Design for Community Connection
More and more, house of worship design has less to do with an actual building—and more to do with physical and psychosocial positioning within a community. When the term psychosocial refers to one’s psychological development in and interaction with a social environment, as Wikipedia suggests, then architects in tandem with others on church building teams may be positioned to help church bodies capture a true resonance and openness within communities across the country.
Worship Facilities Magazine spoke with a number of architects on the topic of design for community connection with the intent of helping church leaders better understand the vast potential they have when embarking on a building project. Potential to spread God’s Word beyond doors and walls and to reach and care for people where they live, in their own communities.
Replacing Social Isolation
Is a church a social country club or a “holy huddle” as Mel McGowan, president of national Visioneering Studios, an architecture, planning and interior design firm focused on live, worship and play environments, terms it? Or is it the soul of the community? Design, along with the church’s spiritual DNA and mission, can be a determining factor.
“The key is whether the environment is designed as an internally focused ‘compound/members only’ club or whether it truly feels like an organic gathering place for the community (including the unchurched), where moms naturally gather for conversation while toddlers safely play,” McGowan asserts.
“Churches offer a unique ‘product’ that people are truly hungry for because of God’s wiring in us: authentic community,” he adds.
Retailers, too, experts such as McGowan report, are finding that they have more success drawing in people with a $3-per-square-foot village green that hosts concerts and other community events than with a $300-per-square-foot marble and brass center court atrium.
Indeed, “mixed use” seems to be the key to most successfully reaching people and drawing them out for relational opportunities with others and with Christ. As Paul Lodholz, AIA, LEED and worship space studio head of Houston’s Ziegler Cooper Architects, a full service architectural firm with living, learning, work and worship design studios, says, “The common denominator for both … [non-denominational and denominational] groups seems to be a real desire to provide at-large community programs (food banks, clothing centers, health centers, programs for the blind, aged, etc.), classes for all sorts of life-based education (ESL, wellness, healthy marriages, senior bonding, youth groups, etc.). In other words, how can we reach out to those in our community and make a difference in their lives, and thus by our actions show our faith and the love of Christ? How can our facilities be designed to aid in that desire?”
Tom Greenwood, principal of Dallas-based The Beck Group, a building solutions company with architectural, construction, development and sustainability services, also reports that mixed use is a key consideration in church development today and moving forward. “Mixed use development … combines retail, residential, office, civic and other uses all within a fairly dense area to allow people to get out of their cars and walk and connect. That kind of diversity of uses, users and interaction creates vibrancy and life,” he says. “I see more churches wanting to expand the idea of community beyond the weekend, and find ways to use all their buildings for community activities.” One of The Beck Group’s recent projects for Fielder Road Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas called for the design of a new worship center to be called the MetroCenter, “because it is intended to be a civic center for the community.”
Like McGowan, Greenwood believes that churches today want to get back on the public square. “I think churches need to re-engage rather than create a whole separate ‘community,’” he states. “Don’t think of having to create a campus where everything in the community happens, but find opportunities to fill gaps. Start thinking of ways that your church’s buildings and property can compliment and supplement what is going on in the surrounding neighborhoods or town.”
Stephen Pickard, principal and director of design at Dallas-based BASIC architecture + interiors (BAI), a creative think tank focused on developing solutions for the design of church facilities and mixed-used environments, echoes and adds to the notion of the importance of mixed use development and re-engagement of the community. “From a planning perspective, the church should seek integration and connection to its surrounding context,” he says.
BAI is working on an 80-acre site in Tulsa, Okla., that incorporates mixed use elements, including retail, office and residential—with a church at the core. “Because the plan promotes ‘walk-ability,’ the various uses become more dependent on each other and correspondingly integrated,” Pickard says. And he emphasizes that his firm’s plan is not a new idea, but simply traditional town planning with the church as the focal point.
Beyond New Urbanism, the term some architectural experts tag onto the community integration idea of mixed use, Pickard believes that the future of 21st-century church design involves an adjustment of scale of buildings, as well as multi-site, or churches reaching out deeper into communities and areas by offering smaller campuses allied with a central mother campus.
“Multi-site or multi-venue will become a more popular choice for worship venues. There will continue to be an emphasis on large community gathering spaces and cutting edge children’s education spaces,” Pickard foresees.
“We also hope that church campuses promote walk-ability, environmental sustainability and mixed use options that dove-tail and integrate church campuses into surrounding communities,” he adds.
David F. Schultz, president and CEO of David F. Schultz Associates Ltd. in Barrington, Ill., a company that specializes in church design, concurs that multi-sites are an important way today for churches to connect with surrounding communities. And he also finds that the designation of glass in church design works on both an immediate and a subconscious level: “Glass adds visual access into the building. You see there’s [activity] going on in there—a communication of openness and a form of passive evangelism,” he says.
Food for Connection
A universal way to engage communities and enlist relationship-building is through sharing food. McGowan notes that part of helping the church recapture its place as the heart of the community is “by providing seven-day-a-week education, arts, recreation and relational opportunities (yes, often centered around food and drink).”
Yet, McGowan contends that not every church is called to have a Christian version of Starbucks, “especially if it is just serving the holy huddle on Sunday mornings.” In one Visioneering project that recently garnered a WFX Solomon Award for Best Church Architect, Central Christian Church in Beloit, Wis., the company added on to a traditional 1970s structure in an effort to help make the economically depressed area with little new development into a community Power and Light District.
“We created a Power and Light District around a Restoration Square, centered around a large outdoor fireplace that looks like an industrial smokestack. The idea was that God was now the source of power and light in the community,” he says.
Architect John Justus, based in HGA Architects & Engineers’ San Francisco office, reports that his firm, too, believes that food and drink helps community members bond and relate, and that churches can benefit by carefully planning these options. “HGA programmed small kitchens adjacent to [church gathering spaces] for simple refreshments to be served, adding a sense of hospitality to encourage interaction,” he says of the gathering spaces HGA designed as far back as the 1970s at Colonial Church in Edina, Wis. For other projects, he says, “We sometimes added a fireplace in areas to communicate warmth and the feeling of your own home family room. The gathering space also became the ‘dining room’ space for wedding receptions, dances, etc. In the case of the Rock of Roseville church near Sacramento, for example, we created a Rock Café that includes a serving kitchen and coffee bar.”
McGowan closes with food for thought that church leaders can use as they move forward, reaching out to their communities: “It is our conviction that many church buildings create walls—separating the church from the community, Christ from the lost, and Christians from culture. Our job is to tear those walls down and to build bridges.”