A new town has sprung up on 5,000 acres of old farmland in southwest Florida. Thirty miles from Naples, it might seem like any other, with schools, houses and retailers.

But this planned community has the curious name of Ave Maria, and it has caused a bit of controversy since breaking ground in 2005. Developed by Tom Monaghan, a devout Catholic, founder of Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Domino’s Pizza and former owner of the Detroit Tigers, Ave Maria, Fla., is expected to embody traditional principles of Catholic living.

A Google News search for “Ave Maria” or “Ave Maria University” - the educational institution that will serve as its center - pulls up several articles about the town’s unusual features, which includes pharmacies that are requested not to provide birth control and rules on what the local cable channels should not air on television.

For M.G. McGrath Inc., the controversy and media attention was never an issue. The Maplewood, Minn.-based company was selected to provide architectural sheet metal services for the town’s 103-foot, gothic-style oratory. The church is the anchor for Ave Maria’s namesake university.

“We were very excited to get involved in the project because it is cutting edge,” said Mike P. McGrath, owner of M.G. McGrath. “This is the center of town. This 103-foot tall chapel covered in metal is a showcase piece.”

Metal panels were installed on seven bays on each side of the oratory. Buttresses separate the bays. A total of 5,000 panels were used on the entire project. Photo courtesy of M.G. McGrath.

History

M.G. McGrath’s architectural work can be seen all over the country. And the company does not shy away from a challenge with sheet metal. Snips featured the company’s work on the Denver Art Museum, which required more than 200,000 square feet of titanium panels to be installed on the exterior of the building (See “Looking sharp,” November 2005).

“The project was something we felt comfortable taking on,” McGrath said about the oratory. “We definitely approached it with an open mind.”

McGrath’s company got involved with the Ave Maria project through a connection with Firestone Metal Products, which has offices in Florida and in McGrath’s home state of Minnesota.

Developers at Ave Maria began purchasing metal and large amounts of copper three years before construction started. The plan was to obtain copper to offset the possibility of price increases before the start of construction.

McGrath took his first trip to Florida in September 2005 to begin planning for the project. The oratory was created by Cannon Design, a worldwide architecture firm that specializes in important structures. General construction services for the project were provided by Suffolk Construction and Kraft Construction, both with offices in Naples, Fla.

The idea for the oratory was to take traditional religious architecture and merge it with modern design. According to McGrath, the architect designed the church to look like “Old World churches from Rome and Italy.”

Highlights of the 1,100-seat sanctuary inside include eight exposed structural steel buttresses that penetrate the roof in several places, and a roof supported by Gothic arches.

The bell-shaped exterior of the church is covered in a custom metal “skin.” McGrath said that 90 percent of the roof’s surface was made up of gray double-lock standing-seam panels. These panels are highlighted with thin, stretch-formed architectural faux battens. The placement and precise installation of these metal panels was one of the major challenges associated with the Ave Maria project.

This view of the Ave Maria oratory shows how the metal panels reach skylights on the oratory roof. Photo courtesy of M.G. McGrath.

Challenges

Before any installation could take place, McGrath and his company needed to do a considerable amount of planning using AutoCAD and 3-D imaging software.

The project called for 5,000 sheet metal panels to cover the façade of the oratory. The exterior of the church is divided into “bays,” with seven on each side. Exposed steel buttresses, highlighted by painted aluminum plate panels, divide the bays.

McGrath explained that the geometry of the building presented several challenges when it came to installation. As part of the design, transverse seams were used to mirror the structural steel, which is exposed on the inside of the church. The idea is that the seams and the structural steel visibly line up when looking out of the church’s skylights.

To lay out these transverse seams, McGrath said that hundreds of hours were spent using AutoCAD and 3-D modeling. The time spent with the 3-D modeling was not just important to lining up the panels, it was also important to determine exactly what kind of parts would be needed for the job.

“A lot of these parts are a 12- to 14-week lead time,” said McGrath. The company needed to know in advance exactly what parts would be needed before installation.

This 50-foot apse roof is located at the back of the oratory. It covers the church altar and is clad in diamond-shaped hook-seam shingles. Photo courtesy of M.G. McGrath.

The work

McGrath’s company started installing the panels in November 2006. Three installers from McGrath’s company in Minnesota flew down to Florida to work on the project. Another 17 installers were hired from local unions to help.

Approximately 34,000 square feet of metal skin was used on the exterior of the church.

It was the job of field foreman Les Medley to take the pre-installation plans and bring them to reality.

“This was the biggest job I’ve ever run,” said Medley.

He explained that the number of panels to install and their various lengths contributed to the challenge. Panels ranged from 4 ½ to 35 feet in length. To get these panels in place, 135-foot boom lifts were used.

One installer would operate the boom lift while another would take the panels up in the basket of the boom lift. For larger panels, installers had to hold the panels vertically and slide them into place

That was not the most difficult aspect of the installation, said Medley. That distinction goes to an elliptical-shaped “apse roof” located at the back of the church. The 50-foot-tall circular cover projects out to protect the church’s altar and is covered with diamond-shaped hook-seam shingles.

“This was more of a challenge because it curves up and around,” said Medley.

The diamond-shaped shingles are made of aluminum and measure 14 inches by 14 inches. Installers could take several of the shingles up at one time in the boom lift. But keeping the shingles in place was a little more difficult.

“The diamond-shaped panels want to lay flat, but it needs to curve around,” said Medley. “It wanted to pull in one direction.”

The Ave Maria oratory is the center of the town for Ave Maria, Fla. The town was designed by Tom Monaghan, founder of Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Domino’s Pizza and former owner of the Detroit Tigers, to reflect the principles of Catholic living. Photo courtesy of M.G. McGrath.

Outcome

It took McGrath five months to install all of the architectural metal on the Ave Maria oratory.

“The architect and the owner are very pleased with the result,” he said. “It really represents what they were trying to show.”

The church is still undergoing various construction projects and has yet to open. The goal is for the oratory to make its debut in time to celebrate Midnight Mass this Christmas.

Medley is also pleased with the finished product. He took several snapshots of the work he did on the church before leaving Florida. He added that his installers worked hard on the project and took a great deal of pride in what they were doing, especially since many of them were from the local area.

“This is something they can take their kids to and say ‘I worked on that,’ ” he said.

For reprints of this article, contact Jill DeVries at (248) 244-1726 or e-mail devriesj@bnpmedia.com.