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Construction to begin this summer on domed Sudbury church

It took eight years to complete construction on the Sistine Chapel, but Pastor Jeremy Mahood is optimistic it won't take nearly as long to build the new All Nations Church in Sudbury.
All Nations Church
A rendering from Perry + Perry Architects depicts the 800-seat auditorium which will encompass one of the two domes. The other dome will incorporatemeeting space, a youth activities area and a courtyard.

It took eight years to complete construction on the Sistine Chapel, but Pastor Jeremy Mahood is optimistic it won't take nearly as long to build the new All Nations Church in Sudbury.

The 26,000-square-foot structure won't have the pomp or majesty of the famous Roman cathedral, but it will be unique in its design and construction. The church is being built in the form of two 13,000-square-foot monolithic domes, a building method not previously used in Northern Ontario.

Monolithic dome building has been popular in the U.S. since the 1970s, but has only taken off in Canada within the last decade. In the hunt for a new home, Mahood and his congregation alighted on the domes after a traditional church was deemed too costly and environmentally unfriendly for modern-day purposes.

“As a church, we can't afford to be green just to be fashionable,” Mahood said. “We have to be green and we have to make sure that we use every dollar that we get in a highly cost-effective manner, due to the fact that our funding will come from our donors and basically not any other source.”

The modern monolithic dome is a takeoff on thin-shell structure architectural design. After the base is poured, a malleable membrane is inflated and secured in place. Construction then continues from inside the structure.

The membrane is sprayed with three inches of polyurethane foam, followed by a layer of rebarembedded foam, and completed with a layer of shotcrete. The result is a watertight, hurricane-proof and virtually indestructible structure.

All Nations Church will be built for $40 a square foot, a price that would be unheard of if the church had gone with a more traditional building of similar size. The City of Greater Sudbury gives it a total value of $5 million, and construction is anticipated to begin this summer.

“We want to bring a new and innovative technology to Northern Ontario, a technology that has not been built here before, and demonstrate to the community that it is possible to build sustainable buildings at a price that almost any project could afford,” Mahood said.

The building will be comprised of two domes connected by a centre walkway. One dome will encompass an 800-seat auditorium with 2,500 square feet of stage space, a green room and a recording studio.

The second dome will include 3,000 square feet of usable space for children, a 3,000-square-foot meeting space and foyer, and 1,800 square feet of office space.

Because of the unique nature of the construction, the church approached American builders for the project, but on one condition: they had to be willing to mentor their Northern Ontario counterparts in the method.

“The overarching goal was not just to use American research and American talent, but to use talent in Northern Ontario,” Mahood explained. “That was a really big part that we felt was important to us as a client, as a church. Not only would we build this for us, but we would show the North how this structure could be used in other ways in other projects, and literally have an experienced team in Northern Ontario to do that.”

Chris Perry of Perry + Perry Architects in Sudbury designed the building and is being mentored by Salt Lake City's Lee Gray, who designed an amphitheatre for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. They're joined by structural engineer Geoff Sissons and electrical engineer Anthony Gazzola, both of Thunder Bay, along with mechanical engineer Jeff Hunter and civil engineer Alex Sorensen, both of Sudbury.

Project manager Brad Loewen said the venture requires specialty engineering since the shape and structural design varies from a traditional building.

“It's not posts and beams and columns, so there's some real specialty engineering work there,” he said. “On the mechanical side, a typical mechanical engineer will approach it like any other building, but it doesn't behave like any other building, because the concrete is on the inside.”

That causes the building to act like “a humongous thermal mass,” Loewen said, with the concrete warming during the day and radiating heat out at night, keeping the temperature constant.

That means the dome needs 50 per cent less HVAC capacity than a typical 25,000-square-foot building, and the building will have an R-value of 64 or better.

Mahood estimates churches are some of the most power hungry edifices in Ontario, because their vast spaces require huge amounts of energy to heat, yet they commonly stay empty through most of the week, except for Sunday service.

“While some people may like the architecture of church, the questions become, can we afford to build the cathedral-type architecture of church anymore, and can we still operate that building 35 or 40 years from now?” he said.

But the design of the dome, combined with innovative heating and cooling methods, will allow the church to keep its costs down, and Mahood estimates the building will pay for itself in about 15 years in energy savings alone.

Instead of moving air through the building via a traditional air conditioning system, air will be pumped in through small systems and moved around by a giant fan, which will circulate the air through the dome, Loewen explained. Energy recovery ventilators will then take the stale air from inside and exchange it out, bringing in new air.

“Basically, we're going to put a big ceiling fan up that's 20 feet in diameter,” Loewen said. “All that's going to do is turn nice and slow, and it's like an airplane wing.”

The building will be lit using LED lighting, and the church has hired Porter Falcon of Oklahoma, one of the world's foremost acoustical engineers, to facilitate the acoustics.

The church is eager to bring on board local contractors who want to be part of the process and will select companies who show interest in learning the techniques to participate.

Mahood is hesitant to put a final total on the project, since the money is being raised by the congregation as the venture progresses.

“The determining factor for us is that we are paying cash to do this each step of the way, so our timeline is purely dependent on donations and gifts in kind,” he said. “We've broken the project into financially manageable chunks that make sense so we can get to the next part of the project. We won't end up with half a dome and run out of money.”

A core value of the project was to build something cost-efficient, functional and beautiful without leaving a legacy of debt, or a building with unmanageable maintenance costs, for future generations.

While All Nations Church is the first in the North to implement this kind of development, the group is optimistic that, once people see the potential for its use, it will catch on as an affordable, sustainable building method.

“Even after four years on this dome process, I think it's still pretty exciting, the immense potential for what we could do: low-income housing to schools or community centres or hockey rinks,” Loewen said. “I think this is just the start of something big.”