Storm Shelters for Worship Spaces and Church Education Centers

June 30, 2020
Architecture Worship

Severe weather is a very real part of life for many in the United States. Fortunately, we have the tools to design spaces that can potentially avert tragedy and provide peace of mind.

Though the people of southwest Missouri are certainly familiar with severe weather, on the afternoon of May 22, 2011, everything changed for the parish of St. Mary’s Catholic Church and School in Joplin, Missouri: a catastrophic tornado swept through the town, leveling the entire parish facility with the exception of the church cross. The trauma of seeing the entire parish campus destroyed by a tornado left the clergy and members of St. Mary’s overwhelmed but determined to rebuild a place of safety and peace of mind. Today that cross still stands, and the parish has resurrected itself with a new church and school designed to strengthen the parish identity and faith.

St. Mary Catholic Church and School in Joplin, Missouri by RDG. Photo by Tom Kessler.

Much of the United States labels itself by what is commonly referred to as “Tornado Alley” while areas of the southeast and northeast are equally impacted by hurricanes. You might ask, where is Tornado Alley really, and is my area affected? Records of tornado activity actually show that all of the U.S., from the Rocky Mountains eastward, can expect these weather extremes. As busy as most of us are, we tend to spend much of our time in buildings outside our homes during these weather events. Sadly, the Joplin Globe reported that 32 percent of the Joplin tornado casualties occurred in non-residential areas.

Congregations and their building committees frequently share their concern about the ability to provide an area of safety from severe storms for large numbers of people. Given how much of the U.S. is affected by extreme weather, this is an important consideration. But this is a tougher issue than one might think, as these spaces must be quite large and the financial resources collected to build a church or synagogue are typically less than desired. Additionally, faith communities have the task of stretching a building project as far as is practically possible in order to provide enough space for continued growth. Though it is not the mission of the congregation, it’s often said that churches need the space to get the people to pay for the space. Because of that, a storm shelter is frequently left on the cutting room floor as available funds are allocated to higher building priorities.

What it Means to Have an Adequate Storm Shelter

For the congregation or parish that decides to commit to this added protection, another question to answer considers what it means to have an adequate storm shelter. Fortunately, we have some guidance. The definition of a shelter has developed over the years as studies have shed more light on the damage and danger extreme weather events pose to building occupants. The federal government through FEMA has helped to provide a workable definition. According to the FEMA website:

“A safe room is a hardened structure specifically designed to meet the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) criteria and provide ‘near-absolute protection’ in extreme weather events, including tornadoes and hurricanes. Near-absolute protection means that, based on our current knowledge of tornadoes and hurricanes, the occupants of a safe room built in accordance with FEMA guidance will have a very high probability of being protected from injury or death. To be considered a FEMA safe room, the structure must be designed and constructed to the guidelines specified in FEMA P-320, Taking Shelter from the Storm: Building a Safe Room for Your Home or Small Business (FEMA, third edition, 2008a) (for home and small business safe rooms) and FEMA P-361, Design and Construction Guidance for Community Safe Rooms (FEMA, second edition, 2008b).”

To work with model building codes that can be adopted by local jurisdictions, the ICC 500 (2008), the Standard for the Design and Construction of Storm Shelters, was developed. It’s a near duplication of the FEMA documents but gives building officials a standard for a safe room to which architects and engineers can design. Also, beginning with the 2009 International Building Code (section 423), a designated “storm shelter” shall be designed according to the guidelines on the ICC 500.

Safe room windows appear similar to all other windows on the building. St. Mary’s Catholic Church and School in Joplin, Missouri by RDG. Photo by Tom Kessler.

With the aid of these documents, the enclosing walls and ceiling, foundations, window or door openings and ventilation (among other elements) can be designed to resist high winds, pressure changes, overturning of the building and most importantly, protection from flying objects that can be driven through small openings and even through walls. The services of a knowledgeable architect and structural engineer are of utmost importance.

Storm Shelters in Practice: Where and How Much?

Now that we’ve defined what it means to have an adequate storm shelter, let’s consider the additional questions that tend to come with the design of these spaces:

  • Does a storm shelter need to go underground?

  • What will it cost?

  • How does my congregation pay for this?

To answer these questions, we look at a typical building project. Large churches (which are most likely to be expanding their facilities or building new buildings) are generally defined as having an attendance of 300-2,000 worshippers. The seating capacities for places of worship within these churches are most typically 300 to 1,000.

Taking a mid-range number, a worship space for 750 people will require between nine to 13 square feet per person, which equates to a 7,000 to 10,000-square-foot room. For an accompanying tornado shelter, FEMA recommends five square feet per person and 10 square feet per wheelchair-bound person (considering approximately one wheelchair for every 200 occupants); this produces a space of 3,770 square feet for the example given and equates to approximately one-third of the size of the main worship space. Hurricane shelter design requires even more space per person, roughly doubling the square footage requirement per person to approximately 10 square feet.

Shelter doors and walls separating education rooms from the interior safe room. St. Mary’s Catholic Church and School in Joplin, Missouri by RDG. Photo by Tom Kessler.

Underground approaches are not as cost-effective as they may seem, especially for a room as large as 3,770 square feet. Elements such as multiple required stair exits, elevators and assembly live-load sizing of structural elements at the floor or the ceiling above, reinforce my preference for another approach. RDG Planning & Design has successfully created above-ground storm shelters out of a portion of the building that has also been assigned another function.

Examples include building a fellowship or parish hall to serve as the shelter by investing in concrete walls and a roof deck, ballistic-resistant windows and doors or storm shutters. These design elements create an unobtrusive space that lets natural light in while still protecting the occupants in the event of severe weather. Another approach involves turning interior corridor spaces between education rooms into safe room, which simultaneously meets FEMA standards for the entire school population and church. The walls separating classrooms from corridors protect the students in two directions: first, by stepping into the corridor from the classroom and by closing the ballistic-rated door assembly, the students are protected from tornados and severe weather; second, by closing and locking the classroom doors from the inside, the students are protected from a school invasion by the doors and precast concrete walls.

At St. Mary’s in Joplin, both a fellowship hall and education spaces were needed and included in construction costs, so upgrading them into shelter spaces added between $75-78 per square foot (in today’s dollars). At St. Mary Church and School in Joplin, the safe room begins as the students step out of their classrooms and into the interior corridor space.

Safe room interior of the education center and within parish offices at St. Mary’s.

To pay for these additional costs, grant money is also sometimes available through FEMA or the state. As one might guess, there are usually requirements institutions need to meet in order to receive these funds. Some of these include a requirement to open your otherwise private facility to the general public if a storm approaches (no matter the time of day or night), additional paperwork and approval time with FEMA before breaking ground on construction and the added costs of independent inspection of every structural element that will be part of the intended shelter. The eligible costs vary, but grants could be a substantial help to offset the added expense of adding a shelter.

Severe weather is a very real part of life across the U.S., as past events have shown us. We won’t always have enough forewarning to decide where to weather a storm, but fortunately, we have the tools to potentially avert a tragic occurrence and to give a measure of earthly peace in our places dedicated to prayer and spiritual tranquility.

This article was originally published on August 6, 2015, and has been updated.