Feel the Music- Brentwood Baptist Deaf Church

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Brentwood opens a purpose-built worship center for the Deaf

“Many elements of the design for the building came about from my experience growing up in the Deaf Culture,” says Brian Sims, the pastor of Brentwood Baptist Deaf Church. A child of Deaf parents, his passion for ministry was shared by Brentwood Baptist Church in Brentwood, Tennessee. It was a vision the church built upon.

Brentwood’s new 257-seat Deaf Chapel is one of the first worship centers purpose-built for a Deaf congregation. The project is Phase Three of a master plan that began in 1999.

Cynthia Stiles, the project manager for HH Architects, brought her own experience to the design table. For Stiles, who was born with profound hearing loss to hearing parents and grew up in mainstream education, the project was an opportunity to experience Deaf Culture and to apply her own knowledge of Deaf communication to the design.

Sightlines were significant for a congregation that communicates visually. In this room the stage is lower and the seating rakes upward. The seating area goes from 1’10” below the ground to 3′ above the ground, and the chairs are staggered to ensure that people can see between the people sitting in front of them.

“Where you would normally have congregational singing, we have sign-togethers,” Sims details. “Also, for the Deaf Culture, clapping involves raising your hands and shaking them. We needed the space to be designed for freedom of movement.” To achieve this freedom, chairs are spaced 30″ apart and 39″ inches from row to row (as opposed to the 18″ and 37″ customarily seen in hearing churches). Also, there is more feedback during a sermon from the Deaf congregation than in the hearing church. Part of American Sign Language (ASL) is rhetorical questions. Each chair in Brentwood’s new chapel has its own lapboard so that the Deaf individual can lay his or her Bible down and have the freedom to sign responses.

“Working with Brian on this project was a tremendous learning experience about Deaf Culture,” said Robert Rose, the project manager for Acoustic Dimensions (AD). AD designed the audio, video and lighting systems, as well as acoustics, sound isolation, and noise control for the room. “This project was particularly fun because it was all about designing a tactile and visual experience rather than focusing on the sound.”

You might not expect a Deaf congregation to need a loudspeaker system; however, the room is designed with families in mind. Many Deaf individuals have parents, spouses or children who are hearing. The room supports the shared worship experience, but the translation is opposite from what you may have experienced in other churches. In hearing churches, the pastor speaks and an interpreter signs at another point in the room. In Brentwood’s Deaf Chapel, the pastor signs (ASL) and someone in the auditorium gives the audible translation into a microphone.

The audio system for the room includes a left-right system comprised of 2 EAW MQV2364e Left/Right Long Throw Speakers and 2 EAW Custom Horns from an MK2194. This system was also designed to meet the needs of hearing youth worship services, which are taking place in the room until additional phases of the campus are complete.

Because Brentwood planned to run the new addition’s sound system at very high levels during Deaf and youth worship, adequate isolation from the existing facility was a key design goal. To physically separate the chapel and prevent sound and vibration transfer to other areas, AD recommended the entire structure of the Deaf Chapel addition be separate from that of the existing building and that perimeter walls be of particularly substantial construction. Extensive areas of sound absorptive surface treatments were also designed to help control reverberation in the room and absorb sound before it can penetrate other spaces.

For Deaf individuals, the chapel utilizes an inductive loop assistive audio system. The loop system by Ampetronic allows Deaf individuals with a T-coil (short for telephone) on their hearing aid to be able to access the system directly with no other device. Listeners without this type of hearing aid would utilize an ear piece just like in assistive listening systems in hearing churches. “If you were just to use a hearing aide,” Sims clarifies, “then the sound would be muffled. This system allows the Deaf individual to receive the true sound waves.”

“A quite extensive and seemingly convoluted system of conduit had to be laid for the actual induction loops in the concrete floor,” said Ken DeBelius of Spectrum Sound, the Nashville firm who installed the systems. “I know that the electricians (who normally install simple “point A to point B” conduit runs) thought someone was out of their mind when they were given the plans for the loop driver conduit runs.”

Still, music for Deaf individuals is a primarily a tactile and visual experience.

“Before the chapel opened, we would pass out balloons if we did something instrumentally for worship,” says Sims. “The balloons would vibrate giving the sensation of the music.”

