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Facilities Design: Sanctuaries and Auditoriums

Factors to consider when creating this all-important space

Are you considering building a new sanctuary or auditorium for your house of worship?

There are a multitude of factors to be considered in creating this all-important space, where spiritual connections are made, souls are nourished, and messages are spread through the use of the spoken word, along with an ever-increasing variety of audio and video production techniques.

For one thing, churches need to carefully consider their missions and their needs when making decisions regarding sanctuary and/or auditorium design.

Planning is Important “In a sanctuary or auditorium, it is important for the church to prioritize the functions and activities that will occur in the room,” according to Jerry Halcomb AIA, founder and chief executive officer of HH Architects, an architectural/interior design/master-planning firm located in Dallas, Texas.

These rooms typically cannot be designed to provide an optimal venue for all types of functions, so the highest priority items need to be provided for first, says Halcomb. For example, “Decide if the room needs to be designed to be ‘presentational’ or to provide more for ‘community’these are the things that should shape the room.”

Before embarking on a project such as this, ask yourself some “big-picture” questions, recommends Paul Luntsford, LC, president of PLA Design Inc., an Aloha, Oregon-based, performing arts and worship space design and consulting firm. A lot of these questions might not have easy answersbut they all impact how you want your sanctuary or auditorium to be designed.

“Do you want a sanctuary or an auditorium? Will it have a platform or a stage?” asks Luntsford. “Are you a progressive, marketplace church using non-traditional tools of music, arts, and other media to reach a difficult demographic, or are you more traditional?”

Other questions revolve around the demographics of your church and its prospects for growth, which in turn impact who and how many will be using it at any time, according to Luntsford. And on a practical level, Get a team together to bring varying points of view in order to address all of these issues effectively, adds Halcomband make sure this team includes your architect. “It is critical you have an architect with experience in the project type you need to plan,” he says. Especially for a church sanctuary or auditorium, “It is important the architect has experience with church projectsand has personal experience in his own church as well.”

Trends The architect is likely to tell you that flexibility of platforms, staging systems, and lighting is increasingly recognized as an important part of designing today’s sanctuaries and auditoriums, with the ability to transform these important rooms both functionally and aesthetically a top priority.

On the video side, “When we began to design for rear projection in the 1980s, it was always ‘built-in’ and used only occasionally for special presentationsbut now, most (if not all) auditoriums we design have multiple front- or rear-projection or LED screens,” says Halcomb. On the audio side, “We see the design of more adaptive systems that can switch from one style of music to another quickly and easily,” with completely traditional or non-adjustable acoustical design falling by the wayside.

For progressive congregations using a lot of music and other media, the traditional “chancel” is gone and has been replaced with something much more resembling a theater stage, according to Luntsford. Meanwhile, the ability to quickly and radically reconfigure the “look” of a sanctuary to suit the event is becoming very popular, according to Luntsford. “Less emphasis is being placed on hard architectural surrounds, which are being replaced with softer architectural constructs,” he says.

But, “Having said that, I am concerned that many churches are moving toward a blackout look in the whole room,” adds Luntsford. Black walls, seats, carpet, and so forth work great in a sound stage, “But the visual demands of a church program are much, much higher and very different and this ‘blackout’ approach can lead to visual fatigue and eyestrain for all but the most youthful and robust in vision.”

On the macro level, there will be a continuing presence and influence of megachurches, according to Craig Janssen, principal of Acoustic Dimensions, an Addison, Texas-based acoustics, audio, video, and lighting consulting firm.

“But we are also seeing a flurry of very successful mid-size churches where connection is the highest value,” he notes. “Though there will continue to be churches that successfully connect through production, I think we are going to see that creativity poured out in other areaswith more emphasis on connecting ‘people to people’ and less ‘stage to people.’ This surge has already begun.”

“There is a very strong trend toward designing with connectivity and fellowship in mind,” says Halcomb. “Fewer auditoriums are being designed to seat 7,000 or more, but instead growth is occurring in multiple-venue services where one church has many campuses,” he says.

Facilities that Last Smart architects are thinking hard about the future when designing sanctuaries and auditoriums that will stand the test of time. Some suggest that their peers look outside the world of worship facilities to get ideas about the designs of the future. “The performing arts world is often the thing to watch,” says Janssen. “Experimental theatre is a useful venue to see what is connecting,” he notes. “There are cues to what will be successful years before it becomes mainstream.”

“If your mission is about connecting a biblical message to a current culture and you want architecture that facilitates that, then it is important to understand where culture is going,” adds Janssen. In today’s cultural environment, with its increasing focus on interrelatedness, “The mission of a church is going to be less about ‘I have knowledge to communicate to you’ and more about ‘we want to build relationships between each other and with God’which has tremendous impact on the types of facilities needed to effectively do ministry.”

“When possible, you should design your facility as if it will be in use for 20 to 50 years or more,” adds Halcomb. “With that in mind, you should design for flexibility and adaptability, while avoiding trendy design.” Mechanical systems should be “the best you can afford,” he notes, “and you should be sure to provide for more-than-ample infrastructureincluding more conduit than you would ever imagine you might need.” Fad and trends come and go, but building architecture is fixedso work to insure that your sanctuary and/or auditorium can adapt well to changes over time, says Luntsford.

“If you design a building to a current fad, and it does not lend itself to changes in worship trends, you will have an 800- pound gorilla of a building to deal with,” says Luntsford. “If the church is traditional, then find out ways to conceal a reasonable amount of technical infrastructure where it will meet needs over the years. If the church is progressive, explore ways to design auditorium and stage infrastructure that is both adequate and flexible, so it can be adapted and modified without having to trash or remodel the entire place two years after it is built.”

Acoustic Dimensions
(972) 239-1505 www.acousticdimensions.com

HH Architects
(972) 404-1034 www.hharchitects.com

PLA Designs Inc.
(503) 642-2168 www.pladesigns.com

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