Intentionally Untraditional

BY By Lisa Hill and Pat Bradford

Port City Community Church’s modern architectural style reflects the church’s pride in its uniqueness

Port City Community Church

The freshly painted taupe gray and beige fa?ade of Port City Community Church — or PC3 as its congregation fondly refers to it — does not look or feel like a grand traditional church. In fact church leaders say the building located on Vision Drive in Wilmington has been confused with an IKEA store on multiple occasions.

That confusion doesn’t surprise or concern church leadership. The modern geometric design makes an intentional statement that PC3 is an atypical church.

“It doesn’t look like a church and that is purposeful ” says Richie Marshall executive pastor of the nondenominational evangelical Christian congregation. “We wanted to more reflect who we are.”

Like an IKEA retail location where shoppers are guided through the store down a logical path PC3 wanted to incorporate a common-sense circulation both inside and outside the building for its 4 000 congregants and visitors. By meticulously planning the flow architects were able to improve crowd movement and avoid a herd-in herd-out scenario.

“We want people to come in comfortably ” Marshall says. “It’s a space that reflects what we do programmatically and also tries to embrace the values we have.”

Built of concrete steel and glass the sprawling crescent-shaped structure and its surrounding parking lots teem with activity during the three services at 9 and 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. every Sunday.

The Building Plan

Senior Pastor Mike Ashkraft and his brother-in-law Chris Kuhne pastor of worship arts were youth ministers at a Baptist church in Wilmington in the 1990s. They noticed that although their youth group kids were going to church their parents weren’t.

“They said their parents wouldn’t go because they weren’t Baptists. They felt like they weren’t welcome ” Ashkraft says. “It was an eye-opening thing.”

Ashkraft and Kuhne wanted a church with a different approach; one with the atmosphere of a youth group for adults where everyone felt comfortable and at home.

“The approach to church needs to be different ” Ashkraft says. “Most people didn’t hate God they just had questions that no one seemed to want to address. Let’s learn together. Let’s ask and answer the questions that we all have. That’s my approach to how I teach. And I think that’s what struck a nerve.”

The church began with a core group of about 30 people meeting in homes. The first public service was held in 1999 in the Roland-Grise Middle School auditorium with 84 people in attendance. As a portable church staff and volunteers had to set up and break down each week from mobile trailers.

Word began to get around about this nontraditional church gathering. By 2005 PC3 had outgrown the school auditorium and began renting space in the Regal Mayfaire movie complex. When attendance exceeded 2 000 church leaders decided to invest in a permanent structure.

Ashkraft who holds a degree in architecture from Southern Polytechnic State University in Marietta Georgia didn’t want a huge building.

“We’ve never tried to figure out how to be a big church ” he says. “That has never been a conversation. It’s always been ‘How do we help the people who come in?'”

The original plan was to retrofit a 40 000-square-foot building in Northchase Industrial Park but leaders say the deal fell through. The church then acquired the 32-acre property on Vision Drive tucked in a neighborhood between Eastwood Road and Market Street.

Ashkraft discovered the architect for the project from within the ranks of the church body. John Urban of Wilmington firm Urban Design Architect P.A. had been attending PC3 for five years while it was emerging from a startup to a church outgrowing its rented space.

Originally Urban submitted a design for a 50 000-square-foot building then created a plan for a bigger building with 75 000 square feet. But Urban and architectural design consultant Ray Douglas who worked for CCL Associates in Atlanta and was a key contributor to several Atlanta-area megachurches realized even that wasn’t large enough.

With a large and growing congregation and the need for space to expand existing programs and ministries PC3 would immediately outgrow a facility that size. A larger building was needed.

“The church was continually growing while we were in the design phase ” Urban says. “Everything in the church started exploding. It became a pretty big church larger and larger. So we wanted 91 000 feet.”

Even though he studied architecture Ashkraft says “I didn’t have as much input as everybody assumes. Having been in architecture I wanted John to have the latitude to bring his ideas and make it his. He’s a part of the church he knew who we were he knew me. A lot of the drive was to be able to represent what we wanted programmatically and let him bring his own expression to that.”

He did though have some ideas about the design.

“We didn’t want an 18th-century colonial church. What I really was interested in was making it very efficient and functional ” Ashkraft says. “The biggest thing was to make people feel like they matter when they walk in the door so they weren’t just herded into and out of a big auditorium. There is a lot of circulation space utilizing a lot of the outdoors with the weather that we have here. That was a lot of the emphasis that I brought to the table.”

With a design in place construction began in 2006. However financing the big project was a struggle for the young church and the design team looked at ways to engineer savings.

