Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart

By Linda Mastaglio | September 28, 2010

The Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston envisioned a traditional European cathedral-style worship center when it came time to replace their 100-year-old facility. But, the term "traditional" does not apply to many aspects of the design and construction of the Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart. In fact, some of the building shapes are so non-traditional they remain unnamed.

The Co-Cathedral, scheduled for completion this month, will form an integral part of Houston's Main Street Project and serve as a centerpiece for the downtown area's urban revitalization and redevelopment. While occupying an entire city block, the worship center will seat 1,820 people in its massive 32,000-square-foot sanctuary. The Catholic Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, serving 1.3 million parishioners, wants the worship center to host civic events and activities for the community as well.

"The church leaders chose the architect [Ziegler Cooper Architects] after seeing a rendering of their vision. It was beautiful but cost three times what they had budgeted," says Mark Gore, Linbeck's senior project manager. Linbeck is the construction management firm overseeing the project. The Archdiocese did not want to over spend on the new cathedral at the expense of other needed parish projects. Linbeck worked on the budget from 2001 to 2005, before the start of construction in May 2005, developing stacks of schemes, scenarios and estimates to make the project fit an accessible amount while keeping the grandeur of the European style.

Building a Team

Parallel to working on the budget, Linbeck also spent equal time uniting a team. Every craft and discipline represented in this design/build effort worked to fit the project phases together.

"Everyone assumed responsibility for accomplishing milestones as a single entity, working toward the same goal," says Gore. "We faced uncommon challenges that could only have been met by unified team work." The group met for two hours each day during the planning process to discuss issues, coordinate schedules, anticipate problems, and develop a detailed plan of action.

Building the Shell

While the Co-Cathedral's cross shape represents tradition, the design/build team had to define many new and non-traditional construction solutions to make the cast-in-place concrete structure work. This involved pouring about 8,000 cubic yards of concrete.

"You can't see all that complication inside 80-foot walls and you can't visualize every angle from the drawings," says Tony Rourke, construction manager for the Archdiocese. "It was complicated; there was hardly a straight line in it. Every concrete pour was different with all kinds of angles and openings. The walls needed bracing, so they would pour one level to add structure, and then pour the next."

Using lean construction principles, walls were poured in smaller, more manageable, 12-foot sections. Because of the tolerance between the concrete and the exterior stone was very tight, great care had to be taken in forming and pouring the concrete walls — some of which were freestanding and 80 feet high.

Because engineers don't typically experience what happens after the drawings and details leave their office, Gore required Linbeck engineers to order the concrete themselves and then help with pouring and finishing. He required them to participate in the formwork also.

"Now they understand how to accommodate the superintendent and are not working in a vacuum," explains Gore. "Getting them out of their element makes them better engineers."

Placing the Dome

The remarkable copper-topped dome, a traditional part of cathedrals, includes some non-traditional details. The angles, peaks and finished surfaces within the dome deflect sound and improve the acoustical value while contributing greatly to its visual appeal.

Due to difficult welding details and safety issues, the dome was built on the ground. During the topping-out ceremony, a crane lifted the 80,000-pound dome as church leaders, public officials, members of the parish, and the design/build team watched. As the crane raised the dome 120 feet high, the team was relieved when it rested perfectly on the gabled roof.

"Construction and placement of the dome was one of the smoothest parts of the job," said Gore.

Building the Scaffolding

Plasterers, stonemasons, painters, and artists all needed scaffolding to work outside and inside the 80-foot-tall building and the 120-foot-tall dome. If they had not worked together, the result would have been chaos. Over a year of scaffolding construction accommodated the specifications of each craftsman as well as adhering to OSHA regulations and resulted in a smooth operation. Following the maze of different heights, widths and weight requirements plus different types of fortifications led to a successful outcome.

Taking Shape

One of the key architectural elements of the building is the faceted ceiling, which was intended to reflect the natural light from the clerestory windows into the sanctuary. The unusual shape of the ceiling created the need for an innovative design of the furdowns during the framing and plastering stage. The electrical subcontractor, A/V subcontractor, sprinkler company, and the stained glass fabricator had to be involved in this innovation as well.

The design of the building created some difficult challenges for the acoustical consultant and the construction team. Uniquely-shaped surfaces, the placement of the acoustical products and extensive treatments to the HVAC system were all part of the design that helped to improve the sound quality and reduce echo and vibration within the cathedral.

Another aspect of the acoustical design required that cement plaster be applied directly to the concrete inside the cathedral, giving the structure more mass. The tolerance for the concrete walls had to be above industry standard because of this.

Liturgical Furnishings

The liturgical furnishings in the cathedral include numerous art glass windows from Italy and Germany. One of these windows is 20 feet wide by 40 feet tall. Wood-carved sculptures from Italy are mounted in several shrines throughout the building. One of these carvings, the 20-foot-tall cross and corpus, was assembled on site and hung 35 feet above the altar.

Two of the more outstanding features of the building are the marble sculptures mounted in the Transept shrines. Mary of the Immaculate Conception and Jesus of the Sacred Heart, each weighing 13,000 pounds, standing 12 feet tall and carved in Italy from one block of stone, had to be mounted on the walls of the church and hung seven feet above the ground.

Mounting the sculptures also represented a significant engineering feat. Linbeck's team performed a dry run with a test weight resulting in a modification to the process of moving the sculptures into place and mounting them to the walls. After the sculptures arrived in their crates, the team implemented a support system to take the sculptures out of the crate and then stand and rotate them until they reached the correct position for placement. One of their concerns was the protection of the delicately-sculptured hands and fingers. This painstaking effort took six days to ultimately complete.

Numerous marble fixtures, the baptismal font, the tabernacle throne, the pulpit, and the 8,000-pound altar were also part of the liturgical furnishings that became Linbeck's responsibility during the project.

Work also had to be coordinated around the grand organ even though it would not be ready for installation until 2009/2010. Once finished, the organ will contain 5,600 individual pipes and will take approximately six months to tune after it is installed.

Coordination of the furnishings with the building's architecture, engineering of mounting systems, and unloading and installation of all the liturgical items fell under Linbeck's responsibility during the project along with helping the liturgical committee understand the importance of critical decisions that might have an impact on the schedule during the design process.

"The committee responsible for liturgical issues was not used to construction and they asked for changes. Linbeck took the revisions in stride and made them happen," says Rourke.

Already a Unifying Element

"People want to come here," says Gore. "They're excited to anticipate worship in this space. It has the respect of the field people and there is respect FOR the field people. There is something special here."

The community held on-site activities, such as media tours, diocese events and barbecues, throughout the construction process as well as accommodating site tours that were held three times a week for parishioners and donors. Thousands of people walked through the job site. At their regular meetings, the team discussed working around these scheduling challenges and adjusted work to protect the functions of the church as well as the project schedule.

When completed, the traditional yet innovative worship center will bring new life and vitality to the urban landscape of Houston.