Body Language: Can You Hear Me Now?

In Uncategorizedby tfwm

Of all the issues related to church design, none is more significant than acoustics. Rare is the case where the church puts its effort where its “ears” are. Complaints about poor acoustics abound in the church today. This article will address why that is the case and potential pro-active solutions in the design process.

First, some definitions are necessary. Natural Room Acoustics (NRA) refer to the natural acoustics of the room without electronic amplification. Audio Engineering (AE) is the electronic audio reinforcement system i.e. the “sound system”. Relative to electricity NRA is without electricity and AE is with electricity.

Natural Room Acoustics
Recently in the middle of an evangelical worship service with 1,200 people, the electricity went out due to a lightning storm— and with it the lighting and sound system. Instantly the room was dead and dark and the worship leader, a mere 50 feet away, sounded like he was whispering, the vocalists faintly acappella, the electronic drummer sounded as if he was pounding chopsticks on a restaurant table and both keyboards were totally silent. Only the strings of the grand piano continued on but were barely discernable. The electronic reinforced sound that had enveloped the worship space only seconds before was gone, and instead dozens of echoes of whispering voices pervaded the large worship space enclosed by four flat, parallel, windowless, metal frame, gypsum board walls.

The result of all this resonated like some kind of schizophrenic symphony into a kind of “white” noise. In conjunction with the only natural light coming through one of the open doors at the rear of the worship space, it was a spooky environment. Worship, which by its’ biblical definition is “to esteem worth to…” was no more. Instead, it was a frenzy of activity from stagehands and gaffers trying to find flashlights before mass panic ensued. All of this happened in an instant, but seemed like hours in the reality of human perception.

A century ago this would have never happened. Obviously not only the electricity part, but the total ignorance of Natural Room Acoustics and its relationship to “participation” acoustics necessary in any kind of assembly worship space.

As outlined in the initial article, (September 2006 issue) in order to discuss these basic realities, it will be essential to compare and contrast our current world with ancient one(s). The two examples used for comparison will be the Anasazi Native Indians of Chaco Canyon in present northwest New Mexico and Grace Community Church in Indianapolis, Indiana.

For thousands of years until the invention of electricity, architects and builders intuitively understood natural room acoustics. A whirlwind tour of ancient history reveals even outdoor spaces capable of carrying the talented voice of a sole human to a multitude of thousands. No electricity, no microphones, no loudspeakers, no amplifiers, no electronic technology with computer generated “alcon” mapping (intelligibility – “he, she, me key”) and “sound pressure” mapping (decibel level) charts or sophisticated computer software systems guiding the way.

The Anasazi utilized the natural acoustical environment of their site of Chaco Canyon in both large and small scales. They recognized the unique macro climate of the box canyon in the natural landscape yielded very intimate natural acoustical qualities; even across the large canyon floor over half a mile wide. One can still experience this today by walking along the petroglyph walls of the east canyon wall; you are still able to hear room level voices on the other side of the canyon.

This intimate larger scale natural canyon room acoustic was replicated in the medium scale design of their worship environments in the form of “pueblo’s” which were religious ceremonial centers. These pueblos were comprised of a series of interior spaces for storage of raw materials used in the ceremonies, and were several floors high. They were arranged in ascending terraces in semicircular fashion as to produce a large amphitheatre-like outdoor plaza that mimicked the natural room acoustic qualities of the canyon itself, in effect forming a small canyon. One of the largest of these pueblos is known as Pueblo Bonita and is more than two football fields across.

The micro climate was fashioned with many round subterranean “kivas” which were the worship environments for the lunar/solar ceremonies throughout the year. These round rooms were constructed of stone covered in stucco, wood timber ceilings with four large wood support columns with large low boxes of various sizes built into the hard packed clay floor. These boxes were foot drums, and they were used along with flutes, clapping, chanting and liturgical dance, which yielded an infusive participatory worship experience upon which their very lives depended.

The largest of these kivas is “Kiva Roncada” approximately 80 feet in diameter with the capacity for about 100 people (see Kiva photo below). While technological evidence exists that they could have built larger kivas, they chose not to. Instead they built numerous smaller ones because it allowed more mystery in their transcendence of a lunar/solar cosmos as manifested in their lunar and solar calendar. In essence, their worship was enhanced by “concurrent worship” in different kivas (usually along familial lineage) in each pueblo as well as adjacent pueblos on the valley floor and up on the mesa some up to 10 miles away in each direction.

