Tel: 905–690–4709 dk@tfwm.com - Darryl Kirkland, Publisher

Designing A Worship Space for Intimate Preaching and Worship (Part II)

With hours spent every week preparing for the execution of a worship service, most church staffs are faced with impossible challenges in what they can do, simply due to the limitations of the facilities in which they worship.

In a worship facility there must not be any bad seats. Unlike a performing arts venue where everyone knows that the cheaper the ticket price the worse the seat, a church does not have the option of designating some seats as “the cheap seats.” Inevitably it is the first time visitor who ends up sitting in a back corner of the room somewhere. If he or she can’t see, hear or feel connected with what is going on, the odds are they won’t be back next week. Because of the shortcomings of the facility, the ministry goals are left unaccomplished. The objective is to create an environment where regardless of where you sit, you can feel connected and be a participant in something much greater than what you could ever experience alone.

When all is said and done the design team needs to provide a room that minimizes distractions and provides as much intimacy and functionality for the program as possible. After that, it is up to the ministry staff to take advantage of the facility – for in the end, a worship space is simply another tool for ministry. Intimacy is not only determined by the look and feel of the room, but it is just as much about what takes place within the space and how those functions take place.

Specific Design Issues

Seating Layout and Sightlines

A large part of the physical intimacy of a space is directly related to the layout of the seats and their relationship to the preaching location and each other. A preaching location that is elevated above the main seating area tends to cause separation between the preacher and the congregation, whereas a preaching location that is at a lower point in the room removes the psychological barrier.

Seats should be oriented so that a seated person is looking at the preaching location (room focal point). In addition, seats should not wrap so far around the preaching location that some people are looking at the side/back of the preacher. Actual physical distance from the preaching location is not as important as the perceived distance. A seat that is 10′ from the pastor, yet behind him, is perceptually much less intimate than a seat that is 120′ from him yet looking him in the eye. All seats must have unobstructed sightlines to the preaching location, as well as to video screens, and any other visual area or item that is important to the program of the church.

Great advantage can be had by introducing vertical offsets to the seating layout. This means that sections of seating are placed in the room at differing heights. This helps to alleviate the ‘sea of heads’ syndrome caused by large flat/sloped floor layouts as well as providing acoustical benefits (more later). Also, by introducing vertical offsets in the room, there is the ability to make the room seem smaller and more intimate when not completely full. Seating sections can be easily roped-off and architectural lighting can be zoned to darken seating sections not in use.

In designing the seating layout the issue of platform access must be addressed. If an altar call is given, for example, a clear path should be available for someone in any seat to make his or her way to the front of the platform. The clearer and more direct this path, the more intimate the perceived connection to the platform, and the shorter the perceived distance to the platform.

A large part of the physical intimacy of a space is directly related to the layout of the seats and their relationship to the preaching location and each other. A preaching location that is elevated above the main seating area tends to cause separation between the preacher and the congregation, whereas a preaching location that is at a lower point in the room removes the psychological barrier.

Seats should be oriented so that a seated person is looking at the preaching location (room focal point). In addition, seats should not wrap so far around the preaching location that some people are looking at the side/back of the preacher. Actual physical distance from the preaching location is not as important as the perceived distance. A seat that is 10′ from the pastor, yet behind him, is perceptually much less intimate than a seat that is 120′ from him yet looking him in the eye. All seats must have unobstructed sightlines to the preaching location, as well as to video screens, and any other visual area or item that is important to the program of the church.

Great advantage can be had by introducing vertical offsets to the seating layout. This means that sections of seating are placed in the room at differing heights. This helps to alleviate the ‘sea of heads’ syndrome caused by large flat/sloped floor layouts as well as providing acoustical benefits (more later). Also, by introducing vertical offsets in the room, there is the ability to make the room seem smaller and more intimate when not completely full. Seating sections can be easily roped-off and architectural lighting can be zoned to darken seating sections not in use.

