Adaptive Reuse Pros and Cons: Could Your New Church Be An Old Grocery Store?
At Aspen Group, our heartbeat around the projects we do with churches centers on so much more than seeing a building going up. We love to see how the Lord is working within the church, in local communities, and through teams.
Our adaptive reuse project with Faith Assembly in Walterboro, South Carolina, was a recent opportunity to see God working through three different congregations that joined to form a new faith community. The church’s purchase of an abandoned Food Lion grocery is a beautiful example of what can happen when teams collaborate to breathe new life into a community.
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I recently spoke with Aspen Senior Project Manager Steve Cruze, who spearheaded the extensive renovations for the project completed in May 2020. He highlighted some of the opportunities and challenges the teams had to consider as they sought to repurpose a neglected grocery store into a thriving church home.
Have you wondered if an adaptive reuse project might be right for your church? Consider if your leadership might be energized by the following:
Redemption of an Existing Structure
With the exception of some discount chains that are still expanding, it has been a crushing year for many retailers. CNBC reported in early September that retailers had announced more than 7,700 closings, leaving behind a trail of available store properties.
When a church takes an old building and finds a new purpose for it, I can’t help but think what a fantastic metaphor it is for the redemptive work Christ does in our lives. Perhaps your leadership can envision investing in the community by writing a new chapter within a vacated structure.
Beyond the project's restorative nature, Steve notes that it can also be beneficial from a budget perspective to renovate an existing space, sometimes producing values at the rate of 50 cents on the dollar.
Reflecting back on the team’s initial visit to the property, he adds, “At first, some were thinking we should just demolish all of it, but we held on to the vision that there was a value. Sure enough, it allowed us to save hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
The project savings were available to use toward top-of-the-line audio, video, and lighting for the church’s three auditoriums, which house their primary services, young adults, and students.
Dreaming Beyond the Current Reality
How is your imagination? Does your team like to stretch and dream of new possibilities? Some adaptive reuse projects require more effort to see beyond the facility’s current state and envision how it could morph into a place that helps the church live on mission.
When asked to describe the facility’s state before the project, Steve smiles and says, “I'll call it a health hazard. When we walked through for the first time, I know that some team members didn't want to take it any further. It was that bad. There was a lot of water on the floor. The roof was gone and had been gone for years, so one of the challenges was to get that cleaned up and stabilized.”
The process also involves making creative, strategic choices that align with your church’s vision, mission, and values. Part of Faith Assembly’s mission is to provide a space for the community. While it would have been cost-prohibitive for some, the church chose to install a full commercial kitchen with a pass-through to their cafe because it aligned with their ministry strategy and goals for the space.
Reinterpreting a Framework
With the Faith Assembly project, the teams could capitalize on an old grocery store with existing electrical hardware and infrastructure. At Aspen, we talk about buildings having “good bones” and their degree of adaptability. Once the roof of the former grocery was restored, the team took the building back to bare steel and concrete floor, which provided a stable working environment to place all of the interior walls.
As Steve points out, we see more available big-box retail locations these days, which presents some intriguing opportunities. “One of the things that’s great about big boxes is the span. In the case of Faith Assembly, the average base was 40 feet by 40 feet, which allows you to reinterpret what happens underneath the columns and girders...you can mute the overhead space and leave it open and take advantage of that big wide space. And I think this was the biggest foyer I have been a part of.”
For an added cost-benefit, they were also able to use the existing concrete floors, ground smooth, painted, and polished.
Facing Costly Challenges with Innovative Solutions
Sometimes, there are unforeseen challenges or costly adaptations a church would like to make in an existing space, but the budget restricts it. This can necessitate a need to shift course or employ some creative solutions. For example, Steve shares that one of the challenges of big-box spaces is that it can be difficult to find a cost-effective way to raise the roof.
Related to Faith Assembly, he points out that “one of the techniques that created such a beautiful interior space for their activities on stage was to cut the existing floor and slope it at the same time. Then, we installed stadium seating. The net effect of those two things together created an illusion that the roof was actually much higher.”
Identifying Collaboration Potential
Whether you are building a brand new facility or considering an adaptive reuse possibility, you will need to work with local government and the community related to development regulations as well as sharing the story of the positive impact your church desires to bring to the neighborhood. Depending on the adaptive reuse facility's nature and the community’s vision for growth, you may find unexpected possibilities for local collaboration or support.
The new Faith Assembly location in Walterboro is located in a place known as Robertson’s Corner. In the area, there were commercial buildings that had been abandoned, resulting in some disarray. But God had been moving in several hearts to remake the area for the community.
Steve shares, “Robertson's Corner is on the main thoroughfare coming into the small city of Walterboro. Some of the buildings in that part of town were in decline, which drew interest from the city and the planner. When they heard there was a plan to take the old building and restore it for the community, they were very much behind it. So, we had folks who were pulling for us from the beginning.”
“When a local church is faced with the need to expand and grow, it should be very conscious that the people on the team need to be the kind of people who won't stand in the way of what God is doing at the local level. That is so important. It trumps all of the technical things.
“While there are many qualifications for the engineers, architects, and people you bring into design-build relationships, the most influential people are those who share the vision to help local churches interpret their vision into the sticks and bricks of the facility, remembering that churches are the people and the buildings are the tools.”