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When Faith Chapel in Birmingham, Alabama, began weighing options for a larger meeting place, church leadership turned to the greatest source of knowledge they could find: God.
According to executive director of operations Jermaine Spann, “God said monolithic, God said 3,000 (seats), and that helped shape our process.”
The 73-foot high dome was completed in December 2002 and was named the Word Dome, a reference to the weekly worship services held there. But choosing a dome paid off in April 2011, when the Deep South experienced what was termed the Super Outbreak of tornadoes. Birmingham alone experienced multiple EF4 tornadoes in one day, with wind speeds as high as 190 miles per hour. Sixty-five people lost their lives in 90 minutes.
Faith Chapel’s campus wasn’t spared, and the Word Dome was in the tornado’s path. “The tornado came up the backside of our parking lot, and (the dome) took a direct hit. Everything that’s down the hill that it came up from is no longer there,” Spann said.
Smaller buildings on campus were destroyed, but the Word Dome experienced minimal and mostly superficial damage. Had the church selected a conventional structure, “we would not have a church and a family-activity center. We would have lost that building as well,” Spann said.
The Word Dome survived the tornado thanks to construction and geometry. “The inherent strength of the dome and the aerodynamic features allowed it to withstand not just the air force, but also the debris—nothing penetrated it. Aside from some minor damage, it withstood the storm,” Dome Technology Vice President of Engineering Jason South said.
Today the Word Dome hosts Sunday worship services, bible study groups, and other events. Based on experience, they know their chapel is strong enough to weather future storms. “It feels conventional, but we know it’s not,” Spann said.