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Building A Technical Infrastructure: A Guide to Getting it Right the First Time

Hiring the proper designers at the very beginning of the facility planning process is a smart start to saving money.

Here’s a newsflash for churches that are considering a new building: We’re in the 21st century now. Church architecture has got to change.

Now, before the flaming emails start flying, let me explain. I’m not talking about traditional vs. contemporary building design. Instead, what I want to make clear in this article to both church leaders and architects is the need to think differently about the design of church facilities from the standpoint of technical infrastructure.

“Conduit is conduit,” some will say, “so just tell me where you want conduit and your technical infrastructure is good to go.” That’s one aspect of technical infrastructure, but unfortunately, it’s where quite a few architects stop when it comes to this critical planning phase.

A Smart Start
When a church decides to build a sanctuary, multi-purpose space, or even new office spacethey first need to choose whether they want to hire a technical consulting firm or a design/build technical firm. Far too often churches realize the importance of bringing in qualified designers after much of the structure has been designed, or, in the worst cases, after construction has begun.

When considering a consulting firm, you can generally expect that fees will be based on a percentage of the technical system portion of the project. A/V/L (audio, video, and lighting) designs are produced by the consultants along with a bid list for equipment and labor so that an installation company can bid on the A/V/L portion of the project.

If you opt instead for a design/build firm, you can usually anticipate no charge for the design of the A/V/L systems. This is because their profits are made on equipment sales and installation labor.

It’s also important to consider the “other technology,” such as networking and phone systems. There are “structured wire and cable” consultants and design/build companies that specialize in this ever-changing arena, too. When brought on board early enough, the architect, A/V/L designers, and the structured wire and cable companies can develop the proper conduit runs, sizes, and types to provide a more accurate estimate on the complete technical infrastructure costs.

For example, I’ve been in many churches that have interference in their audio and video systems because power, audio, video, lighting, and network cable were all stuffed into a single large conduit. A microphone line with millivolt power running next to a multi-volt power cable has the potential for the not-so-lovely “hum” prevalent in so many church audio systems. Likewise, when video screens have a slow moving horizontal bar, power has interfered with the integrity of the signal.

Hiring the proper designers at the very beginning of the facility planning process is a smart start to saving money. Revisions are much less costly on paper than they are during construction.

Planning for Expansion: Conduit A good rule of thumb in planning dedicated conduit is to calculate the basic needs for the current design and then double that amount for future growth. This is true for all the following:  audio, video, lighting, isolated tech power, house power, networking, and phone systems.

Using the right conduit is just as crucial. For example, I don’t recommend PVC (plastic) conduit for audio, video, or lighting cabling. Metal conduit is the only way to achieve maximum shielding and weather-proofing (freezing cold can cause plastic to become brittle and crack or break).

Power
Power loads must also be determined for future growth and special events. Previously, I mentioned isolated power (also called “tech power”) because it is imperative in providing clean power to the tech gear. This keeps things like copiers, faxes, and vacuum cleaners from introducing power noise into the power of the more sensitive tech gear.

If you plan on adding extra lighting for pageants or using your room for concerts, plan on having the proper three-phase power junctions near the stage area. While you can add these later, their cost will be significantly higher than if you include them while the facility’s steel and concrete are being raised.

Architectural Lighting
It is important to consider combining the architectural lighting with the stage/theatrical lighting so that one dimming system can be utilized. Not only is this usually a cost savings, but the single point of control is helpful for maintaining the system. In fact, more and more churches are using lighting more effectively in the presentation context to help create a more intimate atmosphere during special parts of the service.

Clear Tech Upgrade Paths
Most churches cannot afford to get every piece of technology they want in their new buildings. However, this is not an excuse to cost-cut a system to the point where it is no longer functional for the room. A solid infrastructure will allow for the basics to function well and meet the minimum expectations of the church. A great design will have an obvious and non-destructive plan for adding technology when the need and budgets allow without removing the core technical systems.

Make sure your consultant or design/build dealer understands the minimum expectations so that your church is not hit with change orders late in the process. Protect your church from companies who present a low-dollar bid and afterward realize that they will lose money unless change orders are presented late in the construction processfar too late for your church staff members to change their mind.

Know When Not to Cut
It is all too common for churches to see big dollar items, such as iron catwalks in large auditoriums, as an easy way to trim the budget. These kinds of mistakes can be catastrophic to the functionality of the room. I’ve personally been on staff when the decision to “save” $80,000 was made and a catwalk was removed, making it difficult to light the platform properly. You can’t add that catwalk in after the building is completed. Instead, look for items that are simple to add or change, such as lighting fixtures, extra cameras, additional audio effects units, or expansion sets for a digital phone system.

A New Way of Thinking
The technical infrastructure includes the acoustical design of the room, acoustical treatment of certain surfaces, as well as the audio, video, and lighting system foundations. Unfortunately, many churches assume their architect has the knowledge for all of these technical systems. I have a saying that applies here: “A/V/L consultants don’t build buildings, and architects don’t design the tech.” We both work together to find the right application of technology to meet the church’s expectations.

It used to be that a church was designed by an architect and then the A/V/L consultants would try to “fit” a solution into the designed space. I’m sure you’ve been to quite a few churches that were architecturally very pretty but left a lot to be desired in their technical systems.

The new way of thinking about the technical infrastructure has changed the entire processto one that works much better, with results that meet the expectations of the church. By being more accurate in the design phase early on, the budgets will be far more accurate, which leads to a project that comes in on-time and on-budget.

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