The joy of building simply



Architect Thomas Kerns has designed or renovated nearly 100 religious buildings over the past quarter-century -- and has generally seen the projects get more and more complex. But a recent commission gave Kerns and his colleagues the opportunity to pare religious space-making to its barest essentials.

There was no complicated spatial diagram. No large building committee to appease. No requests for elaborate ornamentation. (No big budget, either.) Just an earnest client looking for a free-standing chapel and related support spaces.

"That was a joy," said Kerns, principal of Kerns Group Architects of Arlington. "That was a luxury. With fewer pieces, you can do a very clear diagram of a building."

The client was the United Methodist Church Board of Child Care, a 127-year-old agency that operates a group home and day school for about 250 at-risk adolescents in central Maryland. The campus can accommodate up to 124 residents and 125 day students. Residents range in age from 7 to 21 and live on campus for up to 14 months.

As part of a $20 million expansion of its 33-acre property in the Randallstown section of Baltimore County, the board asked Kerns Group to design a chapel for religious services, which previously were held in the gymnasium.

The request called only for a worship space capable of seating 75 to 100 people, and a few additional rooms -- 2,300 square feet in all, or about the size of a three-bedroom house.

Kerns, working with project manager Andrew Cheng and project architect Koji Hirota, responded to the simple request with an equally simple worship space. The building has received design awards from the Virginia Society AIA and AIA / Northern Virginia, as well as a construction award from the Baltimore chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors Inc. Struever Bros. Eccles and Rouse was the general contractor.

Concept of building

The $700,000 building was conceived as two distinct volumes, each with a different quality of light, solidity and form. One is a soaring, light-filled space that serves as the sanctuary, and the second is a lower, darker masonry section that contains the chaplain's office, storage areas and mechanical equipment. In contrast to the low-rise section, which has few windows, the sanctuary has a dappled quality of light created by sunlight filtered through randomly spaced windows made of three types of glass: clear, textured and translucent rice paper.

The primary material for the sanctuary is Western Red cedar, while the support spaces are clad in brick and fieldstone. Kerns and Cheng said they chose cedar because it was part of the palette of materials already on campus and because they were accustomed to working with it.

In addition, Kerns says, cedar is a forgiving material that enabled them to express the building's structural system while keeping the framework relatively delicate. It also enabled them to explore the play of light inside the chapel by creating non-load-bearing perimeter walls that can be perforated by windows.

The sanctuary is 44 feet long and 38 feet wide. Its sloping copper roof is supported by eight heavy timber frames made of 3-by-12-inch beams and 6-by-6-inch columns. The columns are set at an angle on concrete plinths whose tops are sloped so they are perpendicular to the wood. The roofline becomes more slender at the overhangs, where no insulation was required.

Columns are sandwiched between beams on either side, and the exposed nature of the frame reinforces the chapel's tentlike character. There is a Japanese quality to the way the columns rest on the plinths, which are placed at 8-foot intervals, and the roof appears to float over the stone portion.

"We've always had an interest in simple use of materials and simple expression of structure, so that when people come in, they can understand how the building stands up," Cheng said.

Interior lighting for the sanctuary is provided by low-voltage white pendant lights suspended in random fashion above the seats -- evoking twinkling stars -- and amber pendant lights set in a semicircle and at a constant height around the chancel. The apparent randomness of the white lights echoes the random spacing of the windows.

Entrance moved

The design originally called for worshipers to enter the chapel through the somber stone-covered section and then proceed into the light-filled sanctuary. Before construction began, the board requested that the main door be relocated so people would walk directly from the outdoors into the sanctuary. Although the change took away the element of surprise in moving from a low-ceilinged narthex, or portico, into a more spacious worship area, it did not diminish the way one experiences the play of dappled light within the cedar tent, the acoustics or the details of the structure itself.

One could even argue that the change added visual interest to the space, because visitors approach it through an asymmetrical frame rather than a symmetrical one, and as a result may be more aware of the supporting structure.

"This is the first building in which we've experimented with this much wood, inside and out," Kerns said. "It was a good way to distill the design to its most essential components -- light, geometry, material and texture -- all in one space."

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