Sermons convey little if they are not relevant. Praise bands sound out of place if they are not relevant. High tech gear is useless if not relevant. Church buildings, too, can appear obscure if not relevant to modern needs and functions.
Yet, according to leading architects who are experts in creating 21st-Century houses of worship, relevant doesn’t necessarily mean “mod”. Sometimes achieving relevance in architectural design means going back to what has worked for agesto what has always signified “church.” And other times, depending on geography and internal culture, the look of “church” takes on what most onlookers would agree is a totally modern approach.
Achieving Exterior Excellence
According to Tony Martin, director of design with Marietta, Georgia-based CDH Partners Inc., a full-service design firm that provides design solutions for churches, individual church exteriors must be consistent with individual churches themselves. Only then does the architectural design truly work and stand the test of time.
“While a full range of design ‘styles’ from traditional to very non-traditional or contemporary are present in today’s churches, above all, a church’s exterior design should communicate a message consistent with that church’s mission,” Martin declares.
Martin says CDH is finding, in recent years, that many churches desire to express two fundamental ideas in their buildings: “First, and in terms of the exterior design in particular, they want to communicate a respect and acknowledgement of history and tradition; something that embodies the archetypal image of ‘church.’ That is, they want to be recognized as a church.”
And he continues, “At the same time, they want to be seen as unmistakably modern or current to today’s world so that they optimize their ability to be seen as culturally relevant and living ‘in the now.’”
Dusty Eggleston, president of Century Builders Inc. based in Houston, Texas, a firm that builds churches nationwide, shares his take. “A worship facility’s exterior architectural design should match or blend into its surroundings. Yet, churches aren’t looking for preset plans or cookie-cutter designs. The architect must listen first [to who a church is], then start the design.”
Above all, church exterior design is a cultural undertaking, according to John Justus, principal-in-charge of the Hammel, Green & Abrahamson Inc. (HGA) Sacramento, California office. HGA is a national full-service architecture, engineering, and design firm specializing in a variety of building types including cultural projects, such as churches. Justus says the church projects designed by HGA are a result of significant collaboration between HGA’s design team, church officials, and members.
“Our goal is to make sure that the HOW will stand the test of time and transcend current design trends,” says Justus. “Throughout history, neighborhood churches have exemplified the idea of beauty,” Justus says. “Therefore, regardless of the exterior design, the building should be extraordinary, whether it’s stucco or another material. Beautiful proportions and window openings are important as well.”
Steeples, too, have their place in today’s architectural exteriors. The experts report that a number of churches want to create an iconic element that serves as a focal point, both visually and symbolically. “This is often a vertical tower element symbolic of the bell towers and steeples of great historical churches,” Martin explains. Finding creative ways to break down the scale of a building and help yield an intimate, human experience is part of what the experts deliver.
All-Important Building Materials
What a church wants to communicate about itself through its exterior expression can be as different as night and day. The experts site a number of materials that are often chosen in today’s HOW exterior design. But the key reason for the choice of a particular material is linked to geography and to cohesion with the church’s overall identitywhich can help HOWs speak to regular attendees and those they hope to draw from the surrounding locale.
As an example, Justus discusses several HGA projects that use different materials to achieve the same goal of providing community connectedness.
“Church of the Open Door in Maple Grove, Minnesota is contemporary with a glass front and a large [metal] overhanging area,” Justus describes. “The building materials help convey a sense of invitation and welcomejust like an open door.”
Westwood Community Church in Excelsior, Minnesota, on the other hand, is situated on a site adjacent to a regional park. “The church wanted its structure to look like it was similar in style to the buildings we see in our national parks. Therefore, we created a beautiful stone and wood building that evokes harmony between the church, the land, and its surroundings,” Justus explains.
Material choices often speak of a structure’s geographic location, and therefore bind it to a particular region. For example, brick is commonly used east of the Mississippi. “On the East Coast, brick can easily relate to the area’s historical context,” Justus says.
Similarly, the use of stone can help demonstrate the church’s intent. As Justus conveys, “When you add stone, it speaks of permanence, quality, and that the church will be there for a long time.”
Martin describes an exterior design his firm created for Gainesville, Georgia’s Free Chapel Worship Center and how its building materials relate to its message. The 150-acre property would house a facility with a 3,500-seat sanctuary. “They have a very progressive style of worship. The vibrant, growing congregation is [situated] in a bustling suburb of Atlanta. And the church wanted to appear friendly to seekers,” Martin says.
