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University of North Florida - Interfaith Chapel

A Place Apart

The University of North Florida (UNF) is a nationally recognized institution of higher education in Jacksonville, nestled in nearly 1,400 acres of nature and wildlife. More than 16,000 students attend the state university, which has been recognized by both the Princeton Review and Forbes magazine as one of America’s best.

To honor the religious and spiritual diversity of the student body, UNF administration solicited design proposals—as part of an open, architectural design competition—for a 6,500-square-foot, 250-seat chapel that would be used for interdenominational services as well as small events such as chamber music concerts, weddings and conferences. Central to the client’s goals was that the chapel should embrace its natural surroundings and create a distinct sense of place. GS&P’s design proposal created a contemplative refuge that honored UNF’s deep-rooted culture of environmental stewardship and sustainability.

“We are most well-known in Jacksonville for our healthcare and corporate architecture practice, but we wanted to demonstrate to UNF what an excellent and diversified design firm we are,” says GS&P principal Leith Oatman. “This chapel was truly a gem of a project that allowed us to present a very elegant solution.”

Harmony in Space and Time

UNF’s natural, wooded campus stands in contrast to Jacksonville’s growing urban sprawl. Even after several decades of expansion, the university remains committed to protecting hundreds of acres of nature and wildlife. GS&P took a multifaceted approach to translating the project’s goals into a strong design response, drawing upon the natural attributes of the landscape, the caliber of UNF’s architecture, and a campus culture of environmental sustainability.

“The challenge was balancing a series of provided parameters to address those attributes simultaneously,” says GS&P senior designer Jim Kolb. “We were tasked with creating a structure that looked like a chapel but wasn’t overtly religious, and that embraced the natural environment yet was on par with UNF’s contemporary architecture, all the while not disturbing protected wetlands.

“The preservation of UNF’s wetlands is not only protected by law but is supported by the entire university. So it was central to the client’s vision that the new facility complement and embrace its surrounding natural space.”

The chosen site for the future chapel is a wooded peninsula by a small lake beyond the southern perimeter of campus. GS&P designated a new entry point from the main road with a tree-covered drive that curves around the wetlands and ends with an entry circle in front of the chapel. The existing parking field was also redesigned to double the number of planted trees, reducing the heat island effect. The re-envisioned entry transforms the current site and sets the tone for the proposed experience.

The landscape design surrounding the chapel features bioswales of indigenous ferns to filter, slow and redirect stormwater while also creating a natural separation between the parking area and the facility. 

“When developers introduce foliage that isn’t indigenous, then the area has to be watered, fertilized, weeded, mulched and otherwise maintained,” adds Oatman. “Jim’s solution was to keep it as natural as possible, so it melds into the preserved areas.”

A walking bridge reaches from the circular entry drive to the front of the chapel, and a secondary extension of the facility runs southwest from the main hall to house administrative offices, restrooms, a catering area and storage. The flow of the bioswale passes below the entrance bridge and under parts of the support-services building, reinforcing the feel of a place that’s both in harmony with and set apart from its locale.

“UNF’s campus has a series of nature trails so students can enjoy the preserve. Our design includes a meditative walking path around the lake, with a bridge directly across the lake from the chapel to allow an unimpeded view back to the building,” says Oatman. 

The celebration of the peninsula’s natural beauty continues within the sanctuary through panoramic vistas across the lake and the woods, while forms in the fenestration and the soaring arch of the sanctuary mimic the form of the lush tree canopy. 

Though the chapel’s finished floor is elevated above the flood plain, an outside terrace on the north side of the building steps down to the water’s edge, connecting the structure to the lake. The dropped terrace also preserves vistas of the lake from inside the main hall.

The sanctuary space has a simple layout with no fixed furnishings to allow different configurations for the various functions. The interior features cast-in-place concrete with exposed form ties, and stranded bamboo floors and ceilings with laminated trusses. 

While embracing contemporary materials, GS&P’s design echoes traditional forms. The building is oriented on an east-west axis to capture sunrise and sunset, and the chapel’s vaulted ceiling creates a voluminous sense of space. 

