Our mothers always told us, “It’s what’s inside that counts.” While that’s true for people, a church’s outside can be just as important as what is inside. What’s outside may make the first impression and influence a person to investigate and visit—or avoid—a church. Signage, symbols, lighting, landscape and landscape architecture, playgrounds and parking all play a role in determining your church’s curb appeal.
Or course, two enduring symbols, the cross and steeples instantly establish a church’s identity in a community. The cross will always be prevalent but the steeple may not be feasible in locations that are semi-permanent, retail/movie theater, emerging church plants or even larger, established organizations that seek to incorporate more modern forms in their facilities’ design and aesthetics.
A properly situated and lit cross can be a dynamic symbol, especially in a high-profile location adjacent to an interstate or major thoroughfare. A Jasper, Ala., church with approximately 100 members wanted to make such a statement with a 100-foot cross but was concerned about the $250,000 cost, says John Rebry, account executive with Laurel, Miss.-based Headrick Signs. The giant cross was instrumental in increasing church attendance 50%, and the cross was paid for in a year, even drawing donations from passersby who were not church members, Rebry reports. Similarly, First Baptist Church of Central Florida in Orlando makes a bold statement with its 200-foot cross and 44-foot-tall sculptured panels depicting scenes from Jesus’ life such as the Ascension and Sermon on the Mount.
“That’s the extreme end of a signature element, but on the other hand, if you’re blessed and have a location on the interstate, those are the kinds of things that can happen,” Rebry says. “You’d be surprised how people respond. The outreach you gain from a signature element like that, you can’t measure.
Though lacking the symbolic impact of the cross and steeple, exterior electronic message centers can be a direct method of communicating what your church is about.
“A lot of it has to do with changing the message out front,” Rebry says. “There’s a lot to be said about going electronic where you can just change it from a laptop.”
A contemporary view
Growing communities with contemporary-minded churches can have a thoroughly modern take on design and exteriors. Working with Phoenixbased CCBG Architects, Christ’s Church of the Valley South-Surprise Campus in Surprise, Ariz. (formerly Parkway Christian Church), developed a master plan using different forms and shapes throughout to heighten inquiry, says Paul Ladensack, a principal at CCBG, who used previous experience with warehouse and theater conversions and redevelopments as a basis for the church’s development. The master plan, design and building process always starts with what you want the campus to feel like and how you want to make it a sacred space, Ladensack says.
For Christ’s Church of the Valley South’s campus and with Pastor Trent Renner’s vision, worship space was limited to 500-600 occupancy with the buildings in smaller pieces and surrounded by informal and semi-formal gathering spaces. Parking is dispersed around the various buildings so that there is not a single mass of cars or as much of a heat island. CCBG also frequently uses xeriscaping, an eco-friendly landscaping architecture process that requires only conservative water use and incorporates native trees and grasses into a natural landscape.
“With the building masses, we worked to get away from a big-box appearance,” Ladensack says of Christ’s Church of the Valley South. “That sacred feeling unfolded once you got onto the campus. As a sacred space, they do serve as a beacon to the community.”
And while you want the church to be a figurative beacon, it’s important to be considerate of neighbors, especially in residential areas, when it comes to being a literal beacon. Generally, churches are among the few large-scale structures allowed in residential neighborhood zoning and risk outgrowing their surroundings.
“You can alienate the community you’re trying to serve,” says David Blackmon, a principal at Blackmon Rogers Architects in Mountain Brook, Ala.
Sharp-cutoff light fixtures can provide a comfortable, safe environment without dispersing light into surrounding properties. Since parking lots are usually only packed for a few hours and on a few days of the week, they may be useful for other applications—playgrounds or sports fields, for example—at other points during the week. They also may incorporate minimal paving, perhaps using gravel lots with lines of trees to define parking areas, or think of the spaces as sports fields first with overflow parking as a secondary use for large attendance services such as Christmas and Easter.
There are all kinds of ways to take underutilized space and turn it into an amenity, says Christian Rogers, principal at Blackmon Rogers. Blackmon and Rogers cited the pocket-garden concept at the Cathedral Church of the Advent in Birmingham, Ala.; the community garden at Seaside, Fla.’s Interfaith Chapel; and Trinity United Methodist Church in Homewood, Ala., that designed and created a landscape labyrinth in an area between buildings that acted only as a light well. Incorporating playgrounds—especially for special-needs children—also can help churches serve as that figurative community beacon.
“It’s a retreat from the city itself,” Rogers says specifically of the gardens at Birmingham’s Cathedral of the Advent. “It operates on a more pedestrian scale than many large, suburban churches that have similar spaces. The amenities that they provide for their own congregation can open up the church to the community.”
Finding the light
Lighting is obviously an important aspect for any facility, both interior and exterior. How else are you going to see where you’re going? But lighting can eclipse that basic necessity and serve to make the church a more inviting place.
Lighting levels play a significant role in creating a warm and safe feel, creating an attractive sense of place where people want to be and belong, says Kathy Greene, marketing manager for City of Industry, Calif.-based Architectural Area Lighting (AAL), a manufacturer and a leading provider of custom architectural outdoor fixtures for commercial, municipal and institutional markets. Consistency and careful planning are important, as well—too much can be almost as bad as not enough, according to Greene. Consistency not only applies to where and how outdoor lighting is utilized but it’s also a factor in linking the church’s interior and exterior. Combined with exterior signage and logos, the exterior lighting can be a tool to further a church’s “brand,” she says.
“If you tailor light fixtures to coordinate with the interior (lighting), it’s a further extension of the building,” Greene says. “We like to say our fixtures interiorize the outdoors.”
Precision optics and segmented reflector optical systems improve energy efficiency and best diffuse light. Segmented reflectors place the light where it’s needed—not in the sky or on the surrounding neighborhood—while use of precision optics requires fewer fixtures, thus yielding improved energy efficiency. Greene and AAL also suggest induction fluorescent lighting as an energy-efficient lighting source. Induction fluorescents are comparable to LEDs in energy efficiency and lifespan but are half the cost; they also provide a softer light that’s good for front or back lighting, Greene says.
“That’s a very affordable option for churches and other users,” Greene adds.
She also reports that with lighting and overall efficiency, you get what you pay for. Lowest cost usually equals highest replacement and maintenance costs, so churches need to look at what they’re trying to convey, as well as safety, lifespan, energy efficiency and maintenance costs as the basis for a decision on outdoor lighting and fixtures, reports Greene.
“In the past, a lot of churches’ focus hasn’t been so much on outdoor lighting,” Greene says. “It hasn’t always been an extension of design and architects’ focus. We’re starting to see more of a focus in that field, and more products to enhance that overall feel once people arrive.”