Building on this concept in the new space, the floor vibrates. There are two seating areas built up on wood on isolators that connect to the concrete. The floor utilizes 36 Clark Synthesis TST329 tactile transducers (bass shakers). “The thing that made this job unique was the fact that much of this sound system was not really a sound system at all,” DeBelius elaborated. “In reality we were installing a bunch of electric motors to shake the floor. When we went to first fire-up the system, I must admit I was expecting sort of a Disneyland ride, which it didn’t turn out to be at all. After sitting for a while and feeling (I can’t say listening to…) the system in the way you would normally sit back, relax and critically listen to a system, the more natural it became. The truth is you wouldn’t want a theme park ride that would eventually become an annoying distraction instead of an enhancement to a worship service. The system has no subwoofers, but when you listen to it, you sure could believe there were!”

“We spent a lot of time researching the different options for the transducers,” Ryan Knox of AD adds. “Clark Synthesis was the best solution because the 329 provided linear response from sub-bass frequencies to the upper midrange frequencies (well over 1kHz). We wanted to provide a natural feeling and enveloping tactile response for the audience.”

“Of course, the camera platform was mechanically decoupled from the vibrating floor,” Rose laughs.

A key part of the room design, in fact, was this decoupling of the floor system – not just from the camera platform, but from backstage areas and the rest of the Brentwood facility as well. The vibrating finish floor had to be resiliently mounted on the structural slab and separated from the perimeter walls with neoprene pads. This floor, typically the simplest of constructions in a hearing church, proved to be one of the most challenging aspects of the Brentwood project.

Lighting was also a significant part of the design and the footcandles in the room are slightly higher than in typical worship spaces. In addition, the space also has the ability to achieve blackout. This capability is used during signing worship where the stage is lit with black light and those signing wear white gloves so that all you can see is the signing.

“My wife and six year old son performed ‘The Little Drummer Boy’ at Christmas. My wife signed using white gloves and my son played a white drum with white drumsticks. It was very moving,” Sims explains.

Sims was also instrumental in choosing the colors for the space. “The colors for the room are a dark purple and olive, which means there isn’t a lot of glare off the walls. Very important when you rely on your eyes for hearing. The curtain is a dark mauve color. Since I am light-skinned, it is easier to see me signing in front of it when I preach.”

“My sermons are highly visual and I rely on PowerPoint and the video projection system quite a bit. Much better than the old system of tacking up pieces of paper on the walls when we were sharing a space,” Sims comments.

“Space constraints forced us to use a front projection system,” Rose explains. “We paid careful attention to the projector output levels and the design of the architectural and theatrical lighting systems to assure that the projection image was easily visible under all lighting conditions.”

The front screen projection system was installed by Nashville-based Multi-Media Masters (M3). “The electronic screen is mounted in the ceiling controlled by an AMX control system. The projector is mounted behind the wall behind the sound booth projecting 67′ to the screen,” elaborated Marion Smith, project manager for M3. “A Digital Projection unit was specified for the space, but in the end a Sanyo projector was substituted to lower the cost.”

The Deaf Chapel is linked with video tie lines and fiber optics to the main sanctuary. During the opening service for the space, the hearing congregation was able to connect with the Deaf congregation through the screens.

Another specialty of the design is the invitational space. In hearing churches, people speak quietly with the pastor in order to achieve privacy. For Brentwood’s Deaf Chapel, alcoves were placed on each side of the stage to allow a person to sign without having others able to see the conversation.

“The space has a very intimate feel to it,” Rose says. “Which is appealing for both the hearing individual and the Deaf.”

“I attended the first actual service held in the chapel, and got to experience what it was like for its intended use. Looking back on it, in some ways I wish I had brought some really effective ear plugs to try and closely replicate what the Deaf congregation was experiencing. Nevertheless, sitting, and at times standing during the worship service, it was very gratifying to know we were a part of enabling the members of the Deaf congregation to experience worship in a new way they had not likely experienced before,” DeBelius adds.

“One of my favorite things about the space is that it gives the Deaf individual a place to worship collaboratively. One body to worship together,” concludes Sims.