North Church desired to have a unique, distinguishable, and inviting image within the larger complex. Spatial limitations in the existing building meant the sanctuary was required to be shared space with all tenants (Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry and its subsidiary organizations), providing large meeting and assembly spaces divisible by movable partitions.

The limitations of the project scope and budget meant sustainable innovations had to be fundamental rather than superfluous to the design strategy. The site was selected because of the church’s ability to collectively share services and infrastructure with another nonprofit organization under one roof, from common restrooms to a commercial kitchen used to serve weekly meals to homeless and needy in the community (total square footage is just shy of 5,000 square feet). Overall, the design aims to create the maximum effect with modest means. The existing building was salvaged and retained as much as possible, including structure, infrastructure, and flooring. Existing concrete floors were patched and sealed, with existing structure left exposed and painted in public spaces throughout. The most significant new design element of the space, the interior/exterior ceiling canopy, undulates to accommodate existing structure and infrastructure, including main sprinkler piping. Additionally, the ceiling was conceived as primarily finished with a resilient cladding (made of 100 percent post-consumer recycled paper and a clear, water-based resin system that utilizes cashew nut shells) typically used in the construction of skateboard ramps. Ultimately, rather than modifying the existing building to suit the desires of an idealized design, the design of North Presbyterian adapts to the existing environment, capitalizing on its resources and qualities, resulting in a more aesthetically unique and sustainable space.

The architecture capitalizes on the multipurpose function of the sanctuary to enhance the spatial qualities that characterize sacred worship space (symmetry, volume, indirect natural light). Conceived as a hybrid canopy/cathedral, the ceiling surface undulates to create a series of vaults that maximize the spatial volume available, while simultaneously concealing the appearance of hardware and headers required for the movable partitions. The faceted ceiling panels are subdivided into an animated triangular pattern that accommodates lighting, HVAC, and sprinkler systems. To maximize material economy and fabrication, a limited amount of triangular tile shapes repeat in a variety of patterns throughout. Reflective colored panels are introduced that echo the stained glass windows from the church’s former home.

The ceiling pattern developed also represents innovative uses of material economy and construction techniques. The intention was to create the effect of a non-repeating and visual complex pattern using standard modules. Pattern modules were developed to maximize efficiency when cut from standard sheets during fabrication. Panels were prefabricated off site using CNC (computer numerical control) routing in files extracted from the architect’s 3D model. To allow for imperfect field conditions, contractors were permitted to make ad hoc adjustments to the pattern, to utilize any and all leftover pieces to minimize waste.

The result of careful planning, shared space, and material resourcefulness was a project cost of $40 per square foot (including MEP, exterior storefront, and all interior construction, finishes, and furnishings) for this new, highly flexible urban church.

The writer is principal of SILO AR+D, an architectural research and design firm with offices in Cleveland and Fayetteville, Arkansas. He is also a professor at the Fay Jones School of Architecture at the University of Arkansas.


  1. Charles Hurst-Pastor says

    We didn’t know that cashew shells are a component in the ceiling. So fascinating. We love the worship space, but usually have the chairs arranged in a semi-circle or in a round fashion. Thank you Mark for designing a wonderful space for our community.