Thus it can be said that the Anasazi of Chaco Canyon were the original “simulcasters”! As evidenced by many modern church buildings, round spaces can be extremely counterproductive from an acoustical perspective (if not impossible), but the way in which they mitigated those negative effects and simultaneously created positive effects is sheer genius and worthy of an article unto itself.

They knew intuitively what any acoustician could tell you today, the better the natural room acoustics, the easier to reinforce the human speech/auditory systems via an “Audio Reinforcement System”. Yet since the advent of electricity over the last hundred years, we have gradually fallen into “acoustical amnesia” in our worship assembly acoustics. In our worship assembly spaces we have settled for mediocrity at best, because the talent, skill and knowledge for natural room acoustic design is no longer pervasive (at least pro-actively) in the professional community because it is generally not valued by the church.

First Things First
The irony of this present reality is that, compared to our forefathers throughout history we have the opportunity to “have our cake and eat it too” relative to Natural Room Acoustics AND Audio Engineering. While we have gradually lost the ability to know, understand and manipulate the natural room acoustic qualities, we are also at a corresponding time in history where there exists the greatest possibility for nearly unlimited creative natural design and technical solutions. With all the emphasis on sustainable “green” architecture today, it is time for a sustainable acoustic worship space and electronic reinforcement.

Grace Community Church located in Noblesville, Indiana began the expansion journey alongside Callahan Studios in spring 2003 with their self-stated desire to build a new 4,000 seat worship space. Senior Pastor Dave Rodriguez voiced concern about “how big is too big?” particularly in regards to intimacy and connectedness in the worship environment. After months of observation, conversation and deliberation, they decided to pursue several smaller worship environments on their 52 acre campus in lieu of a “concert hall” church.

The results of that design concept under construction now include a new 1,500 seat “main” worship space, a new 600 seat “traditional” worship space and division of the current 1,100 seat worship space into two separate 450 seat and 350 seat worship spaces. Due to the ever-present economical restraints common in church projects, the largest of the four concurrent worship environments, the 1,500 seat “GraceMain” space is economized by a rectangular space with the platform on the long side (see Photo of Grace Main, page 50). That’s where the “standard precast concrete box” stops and creativity begins, due to the two long side walls angled outward in slope and the two shorter end vertical walls splayed outward in plan and the roof ceiling assembly slightly sloped across the short span. Suspended acoustical clouds produce an inverted “V” shape across the center of the space so that the seating can also be in the round, even further increasing the acoustical intimacy factor. All told, this is essentially a warehouse in material type with a corresponding economy, but the result is more like a finely tuned instrument capable of both flexible and adaptable natural room acoustic qualities.

Yet this is only one of four concurrent worship spaces each with unique natural room acoustics tuned according to each desired environment. While it would be possible, yet time consuming to describe the other three spaces, suffice it to say that material economy and spatial creativity produce equally striking acoustical results in each.

In no other architecture is there greater significance of the acoustic qualities than in religious worship spaces. By nature how we create, sense and process sound is psychological due to how God created us to function. The best approach is to first understand the theology and culture “DNA” of the specific church, then fashion the room volume (length, width and height), shape, massing, materials and finishes to enhance that particular worship community then an audio reinforcement system can be designed to accomplish precisely that – audio reinforcement.

There are only a few basic design principles that influence natural room acoustics, but their combinations are fundamental. This is why it is difficult, if not impossible to fix a bad acoustical space after it has been built. Since the greater influence then is spatial shape and form, it is obvious that the acoustical desires and goals should be determined early in the process. So often churches are completely designed by an architect and then the acoustician is brought in during construction to “make the sound work”. Or conversely, the standard tilt-up industrial “box” with large open clear spans is built and no attempt is made to integrate the worship desires with the interior architecture even though inside such a box many acoustically creative things can be done to achieve good natural room acoustics.

Contrary to popular belief it does not take a significant amount of time, effort or money. It does however take deliberate time and effort, early in the design process, focused on the one issue central to every church – and that is worship. When the desired natural room acoustic qualities are achieved in the completed worship space, the result will not even be noticed.

The “simulcasters” tither and yon – the Grace tribe of Indy and the Anasazi of Chaco Canyon – who woulda’ thunk it? In the next article the video dimension will be displayed.