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Facilities Design: Lobbies, Atriums & Cafes

Leading architects discuss the classic designs and the Latest Trends in how entryways and common spaces

Finnish born Eero Saarinen, renowned visionary behind the Midwest’s Gateway Arch and numerous large-scale architectural compositions, may have helped several generations understand the significance of grand-scale common spaces that both inspire reverence and serve human functions.

Like Saarinen’s work, always tied to the larger context and the smaller context about it in tandem, his contemporaries serving the church market must strike a balance between lifting worshippers’ eyes to the heavens and helping them on the ground here at its grittiest.

To learn how architects today are molding and shaping the grand-scale common spaces of houses of worship, Worship Facilities Magazine asked a group of architects to weigh in on the creation of three spaces in particular: lobbies, atriums, and cafés. Here, their thoughts on developing the most effective of these spaces for church facilities.

WFM: Are there differences in the types of lobby areas specified by contemporary vs. mainline churches?

Shanks: In my opinion, many mainline and traditional (architecturally) churches tend to ‘box themselves in’ from a design standpoint, because they are fixed on a preconceived notion of what a church should look like both from the exterior and the interior. A formal portico and four or six identical Greek columns supporting a perfectly proportioned steeple tower can easily dictate location and available floor area of the lobby, or more formally narthex area. Rather than the notion of ‘form follows function’ it becomes the reverse, and function is dictated by preconceived form. That is not to say that it is impossible to achieve functional spaces using traditional architectural methods it’s just not often accomplished. Contemporary churches tend to be free of the ‘traditionalist constraint,’ [and a contemporary] entrance lobby or atrium engages the community. The glass-walled atriums not only let light in but reflect ‘The Light’ out to the world.

Fridsma: I think both [traditional and contemporary] are recognizing the need for community space in addition to worship space. The old paradigm of a church building having a very small main-level narthex and a basement fellowship hall suggests that visitors need to come to worship first, and then we’ll let you be part of our ‘inner circle.’ This suggests a ‘believe, then belong’ approach to welcoming visitors. We’ve now done a number of main-level fellowship space additions to traditional churches that want to suggest to visitors that they can have the freedom to ‘belong’ before they reach a point where they might ‘believe.’ Smith: Contemporary churches seem to be more aware of the need for people to connect before and after services and activities. They are specifying the need for larger spaces, open gathering areas, and comfortable common spaces with tables and seating to relax. The design for Evergreen Baptist Church in Bixby, Oklahoma includes tall glass windows, a coffee bar with tables and chairs, and plenty of comfortable chairs in the hallways.

WFM: What do churches need to consider in their lobby or atrium design to make sure that foot-flow traffic is not impeded by people just ‘hanging out’?

Doolin: We use a specific flooring pattern in our design efforts [to help] channel foot traffic through the atrium space. This flooring pattern in the carpet leads the person from the lobby through the atrium to the children’s ministry areas. The tables and chairs in the atrium area also set up in a way that helps to keep people from congregating in the circulation areas.

Fridsma: Good signage, half walls, ceiling bulkheads can provide visual clues to people that can suggest where they should gather and linger, and where they should move through.

Shanks: If the idea of the atrium is looked at similar to a town square or a college commons, this can give us direction on how to design such a space for both circulation flow and all of the additional functions of the space. There have been examples of college campuses where the individual buildings were built but the pedestrian walkways were deliberately left out until the students created the ‘beaten paths’ on the lawns between the buildings. Only then were the concrete walkways installed. We don’t have the luxury of waiting for the church attendees to inform us how to lay out the lobby space, but we do know that there needs to be unimpeded flow between the entry doors and doorways directly into the primary space. If done correctly, there will be ample resultant space for the secondary uses of the atrium lobby that will complement the natural flow of the facility. Another way to look at the circulation in a large church facility is to consider how shopping malls are designed .

WFM: When a church is opting for a new structure or renovating an old, is there any distinct difference between a lobby and an atrium?

Shanks: A lobby is typically a functional space providing a circulation and gathering space outside of a primary room, such as a worship center or dining facility. An atrium meets the same functional requirements but is also considered a destination point in its own right. Usually atriums have additional spaces for gathering wireless connectivity, etc.

Doolin: The difference between a lobby and an atrium is the duration of its use. A lobby is more of a short-term gathering space that is utilized while people are standing. An atrium is utilized for many other uses which may include seating for meetings, events, and also dining.

