For years, architect Tut Bartzen remembers crossing the James River on Richmond’s Willey Bridge, wondering what went on at the place up the hill. “It really didn’t have a visual identity; there were few clues as to what Roslyn was all about,” he said.
So when his Richmond-area architectural firm, Bartzen + Ball, was selected to design a chapel for Roslyn, the Retreat and Conference Center of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, Bartzen knew they had the opportunity to give the facility an iconic landmark— something that would help define not only the intended use, but also the emotions visitors would feel inside the new structure.
“As architects, we don’t often get to design a building with a program that is as simple and straightforward as this,” said Bartzen. “This was an opportunity for us to put together a pure statement in terms of how you can make a building feel good. The program was simple. Our goals were clear. We wanted people to walk in here and feel at peace; that’s one of the main reasons why wood was such an appropriate choice for the Bishop’s Chapel.”
It’s also one of the reasons why the Bishop’s Chapel was awarded the Institutional Wood Design Award from WoodWorks in 2012.
Creating an Intimate Space
Completed in 2010, the Bishop's Chapel at Roslyn was built to honor the retired Rev. Peter James Lee, the 12th bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia. During the planning phase, the long-serving Bishop, held in high regard in the Diocese, shared his thoughts with the design team in terms of what he thought would make a great chapel.
“He wanted to replicate the feel of Carpenter Gothic churches,” said Bartzen. “With steeply pitched roofs and simple massing, they were comfortable, warm and intimate spaces—not grand buildings. We also wanted to design a chapel which would be appropriate with the camp-like aesthetic of the existing structures and the natural site. Once we made those decisions, there was an automatic assumption that we would use wood.”
Intimately scaled for services of 20 to 120 people, the Bishop’s Chapel consists of 3,800 square feet on two levels, a main level and a partial basement. The main level holds the chapel sanctuary with support functions while the basement houses mechanical and storage functions.
Bridging the Natural to the Spiritual
Finding the right location for the new chapel was critical. Bartzen said there were many places they could have placed the structure on the 72-acre site.
“We spent an inordinate amount of time—about two months of the ninemonth design process—identifying the right site, which was really important looking back,” said Bartzen. “Once we chose the location, the design of the chapel was intuitive; it almost designed itself. There were several things—things that were so overwhelming—that the building design just had to respond to them.”
For example, the other buildings on the campus create a town center of sorts, and Bartzen said they knew the chapel had to be part of that community of buildings. “At the same time, we wanted it to be able to ‘reach out’ into the distant landscape. Once you enter the chapel, you leave that townscape and see magnificent views looking south and west across the James River. So the chapel serves as a portal from the community environment to a much more spiritual landscape.”
Through the Portal
In terms of design, Bartzen said wood was the ideal material to take visitors through that portal because of its natural warmth. “We knew the chapel had to be wood; we never really considered anything else.”
Bartzen also used stone to complement the wood’s natural beauty. “Because the building comes out of the ground, we needed a solid plinth for the structure to sit on, especially since we wanted to cantilever the altar out toward the river.”
He noted that the cantilevered section was important because Bishop Lee wanted people to be able to look beyond the altar into the landscape. “That’s not a universal concept from clergy. More often, church leaders want a closed space behind the altar but the Bishop encouraged us to leave the glass completely clear. It was a reflection of his personal style, and allowed us to take advantage of the beautiful views.”
Natural Design, Natural Wood
Bartzen and his team used wood, clear glass and natural stone to establish an architectural language which both complements and enhances the overall Roslyn experience. But the materials also had to perform.
For example, while the chapel's setting intuitively called for the building to be clad in a natural material, Bartzen said the client had some initial questions about wood’s durability. “There are so many examples of wood buildings that have been around forever that we got beyond that concern quickly, particularly when we explained that we would coat exposed wood with sealers to provide added protection.”
He added that no one felt comfortable using synthetics like a fiber cement siding. “We try to use natural materials wherever we can, so wood was an easy choice for us,” Bartzen said.
Similarly, they wanted the building to coexist with the site, not just aesthetically, but also in their choice of materials and their sustainable qualities. The exposed wood beams which support the roof structure of the chapel were chosen for their strength, simplicity and natural beauty, as well as for their environmentally- friendly attributes.
Of all the major building materials, wood is the only one that grows naturally and is renewable. Wood products also have less embodied energy, are responsible for lower air and water pollution, and have a lighter carbon footprint than other commonly used building materials.