To communicate the church’s intent through design, CDH used a combination of brick and architectural concrete masonry as the predominant solid wall materials along with a substantial quantity of aluminum curtainwall (a wall that does not support any dead weight other than its own) glazing. The masonry products are combined into a variety of patterns to yield several different textures and an overall modernist impression. In addition, Martin reports, “large expanses of glass along with sleek steel canopies complement this impression and complete the allusion to the church’s ‘cutting-edge’ approach to ministry and worship.”
Glass itself is another popular building material in churches today. At Millbrook Baptist Church in Aiken, South Carolina, Eggleston says the church wanted to take in its natural surroundings and work with them to convey a sense of interconnectedness to the community. “We employed reflective glass that takes in the elements and the time of day,” Eggleston notes.
In Las Vegas, Eggleston says his firm is designing an all-glass structure that will convey a “changing façade.” Yet, a great deal of Century’s projects employ standard brick and block with banding of Exterior Insulated Finish System (EIFS), or synthetic stucco, as building materials.
Regardless of what exterior material is chosenfrom stone to stucco and glass to precast concreteJustus says quality is paramount in a house of God. “Materials are important, so value them,” he suggests. “Materiality can be used to reflect permanence within a community; and that’s powerful.”
Designing for Today; Enduring for Tomorrow
Durability is important in any HOW project. According to Martin, “More durable materials such as brick, stone, or architectural concrete masonry [are] preferred for their low maintenance and life cycle cost benefits over siding or stucco, though advances in building material technology have given architects a wide variety of materials to choose from.”
Since many churches today employ large amounts of glass in their exteriors, Eggleston shares some practical tips for enhanced longevity and less repair. “Try to avoid putting glass down low so mowers and weeders don’t hit it,” he says. And he adds that while glass may grace atrium areas, it’s not often a material of choice within today’s sanctuaries. “We avoid glass in sanctuaries so the church can control what’s going on inside in terms of TV and video.”
And what are some practical considerations if a HOW is looking to build a temporary building to meet its current needs? Martin suggests: “If a church’s master plan dictates that a portion of a building will be removed [to] receive a future addition, a wise choice is usually to minimize cost of materials and construction in temporary features.”
Perhaps the man-made key to a HOW’s durability goes back to architectural relevance.
A cohesive messagealong with a look that ties together elements of history, geography, and quality building materials can help hold a church together as a valued community haven for generations to come.
CASE STUDY: Horizon Community Church, Cincinnati, OH
Not long ago, staff at Horizon Community Church (HCC) in Cincinnati, Ohio, found themselves dreaming of a new facility. And grappling with the decisions of how to turn that dream into realityinto a facility that speaks of who they are and what they hope to stand for over time.
HCC volunteer Trey Smith, building team leader, says the church that started in 2001 had to sit down and decide who they were and what message they wanted to convey. This past year, HCC purchased the Indian Valley Golf Course (a 154-acre property resting on the Little Miami River, right in the middle of four established suburban areas). And at that point, Smith says the church honed in on its message/exterior design connection. “We want to create a place that is warm and comfortable, where people can connect, and where newcomers can experience the buzz of community on their first visit,” Smith relates.
HCC chose Marietta, Georgia-based CDH Partners to design its new facility. “The exterior will be constructed with a combination of field stone and masonry. There will be a huge amount of glass looking out over the property from the atrium and auditorium,” Smith describes.
The result is an exterior that combines traditional church design with a “home” feeling at the main entrance and a “backyard” feel from the terrace at the rear, looking down toward the river.
CDH Partners Inc.
770) 423-0016 www.cdhpartners.com
Century Builders Inc.
(800) 777-5622 www.thinkcenturyfirst.com
Church of the Open Door
(763) 416-5887 www.thedoor.org
Free Chapel Worship Center
(678) 677-8300 www.freechapel.org
Hammel, Green & Abrahamson Inc. (HGA)
(888) 442-8255 www.hga.com
Horizon Community Church
(513) 774-9522 www.horizoncc.com
Millbrook Baptist Church
(803) 649-493 www.millbrookchurch.org
Westwood Community Church
(952) 224-7300 www.westwoodcc.org