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Building Community: The Blackhawk Church Project

Español | Translation Sponsored by TCA

Written by Abby Luchsinger, member of Blackhawk Church

Photos by C&N Photography

“Building a community to reach a community” is the abbreviated mission statement of Blackhawk Church in Madison, Wisconsin. Similarly, the mission for the design-build team led by Newcomb Construction and KEE Architecture, the companies hired to construct a building for Blackhawk, could be summarized as: “building a church to serve a community.”

Blackhawk Church’s main campus is in Madison, but they have launched additional sites outside the city. One of these is in Fitchburg, where, after almost seven years of converting a middle school gymnasium into a church and then back into a gym each Sunday, the growing congregation was needing a dedicated space to call home.

The search for the right team to partner with Blackhawk led the congregation to the design-build team of Newcomb Construction and KEE Architecture. Given the project’s complexities, turning to a tilt-up concrete team was unexpected, but this project took concrete far beyond the stereotypes of basic industrial buildings. The design-build team’s 15-year working relationship has produced many tilt-up collaborations, including some award-winning designs. Moreover, as tilt-up construction brings the manufacturing process to the job site, it offered significant cost savings, which was key in allowing the church to fund the 42,300-square-foot investment solely through contributions and without incurring debt.

The task of constructing a modern church building presented unique challenges. The basic requirements included housing a sanctuary (for 600 people or more), staff offices, a nursery and classrooms (to comfortably accommodate up to 300 children), and additional meeting rooms. Additionally, the congregation’s hope was to create a similar ambiance to that of the Madison campus. Blackhawk identified several additional criteria. The building exterior needed to be accessible and aesthetically attractive from all four sides, as it would be located on a major corridor in a growing neighborhood. They wanted to have multiple rooflines and heights, to have everything on one floor, to include a large and intuitive children’s ministry space, and to make a floor plan that would ensure a comfortable flow throughout the building. 

Meeting complex logistical needs was only part of the challenge. On the flip side of function is form. The aesthetic challenges for this project included creating a space large enough to hold a congregation while still feeling cozy, creating areas of light for fellowship and areas of darkness for observing services, creating spaces that felt intentional and welcoming to all ages, and creating a structure that would connect with the greater Fitchburg community on a visible street corner. Most importantly, the building needed to be a reflection of Blackhawk’s mission – an expression of community.

The concept of community was incorporated through a series of distinctive design elements. One of those elements is a large atrium that runs the length of the building. The atrium can hold the entire congregation between Sunday morning services, providing space for people to connect. Moreover, the building’s orientation aligns the atrium with the street corner, creating a linear and visual connection between the heart of the building and the Fitchburg community. The whitewashed limestone decoratively used throughout the building was salvaged from the McKenna Barn, which formerly occupied the building site, linking the church with the community’s history.

The project used locally sourced ready-mix for the 76 custom-made concrete tilt-up wall panels, which were built on site by Newcomb Construction. There was a kind of poetry in the process: the walls built on and from the site of the church have created the home of the church. Out of the 76 panels, 70 were distinct from one another, and 19 were curved. The street-facing curved panels unify the external shape of the building while internally adding visual interest to the sanctuary. Constructing these panels required skilled carpenters to build each base to one of two different radii.

Where concrete construction used to be limited mostly to industrial projects, modern tilt-up construction allows for the flexibility of designing any type of building while maintaining aesthetic control. This building’s construction from a simple, unified material – concrete – created an overall sense of wholeness. The large basic structural pieces used in tilt-up lend themselves to a design predicated on basic geometric shapes – like circles, squares, and triangles – which echo the shapes seen in historical church designs, resulting in an aesthetic that is both modern and timeless.

Modern and timeless, Blackhawk Fitchburg now has a light-filled atrium where the community comes together. It has meeting rooms with floor-to-ceiling windows that connect those inside the building to the nature outside of it. It has a children’s ministry space with a hallway that is wide and bright, and it has a nursery and classrooms that are intuitive and safe. It has a sanctuary that creates a sense of closeness with its curved walls and subdued light. The building has many parts, but in concert, it is one – a fitting metaphor for the home of a church where the many members form one body, one congregation.

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