Typically most churches use concrete block and brick construction but this load-bearing design method would break PC3’s budget. Urban called on his experience in Southern California and recommended using tilt-up construction a method new to Wilmington which involves pouring a level slab for the entire structure then constructing forms on top of the slab for the wall panels. Once the panels are cured a crane lifts or tilts concrete and steel walls into place. Walls are then welded together and the rest of the framing can proceed.

“For the amount of areas we had to cover with walls that became a very cost-effective way to achieve the aesthetic they were looking for ” Urban says. “All the roofs are steel beams; you have concrete tilt-up on all the walls and steel framing for the roofs.”

Edifice Inc. from Charlotte was selected as the contractor based on its experience with the construction method and T&M Tilt-Up Inc. of Bethlehem Georgia was hired to complete the work.

“I can’t say enough good things about John Urban — he nailed it he really did. The flexibility of the place and property is really quite remarkable ” Ashkraft says.

PC3 held its first service in the newly constructed building on July 20 2008. Pastor Marshall says attendance jumped 35 percent that first day.

Contemporary and Purposeful

For each Sunday-morning service parking attendants help with traffic flow around the site and steer the church members and visitors into the facility. Other volunteers — more than 300 each week — perform a myriad of tasks greeting folks at the doors serving coffee working in the bookstore teaching classes serving in the nursery and participating on the worship team. Church leaders say they wouldn’t be able to run services without all of the volunteers.

Urban’s overarching goal was to match the design of the building to the way the church functions.

“We picked out the hard surfaces — colors rugs carpet floor finishes lighting — so it tied together as a whole from the exterior to the interior ” Urban says. “It all just became one integrated building.”

Over each of the main entrances Urban incorporated a square-patterned portico constructed of heavy metal latticework that sets the stage for the modern geometric themes throughout the structure.

“It expresses the structure of the building on the inside and outside ” Urban says.

PC3 recently resealed the exterior concrete walls and softened the formerly all-white exterior.

A soaring two-story rotunda features floor-to-ceiling windows industrial pendant lighting fixtures and a glass-and-steel curved stairway leading to second-floor office space. Down below the wide-open atrium area is flooded with natural light from dozens of identical square-shaped windows. This is the church’s primary entrance.

“I wanted for people to walk in and go ‘wow ‘ but at the same time not to feel like they are walking into something where they have to be somebody else ” Ashkraft says. “People say ‘I have not been into church in 30 years the walls will fall down when I walk in your door.’ We hear it all the time. What they mean is ‘I’ve done so many (bad) things that I probably shouldn’t be in church.’ One of our mantras as a church is we tell everybody ‘We believe everybody’s crazy so don’t spend any time trying to pretend that you are not everybody’s got issues.’ That idea of just coming like you are is really important to us. That entrance because it is familiar in some ways like an airport or a hospital or a building that you would walk into in almost any other facet of life has the feel that you can just be yourself. You are going to immediately connect with people coming in. It’s not a dark mysterious thing you are walking into. It is going to feel familiar.”

A guest services desk manned by volunteers continues the modern theme with brushed metal and wood squares in geometric patterns and clusters of more pendant lights all designed in-house.

Large entranceways and wide interior halls provide ample space for the congregational traffic flow before and after services.

A caf? situated just inside the main entrance referred to as the rotunda invites visitors with stained concrete floors clusters of bistro tables and natural light streaming through dozens of small square-shaped windows. With free java for all and a hip coffee-shop vibe the caf? is a gathering place both before and after the services.

A bookstore next to the caf? allows churchgoers to browse or purchase Bibles journals music and other items.

Form and Function

The bulk of the church’s structure comprises three large auditoriums each built for a specific purpose and age group: adults children and students.

The centerpiece is the massive main auditorium. Designed as a premiere performance space this auditorium hosts high-energy Sunday services that feel like part Christian rock concert.

“They put a lot of effort into that we’re very into worship ” Urban says.

The massive space contains blocks of seating for almost 1 400 on the floor and more than 360 in the balcony. Every inch of available floor space has seating.

“Even now with three services it is still jam packed. It is amazing ” Urban says. “Space is definitely utilized there.”

All seats are positioned for a view of the raised stage and three large screens mounted above so people in the back can see what’s going on.

“It is designed for interaction in the worship service so it brings everyone into it ” Urban says.

A large baptismal pool is sunk into the floor at stage right and covered until in use. Backstage is a worship band waiting room with comfortable furniture a kitchenette and a bathroom as well as changing rooms with easy access to the baptismal area.

Off the main hall a second main artery leads to the Grow Zone a series of small classrooms for children from birth to pre-K. This hallway is lined with colorful and thematically geometric images that appeal to children. Iron Spirits an Atlanta-based creative services firm drew the giant mural but it was painted by church volunteers in paint-by-numbers fashion. Iron Spirits returned to add accents and 3D fixtures.