“Classic cathedrals and similar institutions were positioned on that axis in reference to the sun. The east-west orientation floods the space with light,” explains Kolb. “The vertical volume with its peaked roof is also a traditional form. To respect those visitors without any religious affiliations, we consciously stripped the building of any iconography to keep it neutral.”

A Culture of Sustainability

The university’s ecological stewardship extends beyond the nature preserve and into the structures poised on campus highlands. Eight years ago, UNF’s social sciences building became the first facility in northeast Florida to be LEED certified and was the first of five green buildings now on campus. 

“The UNF campus has been evolving, with a large number of new and significant buildings constructed over the past 15 years,” says Oatman. “The architectural choices have been transformative and forward-thinking. The student union, for example, was ranked fourth out of the top 100 buildings in the state by the Florida AIA and is LEED Gold certified.” 

In keeping with this spirit of sustainability, GS&P was committed to using natural materials, including concrete and steel with high recycled content and wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, while also preserving and restoring the worksite during and after construction.

“The chapel wasn’t required to be LEED certified, but attention to sustainable design concepts is a significant criteria of the university,” says Oatman. “We were intentional about demonstrating excellent environmental stewardship and incorporating the most current technologies available, such as the smart glass in the fenestration.”

Extensive glazing on the east and west sides of the chapel maximized vistas of the natural surroundings, but could result in significant heat gain. To address the solar load, GS&P incorporated electrochromic glass, which reduces energy transmission when energized.

“The solar tinting turns the smart glass to dark blue, and when the gain and glare aren’t an issue, the glazing returns to clear,” says Kolb. “You can create stained glass patterns by programming the electric charge to various sections and panes.” 

Passive ventilation concepts would also add to the building’s ability to regulate the indoor climate during more temperate times of the year. The design called for a ventilated roof skin that would diffuse high surface temperatures by venting energy out of the system, reducing the demand on insulation and rendering it more efficient for the building’s interior. While heat that rises inside the building can be exhausted through the thermostatic-controlled damper at the peak of the roof, cooler air is drawn in at the bottom though large, operable casement windows in the chapel’s side walls. 

“Maximizing the building’s ability to cool naturally is about remembering systems used a long time ago; strategies that evolved before mechanical ventilation was ever available,” explains Kolb. “In using passive ventilation systems, we can take advantage of the cooler times of the year when natural ventilation is a viable option.”

GS&P also worked with a mechanical engineer to mitigate the visual exposure of the heating and cooling systems. 

“When you have such a beautiful, natural-looking building with light, lacy trusses, the last thing you want is to see big ducts running through it,” says Oatman. 

In the proposed design, ductwork for mechanical ventilation runs below the floor and then rises up to the diffusers in the column faces. Placing the ducts in cooler areas below the floor shields them from additional outside heat to increase energy efficiency. 

One of the primary challenges the GS&P team faced was crafting a design that would also adhere to the budget specified in the design competition package. 

“We conducted a great deal of research to estimate the sustainable concepts and reconcile our ideas with budget limitations,” says Oatman. “I was very proud of how responsible our team was in respecting the budget criteria.”

Creating a Sense of Place

GS&P’s inspiring chapel concept provides a center for celebration and community as well as a contemplative refuge for visitors. Each person who visits can enter and experience the facility from his or her own point of spiritual reference.

“It’s more than a structure—it’s an experience,” says Oatman. “Our team truly went above and beyond the competition requirements to present unique design concepts that balance elegance and environmental responsibility.”

“When people think of architecture, they tend to think of walls, ceilings and floors—but we’re creating a positive sense of place,” says Kolb. “Regardless of denomination, religion or lack thereof, this sanctuary design is calm, restful, nurturing and supportive. This building would be a nice addition to the landscape, rather than one that degrades the environment—an uplifting experience for those who enter.”


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Project Info

  • Client: University of North Florida
  • Location: Jacksonville, FL, USA
  • Market: Corporate + Urban Design, Single-Family Housing
  • Services: Architecture, Sustainability
  • Team:
    • Leith A. Oatman, IIDA, LEED AP Principal-in-Charge, Project Manager
    • James R. Kolb, AIA, LEED AP Project Designer
    • Jenna Lychako Project Coordinator
    • Stephanie D. Irwin, LEED ID+C Interior Designer
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