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April 14, 2010

Project of the Month: One church that keeps faith with architecture

Special to the Journal

Photos courtesy of Lara Swimmer [enlarge]
As the base for a rapidly growing congregation, Bethany Community Church is an architectural asset for the neighborhood north of Green Lake.

Churches and architecture have a long history together. But lately, that close connection has been lost.

Inside the city, precious landmark churches languish because of collapsing congregations. Meanwhile, mall-like churches in outer suburbs alarm their neighbors, even as they strain to contain growing flocks.

Is there a third way?

Bethany Community Church, home to a rapidly growing congregation north of Green Lake, keeps the faith. It owes nothing to the traditional symmetries of church design, with a centered aisle leading to an imposing altar. But this is architecture. No doubt about it.

Bethany Community Church
1156 N. 80th St.


The Miller|Hull Partnership

Robert Hull, design lead

Sian Roberts, principal

Teresa Russell, project manager for design

Kiki Gram, project manager for construction

Project team included Tim Politis and Michael Henderson


Bethany Community Church


New sanctuary and educational spaces


16,000 square feet


February 2008

Construction cost:

$4.9 million

Structural engineer:

Magnusson Klemencic Associates

Acoustical consultants:

BRC Acoustics

Lighting design:


Civil engineer:

SvR Design Co.

Landscape architect:

Site Workshop

Mechanical/electrical design assist:

Abacus Engineers

Mechanical design build


Merit Mechanical

Electrical design build


Rodgers Electric Co.

General contractor:

Kirtley-Cole Associates

Curved masonry walls contain the wide sanctuary at the front and back. Wrapping around the tall space in between is a strong array of expressed structure. Glu-lam columns and beams are backed with a linear wood panel system. A succession of distinctive steel rod king post trusses are ranked along the top and at one side, where the columns turn to accommodate one side wing.

The ribs surround worshipers like a wooden boat.

A focal light well glows in a break in the wall behind a long stage that is called, simply, the stage. Nothing on it is fixed. It can and does accommodate everything from a single speaker and podium, to a rock band or a full choir.

Four aisles fan around and through the wide banks of pews, with a long balcony in the rear. It all brings those seated into very close visual contact with the ones facing them in front.

“It's a kind of blank canvas,” said Bob Hull, design lead for The Miller/Hull Partnership, architect of the church. “There is a lack of formality.”

He was gratified to observe people's reactions, not only to the new space but to each other.

The volume of the sanctuary is tuned for speech and music. Insulation and reflective surfaces lie carefully distributed behind the open screen of wood panels. Before and after the enveloping sounds of the service there is a loud hubbub — but no echoes — according to Hull.

With the curving walls, open feel and asymmetrical plan, it's engaging as well as disorienting, and matches the non-denominational worship format.

“There are not a lot of ecclesiastical assumptions,” said Pastor Richard Dahlstrom, who has led Bethany since 1995. He calls the group “theologically conservative but socially progressive.”

Bethany is not only growing, but increasingly multi-generational. The teaching and programs emphasize ecology along with more traditional religious concerns like justice and service. Homeless women, bused in from downtown Seattle, are fed and housed there in one program. There is a two-story classroom and day care wing inside the new building. Affiliated groups meet in other communities as far away as West Seattle.

While the new building reflects a congregation that has broken out of the traditional mold, church leaders were determined that it fit gracefully into the context, engaging and respectful.

Neighborhood anchor

Located on a street corner at busy North 80th Street, Bethany is well anchored in the Green Lake neighborhood, with a history that goes back to 1916. Right across the side street, Stone Way, is the previous chapel. A handsome older educational facility flanks the new building.

Despite strong bones and lots of concrete, the new church's exterior is highly transparent and layered.

The broad, stepped entrance is located on North 80th Street near the corner. In the middle of the façade, a steel cross floats up from a finely finished concrete wall. On the other side of that, the sanctuary itself opens visually to the arterial, with a long bay of glass panels combined with glu-lam ribs.

Worshipers, especially younger ones, tend to congregate in that wing first, according to Dahlstrom, filling pews that are only lightly screened from the street. Two layers of motorized blinds, one permeable and one blackout, control the sunlight.

On the eastern elevation, the masonry wall that encloses the sanctuary stands high, with the foyer volume stretched out in front. The glass-walled foyer is fronted, in turn, by a modern concrete colonnade. Outside that, a concrete deck stretches along the neighborhood street, extending the space of the lobby. It's a monumental but inviting front porch, with a low bench wall for gatherings.

“We really are open to the community,” said Dahlstrom.

Attendance doubles

Dahlstrom, a mountain climber, blogger and author of “O2 (oxygen), Breathing New Life into Faith,” seems slightly befuddled when asked about the size of his congregation. The 600-seat sanctuary is usually packed for three services on Sundays. More people fill the old sanctuary across the street where the service appears on screen.

Dahlstrom and Sarah Neill, who helped to oversee design on behalf of the church, calculate that attendance more than doubled when the new building opened, to around 3,000.

Jury comments

“Through massing and materials, the project is respectful of the context without pandering to sentimentality or resorting to the easy use of the icons of religious architecture.”

“The sanctuary has a warmth derived from the lighting and materials.”

The church worked with the community and with Bagley Elementary School, just across North 80th Street, to resolve parking and traffic issues. The church financed 60 new stalls of parking next to the school, to handle overflow on Sundays. It provides needed parking for the school on weekdays.

The connection with Bagley Elementary is reinforced architecturally, creating a small institutional nexus in the neighborhood. Kiki Gram, who managed project construction for Miller/Hull, pointed out that the end of the foyer and the entry stairway both point directly to the school.

To further mitigate parking pressures, several shuttle buses pick up people from satellite blocks and drop them off alongside the church on Stone Way, which is blocked off on Sundays except to handicapped attendees. People circulate freely across the street and between the new church and the old one, filling the new concrete deck front in good weather.

Dahlstrom, who once studied architecture, has a favorite feature. A 30-foot-tall hinged “door” to the side of the stage controls south light that washes the platform and the focal wall behind it. It is ceremonially opened by the minister at the end of worship services.

Like sacred architecture through history, natural light is part of the spirit and the stagecraft of the place.

This building is an eye-opener.

The Project of the Month is sponsored by the Daily Journal of Commerce and the Seattle chapter of the American Institute of Architects. The project for April was selected with the assistance of Washington Green Building Council director Joel Sisolek, architect Jim Moore, and landscape architect Bob Shrosbree. For information about submitting projects, contact Stephanie Pure at AIA Seattle at (206) 448-4938, or stephaniep@aiaseattle.org.


Clair Enlow can be reached by e-mail at clair@clairenlow.com.

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