How we’ve been doing it backwards and how to break the mold from the inside out
I couldn’t believe it. I was sitting in an empty church balcony with no one sitting in front of me, but I still couldn’t see the front of the platform. The slope of the balcony seating was too shallow and sightlines to the platform were blocked by the seats in front of me. Even worse, I imagined a person sitting in front of me blocking views to the entire platform. How could this happen?
While most worship facilities aren’t this bad, each one has its share of problems. Every room that I’ve ever been in, seen photos of, or worked on has had some sort of inherent limitation. However, too often problems that could have been addressed in the design phase went uncorrected, combining to create a poor environment that detracts from the worship experience.
These problems include blocked sightlines, wrong lighting angles, poor acoustics, lack of intimacy in the seating arrangement, noisy air conditioning systems, washed-out video images, poor speech intelligibility from the sound system, inefficient platform design, lack of backstage access, low underbalcony ceiling, poor heating and air conditioning distribution, obtrusive traffic noise, and excessive reverberation (among others).
In the process of facility design, when all the good intentions and rhetorics are put aside, it seems that the two factors that drive the building project are the aesthetics of the architecture during the design, and cost savings during construction.
In the case of our room with poor sightlines from the balcony, it was obvious that a sightline study was never done. But regardless of how beautiful the room is or how much money was saved during construction, the money spent on a poor room like this is completely wasted. If a worship facility won’t support the functional needs of the ministry, then it should not be built at all, no matter how much – or how little – it costs.
Common Design Problems
By far, the most common room design problem is created when a fan-shaped room with a large curved back wall is built. While this layout would appear to help seat people close to the platform and create an intimate environment for preaching, the curved wall acts as a focusing acoustical reflector. Sound reflecting off the back wall is directed back onto the platform and is perceived as an echo.
A great deal of the work that we do involves acoustic analysis and design on newly-opened facilities. Why is it that even before “the paint is dry,” we are having to put “Band-Aid” fixes on the acoustics of a brand new facility? We end up putting in sound-absorbing acoustic treatment in a room to mitigate the acoustic problems that were created by the shape of the room. After we do our work, the end result is a room that is acoustically imbalanced (not live enough for good congregational worship) and does not meet the needs of the ministry.
Other common problems with new worship facilities include poor acoustics due to the shape of the room, skewed or blocked sightlines to video screens or even the center platform preaching location, poor lighting positions and angles to the platform, and a lack of intimacy in the seating layout. All of these problems, while they may relate to the technical (sound, light, video) systems, are a direct result of the architectural layout of the room. In order to properly address each functional technical issue, careful design must involve the basic architecture of the building.
Where Design Problems Begin
More often than not, the traditional design process creates a less than optimum worship facility design. Even though a church building committee may have hired various people with the appropriate credentials and design experience, that by itself doesn’t guarantee a successful end result.
Shortcomings in the functionality of many facilities can be traced back to two primary factors. First, the quality of the worship facility is a function of the design capabilities of the design professionals you choose.
These design professionals include your architect, engineers, consultants and the like. Its like the old joke – what do you call the person who finishes last in his class in medical school – Doctor! Just as some professional athletes are better than others, some design professionals are better than others. The capabilities of any one designer are a function of several factors including training, experience, imagination, understanding of the project requirements, and communication skills. While some architects are well suited for church design, some are better off designing industrial buildings. The functional requirements of a worship facility make it one of the most challenging facilities to design and therefore demand the best the industry has to offer.
The second factor relates to the makeup of the design team. Some architects and designers work without the benefit of input from various design team members. I’ve never understood why anyone would try to design a worship facility without the benefit of input from as many specialty design professionals as possible. I don’t know of any facility that isn’t designed without input from an interior designer. Yet there are many churches that design facilities without input from an acoustician or theatrical consultant when communication functions are so vitally important to the uses of the facility. The right team of professionals can often make up for shortcomings in design capability or lack of experience of other team members.