While the children’s education area tends toward classrooms and traditional structure church leadership wanted something unorthodox for its adult education areas. Urban’s vision was to have vignettes for people to meet hang out and talk. He created meeting spaces called Living Rooms incorporating circular conversation areas with sofas comfortable chairs and convertible desks rather than rows of seats and individual desks.

“Typical educational space can be intimidating to some ” Marshall says. “We wanted to have space that encouraged conversation. This has become part of our DNA.”

Treasure Island the richly themed second auditorium off the main hall is geared to boys and girls from kindergarten through fifth grade and is a wonderland for the imagination. The stage is not so much a stage as it is a pirate ship with a trampoline a hanging bridge across the back and trapdoors where teachers can appear or disappear in an instant.

Large lifelike concrete trees frame the entrance to the auditorium and engage kids before they even enter the space. Children gather for a lesson then break out by age and gender into smaller rooms to discuss what they have learned.

While the main hall is for worship services and Treasure Island is for kids the third auditorium has multiple uses. ur community ranks high on destination weddings lists for a very good reason. We are surrounded by natural beauty and history and brides love the diversity of options at the beach the islands and in downtown Wilmington. These pages are packed with loads of valuable information about how to plan the perfect seaside wedding and tips from people who can help bring the dream to fruition. Also take a look at the stories of real weddings featured throughout this section to see inspiration in action.

“The last auditorium on the east end we call Studio 3. That one is very flexible ” Ashkraft says. “We can use it on Sunday mornings for overflow. We pipe video into that auditorium; when there are no programs meeting in there it becomes like a video caf?. It also flips to become our middle and high school and college area. We have had live bands in there. It is completely closed off controlled separately so if we are having something here on a weekday we don’t have to open the whole building. It allows us a lot of flexibility for small events.”

The meeting space can be expanded via roll-up garage doors leading to outdoor green space.

“We just open up the garage doors and the kids spill in and out ” Ashkraft says. “We have made one of those bays into a coffee shop gathering-like area. The other bay is where our offices are so a lot of times you’ll find our student ministry staff with the doors open the rocking chairs out sitting out there having meetings. It is a really good place for that.”

A High-Tech Church

PC3 hired Atlanta audiovisual consultants Clark Pro Media to outfit each auditorium with high-tech sound and lighting. The firm worked with the architect team to design the spaces for maximum acoustics.

As a result the main auditorium space is “one of the best sound areas in Southeastern North Carolina ” Urban says.

To optimize all the technology a sound booth is tucked into the middle of the main auditorium. Two fixed cameras on tracks and up to three mobile cameras broadcast the worship band’s music and the pastor’s message onto multiple screens in the auditorium and into overflow areas.

During services the production booth off the upstairs balcony looks like a modern-day TV newsroom. Staff and volunteers in headphones communicate with tech crews at satellite church locations in Leland New Bern and Jacksonville. Ashkraft’s sermon is simultaneously uploaded onto the church’s cloud and the other campuses pull in the livestream and project it onto screens in their locations.

“There is a lot of specialized production that we do here that is just not done in a lot of other buildings ” Ashkraft says.

Marshall says that technology has simplified spreading the church’s message and made it easier for people who have increased demands on their time to engage with PC3.

One old-fashioned component of the traditional church building is missing however. PC3 has no commercial kitchen just the coffee bar.

“The costs of a commercial kitchen are pretty substantial to comply with inspections ” Ashkraft says. “It made it a much more efficient design. We don’t do a Wednesday-night meal. The cooking ministry wasn’t really a central part of how we do church. When we do events we use a lot of local catering places.”

Building for the Future

Although attendance has leveled out in the last few years Marshall said the church is still outgrowing the campus in some ways. The existing parking lot does not accommodate the current volume of Sunday traffic and a second parking lot is being built on land across the street. The new development also incorporates an activity field which presents an opportunity to share church assets with others.

Church leaders don’t plan any more construction projects at the main campus. Future growth they say will take place at existing and potentially future campuses in other communities. PC3 just purchased 30 acres in Leland and renovated commercial space in New Bern.

“Beyond a 700 or 800 seat capacity engineering costs go up exponentially ” Marshall says. “We would rather invest in other campuses in other communities.”

RESOURCES Creating this Building of Distinction


Urban Design Architect PA


Edifice Inc.


Criser Troutman Tanner Consulting Engineers


David Sims & Associates


Michael Underwood & Associates


Coastal Land Design


Classic Landscapes


T&M Tilt-Up Inc.


Peach State Roofing


Cape Fear Paving


Clark Pro Media


Pace Electric


Otis Elevator


Johnson Controls and Design-Build Mechanical


Stephenson Millwork


Signature Plumbing


American Detection Systems


Carolina Commercial Floorcovering