Fridsma: An atrium is usually a central multi-story space within a building, sky lit or open to the sky. It is an ‘outdoor room,’ a space to linger in, a destination, not just for circulation.

Smith: Atrium indicates a much larger and more open receiving space than a lobby. Atriums include glass domes, sky lights, big windows, and other techniques to add natural lighting.

WFM: How much emphasis should be given to natural light in today’s designs, and why?

Smith: Natural light/day lighting should be emphasized in today’s design to make space warm, inviting, comfortable and pleasing like the overall message or mood that the church wants to give to visitors and members. Windows, sky lighting, and other forms of natural lighting should be used in more areas than just in the atrium, but in classrooms, the sanctuary, and other rooms as well [to help] decrease operating costs and to save energy.

Doolin: Natural light was always a part of our design intentions from day one for the atrium space. Many of the other areas of our church do not allow much natural light to enter due to the presentation nature of the spaces. The public, open spaces need to fulfill this aesthetic necessity. Much of our church’s children’s ministry spaces are in the lower level of the building. The corridor that leads to these spaces on the main level was designed with three different skylights to visually open this large corridor and to orient visitors to where they are in the facility.

Fridsma: Researchers have proven the beneficial nature of natural light over electric light . [However,] a problem with natural light can be glare. On Church of the Servant CRC in Grand Rapids, Michigan, we created a 120-foot long, radiused, southeast-facing glass wall as part of a new café/lobby. Here we used exterior sun-shading devices to cut off the worst of the sun when it would come up over the trees at the site’s perimeter, while preserving views both into and out of the café.

WFM: Tell us about cafés. What special design challenges and opportunities do they pose in the church environment?

Smith: Usually the coffee bars/cafés simply offer pastries [and] coffee and other beverages before and after services and activities. The interior layout involves a combination of coffee tables, high tables, bar stools, [and] lounge furniture such as chairs, benches, or couches. [A] comfortable, free-flowing area located out of traffic, but still visible. Cafés give architects the opportunity to break up the big space of the atrium area so it’s not just a plain area. Challenges may include not making it too big, allowing for traffic flow, and designing the café as an exciting place, but not the point of destination.

Doolin: One of the design challenges associated with café areas is [whether or not] the targeted area for the café has water supply and sanitary sewer drainage. Another challenge is power requirements. Many café areas have a lot of electrical requirements for coffee machines, microwaves, etc. These will need to be circuited correctly so that the equipment does not trip circuit breakers.

WFM: Do building codes for cafés and food preparation hem in the architect in terms of design? Also, in seating areas, can seats double for other uses?

Smith: If cafés only involve limited food preparation and not full-blown cooking, then usually there is not a problem with building codes. Churches should check [on] local building codes and health department requirements. Seating areas can double for other uses when the coffee bar/café is not in use. These areas are becoming more multi-functional spaces for dinners and fellowship banquets.

Fridsma: Our biggest issue is often the local health codes since they vary so much from county to county.

Doolin: [Some basic design considerations for café areas might include] the use of modular carpet tiles - ceramic tile is also a good material if immediate maintenance of the area is not attainable. For permanent tables I would suggest a laminate top that will not show drink rings.

Shanks: One of the best ways to get double use out of the café area is to have it adjacent to (or integral with) a large commons area that can be used as a venue space as well.

It seems in today’s church facilities, in keeping with Saarinen’s observation on architecture and common spaces, all parts of an architectural composition flow best when connected to one another in function and form. For today’s church leaders, the hope is that people will be drawn through the facility and stay for what they find inside.

Roundtable Participants: Steven P. Fridsma, Architect Worship Environments Leader, Progressive Ae, Grand Rapids, Michigan Greg Doolin, Vice President River City Design Group LLC, East Peoria, Illinois David Shanks, President Shanks Architects, Dallas, Texas Barry Smith, Senior Project Architect Sparks Spiritual, A Division Of Crafton, Tull, Sparks & Associates, Tulsa, Oklahoma

Church of the Servant CRC
(616) 956-7611 www.churchoftheservantcrc.org

Evergreen Baptist Church
(918) 369-6400 www.evergreenbc.org

Progressive AE
(616) 361-2664 www.progressiveae.com

River City Design Group LLC
(309) 694-3120 www.RCDGLLC.com

Shanks Architects
(972) 788-9300 www.shanksarchitects.comwww.shanksarchitects.com

SPARKS Spiritual, a division of Crafton, Tull, Sparks & Associates
(918) 582-0229 www.sparks-aei.com

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