For over 20 years I had the privilege of providing consulting services for churches to address designs and upgrades in room acoustics, noise control, as well as on a myriad of sound, lighting, video, and broadcast systems issues. In that time, I've observed one problem more often than any other: the lack of foresight when it came to infrastructure. Simply speaking, the infrastructure provided in the base building becomes the foundation upon which many future ministries must be built. Consider Christ's parable of building upon a solid foundation in Matthew 7 as we discuss this concept.
Webster's defines infrastructure as, "the basic underlying framework or features of a system." Framework is a good place to start. Consider the importance of proper support for items such as loudspeakers, screens, lighting, etc. There are multiple design issues with each of these elements that must be considered.
For example, if a church envisions a theatrical lighting system, access to those instruments is a must. That access is most safely provided with an adequate catwalk system. Such a system requires a structure (framework) from which to hang; that structure requires a foundation upon which to be built. Therefore, the decision for a catwalk should be made before the building structure and its foundation is designed.
Carrying that thought further, to properly design the framework of the building, the building structural engineer will need direction from a lighting designer as to the locations for the catwalks. The lighting design will depend upon the functions to be lit. Continuing, defining functions and the uses of a building are part of the ministry vision of the staff.
The complexity of a seemingly simple issue such as hanging catwalks is used here to emphasize the importance of communication. To properly prepare for ministry, the building committee must have input from the visionaries of the church. Those individuals are most often the staff, but can be lay people from the church. Both of these groups must be willing to spend time and fully discuss the ideas being presented.
Each decision throughout the building process will be built upon a foundation of all the information at hand. Some items will be implemented during initial design of the building. Almost always, some items will be put off until the future. However, the cost of re-visiting some decisions can be detrimental to the associated ministries.
With that in mind, the following items should be considered as basic infrastructure for a building, discussed thoroughly, and if at all possible implemented with the base building.
There are actually two aspects to the building electrical power for a church. The most obvious is amount. That is to say, how much power is needed to turn on the lights, run the air conditioner, etc? Caution is given here again to vision. If, as in the previous example, the church intends to have a theatrical lighting system, the raw power for this system must be part of the base building. Generally speaking, this requires a 3-phase, 5-wire system of a minimum of 600 amps. If part (or all) of the theatrical system is to be postponed until a future time, the FULL power requirement should be installed in the basic building. Why? Money.
One often misunderstood fact is the local power company calculates the complete power load for a building based upon the information provided in the building drawings. If the (future) lighting system is not shown on those drawings, that company will design the supply power (defined as the "drop" and main transformer) for only the current need. Then, in the future, the church will be required to pay for an additional "drop" to power the (new) theatrical lighting system. Very often the cost of (or space for) this additional drop and transformer is prohibitive and a church must "settle for less" or nothing at all.
A common problem today that our forefathers did not have to face has to do with the condition of the power. The inception of computers has brought about the need for "clean" power. Prior to computers, we did not notice the variations in voltage that enters through the main drop. Clean power is the equivalent of power being passed through a filter before being made available.
Sound reinforcement systems are also susceptible to “dirty” power. These anomalies are often observed as noise. Therefore, it is strongly recommended that the power for the sound system be grounded, shielded, and filtered properly.
Building Air Conditioning
As with building power, there are multiple issues with building air conditioning. There must be adequate air conditioning for the comfort of the users of the building. However, ministry vision again comes into play and the (future) lighting system must be considered during the base building design. Too often, a heating ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) engineer will not be aware of such a system, or underestimates its impact. A theatrical lighting system is a big heater. It must be planned for in the base buildings HVAC system.
Likewise, as the HVAC engineer addresses the amount of air conditioning needed, the location needs change with these types of lighting issues. Too often the entire sanctuary is treated as one large space and air conditioned evenly throughout. Then, when the full intensity of the theatrical lighting is applied to the platform, there is an imbalance. Either it is cool enough for the platform and the audience is cold, or visa versa and the choir and presenters "cook". The latter is too often the case. Special attention must be paid to the distribution of the air to the platform. Often a church HVAC system will be designed to provide independent air control to the platform to address this issue. The location where the audio, video and lighting systems are controlled have a similar problem.
We recommend that the technical control space(s) be fed from the same system as the platform, but this is often very difficult with regard to HVAC duct runs. A common alternative is to provide control spaces with individual units. This works to save money initially and in the future. As these ministries grow and require additional times of operation, it is not necessary to cool the larger space.
Measured in cubic feet per minute (CFM), airflow is important to ministry. HVAC Engineers know to design a sanctuary for low volume airflow. The most efficient method to do this is by allowing the air to fall into the space rather than it having to be "pushed" into the room from the side. Generally speaking it is recommended that they design for a noise level of no greater than an RC 30(N) criteria. The number, RC 30(N), results in a quiet room without the congregation being bothered by the HVAC system cycling or excessive register (airflow) noise.
However, the platform should receive different design criteria. Any performing space should be designed for no more than RC 20(N). On the platform, microphones are used to pick up and amplify sound. Any HVAC noises played into the microphones get amplified by the PA sytem, resulting in an overall NC level for the audience greater than the RC 30(N) designed for the "quiet" room. This is a very important issue and should be communicated to your HVAC Engineer at the inception of design.
As ministries grow, it will often be necessary to make changes in the basic technical systems. To make these changes, it will be necessary to get to certain locations (another reason for catwalks) as well as run wire and cables between locations. Conduit is another of those building items that should be installed early in the building process. There is never too much conduit; it always gets filled up too soon. And conduit is much cheaper to install before concrete floors have been poured and walls and ceilings are in place.
Many technologies use conduit. Therefore it is wise to include input from people involved in sound, lighting, video and broadcast ministries. However, it is just as important to have input regarding the church's local area network (LAN) computer system, the telephone system, digital signage, in-house video, the building security, etc. Anyone who might need to run wire in the future should be allowed to discuss their needs.
This last item might seem a bit unusual, but it is one for serious thought. If the necessary space for future ministries can be identified as the building is being designed, clear direction can be given for growth. These spaces might initially be utilized for other purposes like meeting rooms or storage. One example of this might be a (future) broadcast ministry. In initial design, the church is not ready for broadcast, but wants to grow in that direction. By identifying where the control room(s) and studio(s) might be, the technical provisions for that ministry (i.e. conduit, power, HVAC, etc.) can be prepared for properly. This preparation can save a church significant money in the future.
One common thought, often verbalized during these tough, decision making times is, "Well, we will only be in the building for X' (say three, five, seven, etc.) years. Then we will build our main sanctuary."
What will happen to the building at that time? Do you intend to bulldoze it down and build on the same spot? It’s possible. However, it is much more common to "pass down" this room to another ministry, such as the youth. If that is the intent, then it should be the current committee's responsibility to discuss this opinion with the youth leaders and find out what ministries they anticipate in the building. Listen to their vision. The needs for infrastructure to support a youth ministry are often more demanding than expected. Decisions made today can facilitate or hamstring that ministry in the future.
In closing, keep in mind that all of these comments regarding infrastructure should be centered on the vision and goals that your church has regarding the use of a building. In doing so, do not be short sighted in your vision. Look beyond your ideas or even your lifetime to the full potential of the building. If you don't know what the long-term goals of your ministry are, you're likely to end up with a building that hinders your ministry instead of advancing it.