Since 1963, the First Unitarian Church in Albuquerque has met at its architecturally unique facility, designed by renowned local modernist architect Harvey Horshour. More than five decades later, with the church's surrounding area having morphed from high desert to the crossroads of two major arterials, the congregation undertook a $1.8-million sanctuary addition—the church's first-ever major building project.

Photos By Robert Reck
Best Cultural/Worship Project: First Unitarian Church of Albuquerque
Photos By Robert Reck
Best Cultural/Worship Project: First Unitarian Church of Albuquerque

The new, 8,900-sq-ft building includes a 350-seat sanctuary, pre-function space, offices and ADA-compliant bathrooms.

"The original building was built with 1960s sensibilities and did not fit with the aesthetics sought in modern worship settings," says Doug Heller, partner with Mullen Heller Architecture, the project's lead designer. "There is more of a processionary feel to it now, a more religious feeling."

Best Projects judges said the new building's design complements the existing sanctuary while creating a fresh contemporary presence for the church. Many of the original sanctuary's features were carried over, but with a modern twist. For example, both facilities feature shallow roofs and exposed structure, though the new elements are covered by stucco.

The project team also deftly tackled budgetary concerns, leading to increased discussion and teamwork between the owner and the design and construction teams. The project was originally initiated as a lump-sum bid process, but when the bids came in by at least 12% over budget, the construction team began to work together to find savings and to reach the desired goal: a quality building that the congregation would be proud of, Heller says.

The collaboration exhibited between Mullen Heller Architecture, Klinger Constructors, the First Unitarian Church and the rest of the project team's designers and trade contractors clearly contributed to the project's overall success, according to Best Projects judges.

"Klinger Constructors is given much of the credit for the $200,000 in value engineering that was required due to the recession and the difficulty it brought to fundraising for the congregation," Heller says. "They were great to work with. They did not change any of the design details. It was the approach they took that mattered. This was the most collaborative project we've worked on in a long time."

Judges also praised the project team's safety achievements, which included 22,000 hours worked on the job with zero OSHA recordable incidents. To accumulate so many hours without a single incident is proof that everyone involved went the extra mile to ensure that the build went according to plan, Heller says.

Perhaps the most unique aspect of the project was the painstaking relocation of a mural created by Alexander Girard and installed at the church in 1964. Comprised of 5,000 pieces of found wood, the relocation required two woodworkers to take apart the item piece by piece—over the course of six weeks—and re-install it as the new sanctuary's centerpiece.

The dedication to LEED requirements—highlighted by the use of photovoltaics, water-saving features and the use of low VOC products—earned First Unitarian of Albuquerque the first Platinum designation for a church in the state of New Mexico.

First Unitarian Church of Albuquerque sanctuary Addition


Key Players

Contractor Klinger Constructors LLC, Albuquerque

Owner/Developer First Unitarian Church of Albuquerque, Albuquerque

Lead Design Firm Mullen Heller Architecture PC, Albuquerque

Civil Engineer Mark Goodwin & Associates PA, Albuquerque

Structural Engineer Walla Engineering, Albuquerque

MEP Engineer Beaudin Ganze Inc., Albuquerque

Landscape Architect Consensus Planning, Albuquerque

Acoustical and AV Engineer Wrightston, Johnston, Haddon, & Williams Inc., Dallas

Subcontractors Balis and Co., Albuquerque; Green Ideas Sustainability Consultants, Albuquerque