Rather than using expensive or rare species of wood, Bartzen’s team used a variety of beautiful but readily-available wood species and stained them. Southern yellow pine glulam beams, sized 5x14, formed the primary chapel roof structure. Douglas fir 4x4 purlins framed the secondary roof.
Plywood sheathing covered the exterior roof structure, and they installed a slatted wood panel grill system on the inside ceiling, with acoustical panels behind. The chapel floor was covered in maple with a dark stain, and the interior window and door casings were clad in poplar with a cherry stain. The exterior porch ceilings and eaves consisted of tongue and groove poplar finish boards stained with a cherry finish. And finally, the exterior siding is natural cypress applied in a horizontal German shiplap pattern, while they used a vertical shiplap on the chapel’s main volume.
While the wall panels are all wood, Bartzen’s team did use some acoustical fabric-wrapped panels to handle potential sound issues. “Because music is so important in this chapel, and because we have so much glass, we needed to manage our acoustics,” said Bartzen. “Wood panels provided us with both an acoustical and an aesthetic solution. That’s also why we used the slatted wood acoustical panels on the ceiling. Each strip in the slatted panel was cherry-stained wood, so when you look up, you see this beautiful linear grid that runs from front to back in the chapel.”
Honesty in Expression
Bartzen said that while they used wood rafters and beams as the featured material, they used steel columns to help keep the ceiling tall and open. So the only thing going across and tying the roof together was a steel tension rod. There was no horizontal beam.
They then wrapped the steel columns in poplar with a cherry stain, leaving a reveal in the cladding at the center and bottom of each column. “We wanted clarity and expression of the material,” said Bartzen. “The reveal in the cladding lets you see through to give clues that these are not wood columns but steel clad in a warmer material. We also left the steel bracket exposed, to show the connection between wood and steel. We believe in honesty in expression; otherwise, the connection just wouldn’t have made sense.”
Bartzen said his firm uses a lot of wood in their residential practice, but it had traditionally used masonry, concrete, and some steel in their commercial and institutional work. “It was the first time we combined steel and wood to actually feature the wood, so the process was new for us,” he said. “We learned that by being open to the integration of two different structural systems, we were able to better feature the character of the wood in a way that we otherwise would not have been able to do.”
One of wood’s benefits is that it provides architects with design versatility, and this project was no exception. When viewed at night, the Bishop’s Chapel appears like a warm lantern high on the hill.
“Using wood allowed us to meet our design goals,” said Bartzen. “The reaction when people enter a building with this much wood is universal. They all feel the building is tactile and warm; it feels welcoming and peaceful, and I credit that to the wood. The smell of the wood, the sound and the feel of the structure… this building wouldn’t do what it does in terms of the effect it has on people if it were any other material.”
He added, “In a way, you don’t often get to do a building with a program that is so simple and straightforward that it becomes all about how you can express materials and the way the building is put together. We’ve got the world’s simplest program here, and we have this beautiful site, so the project became this essay in how to use wood. It was a unique opportunity; we don’t get to do this often, so we enjoyed the process.”
The Bishop's Chapel at Roslyn Retreat Center
Architect Bartzen + Ball, PLLC
Engineer Dunbar, Milby, Williams, Pittman & Vaughn
Contractor Taylor & Parrish Construction, Inc.
Cost: $1.86 million
Accolades: WoodWorks Wood Design Award East Region, Institutional Wood Design
Use Group: A-3
Occupants: 199 Class: 5B
Height: 37-1/2 feet
Area: 3,783 square feet
First Floor: 2,925 square feet
Basement: 858 square feet
About the Wood Design Awards
WoodWorks’ Wood Design Awards celebrate excellence in wood design, engineering and construction, as well as innovative projects that showcase attributes of wood such as strength, beauty, versatility, cost-effectiveness and sustainability. In February, the WoodWorks East Region presented nine Wood Design Awards in several categories, including institutional wood design, engineering, green building, exterior use of wood, traditional use of wood and interior beauty wood design. The 2012 East Region Wood Design Awards winners were recognized at the Atlanta Wood Solutions Fair at the Georgia International Convention Center. The next Call for Nominations will be this fall.
WoodWorks, a collaborative effort of major North American wood associations, provides access to a wide range of resources for architects, engineers, and other building professionals using wood in non-residential and multi-family buildings. In addition to one-on-one technical support—related to areas such as building codes, wind and seismic design, cost, green building, and more—WoodWorks hosts free Wood Solutions Fairs and offers an Online Training Library that allows designers to earn education schedule. Visit www.woodworks.org for more information.