In designing the seating layout the issue of platform access must be addressed. If an altar call is given, for example, a clear path should be available for someone in any seat to make his or her way to the front of the platform. The clearer and more direct this path, the more intimate the perceived connection to the platform, and the shorter the perceived distance to the platform.

Acoustical Qualities

The basic acoustical characteristics of a room are determined at the point that a room shape and dimensions are put on a piece of paper. The room size, room shape, and dimensional relationships need to be determined based not only on the seating requirements, but also on the need for visual and acoustical intimacy. The acoustical requirements of the room, and therefore the size and shape, are determined by what will programmatically take place within the space.

The balance of early acoustical energy (energy that is ‘near’ in time) to late acoustical energy needs to be planned in order to provide good support for congregational singing, while maintaining characteristics required to have intelligible reinforced sound. This is an area where vertical seating offsets are beneficial since short wall surfaces can be planned to reduce the acoustical ‘width’ of congregational seating areas and provide a higher level of early acoustical energy for congregational singing. One side benefit to this process is that wall shaping that is beneficial for acoustics tends to also be architecturally and visually interesting. Also, careful and innovative design can resolve the otherwise apparently incompatible requirement for a ‘dry’ acoustic environment that is desired for preaching and reinforced sound, and the requirement for a ‘live’ acoustic environment that is beneficial for congregational worship.

The last item to be considered in the acoustical planning process is the interior finishes and materials to be used on walls, floors, ceilings, etc. Architectural finishes along with the size and shape define the room acoustical characteristics.

Sound

For the sound reinforcement system to be a partner in creating an intimate environment, it needs to provide a consistently good sound reinforcement experience to all seats. One key is that speaker systems be designed to provide consistent tonal response throughout the listening area. There must be a minimum number of direct sound arrivals at any seat, and irregularities in the coverage must be avoided. Any problems can dramatically reduce both the clarity and intelligibility of reinforced sound. In addition, the highly produced nature of most music programs today calls for sound systems to provide stereo imaging that can help to ‘envelope’ the listener in the auditory experience.

Video Projection

Screens must be positioned where every observer is no greater than 45 degrees off-axis. Screens should be rear projection if facilitated by the architecture of the building. Rear projection will improve contrast and make images less susceptible to washout in a high ambient light environment. No direct architectural lighting should fall on the screens. Screens should be located off-stage far enough to avoid the “big brother” syndrome, but close enough for minimal eye deviation from all seating locations. Also, a large center projection screen can be utilized as a platform backdrop that can be easily changed with projection and lighting.

Video Production

If video cameras are required, camera locations need to be designed into the seating layout so that they can be functional without being obtrusive or distracting to the congregation. In order to get good camera shots, the cameras need to be within a reasonable distance of the platform and at roughly the same height as persons standing on the platform. If cameras cannot be placed close enough to the platform, a more expensive longer focal length lens will be required for a close-in shot. A camera located at the rear of a 120′ deep room will require a lens that costs $50,000 or more, and the depth of field will be highly compressed.

Architectural Lighting

The architectural lighting of the room should provide consistent illumination of the seating areas. It must be dimmable in order to provide illumination levels appropriate to the activity taking place. Control panels at entry locations must be capable of being locked-out during services in order to prevent accidental changes in lighting at inappropriate moments. The architectural lighting of the room must also be consistent in color temperature, and the color temperature should be coordinated with the requirements of the theatrical lighting and video production systems. Natural light can add to the overall warmth of the room but must be diffuse and controllable.

Theatrical Lighting

The theatrical lighting system needs to provide fixture locations and angles that will provide good illumination of people on the platform. A mixture of both standard and automated lighting fixtures will provide added flexibility in creating a warm and intimate worship experience if properly used and controlled.

Mechanical Systems

The overall ambient temperature of the room should be comfortable with little perceived airflow. There should not be hot or cold spots and the room should be free of any “arctic blast” locations. Also, the mechanical systems should be able to sufficiently cool or heat the room without creating excessive background noise or vibration. Noisy or ineffective mechanical systems can quickly defeat our goal of achieving a sense of intimacy and will create an environment where people can never get comfortable and focus on the worship service.