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Insider Secrets to Creating Real Engagement in Design

Facilities can create barriers to connection, or they can remove them. It all depends on the design.

Have you ever been inside a church where you had an amazing sense of connection with the people around you?

Conversely, have you ever been in a space where it was hard to sing because you felt like you were worshipping in a vacuum? Or you walked through a lobby without seeing people stop to talk with each other?

While we often attribute this to spiritual factors or the friendliness of the people, many times, experiencing (or not experiencing) connection is a result of the space itself. Facilities can create barriers to connection, or they can remove them. It all depends on the design.

We asked top worship facility designers to share some of their insider secrets to creating spaces that spark engagement, and this is what we discovered:  

Physical proximity increases intimacy—not just one-to-one but also in groups.

Creed Kampa, design principal of HGA in Sacramento shares, “Increasing intimacy in the sanctuary is one of the key goals that we explore in our projects to increase engagement. One component of this is getting more people closer to the altar area, or the altar area closer to the people, depending how you like to think of it.”

Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Elk Grove, Calif. has a sanctuary with 1,000 seats. HGA’s design put over 95 percent of the seats within 60 feet of the altar, making it easier for the congregation to read facial expressions and thus have a better connection with those leading activities from the platform. 

The same strategy was employed at a smaller scale in the renovation of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Carmichael, Calif., where the altar area was moved closer to the pews to increase intimacy and engagement.

Change makes people more present.

Jacquelyn Block, studio director at GFF in Dallas, shares that layers of lighting can have an unexpected effect in a worship space. She explains, “People get bored when things are static. Change makes us more expectant. We anticipate. It makes us more present.”

One of Block’s favorite tools for achieving this change in a worship space is by working with lighting—both natural and LED. “Natural lighting changes from morning to evening, and artificial light can brighten or dim; it can focus attention. Color washes can make a space feel very, very different and you can continually change the way the space feels.” GFF uses this strategy for both liturgical and contemporary churches.

In the case of Chase Oaks Sloan Creek Campus, in Fairview, Texas, lighting allows a satellite venue to become animated throughout the worship service.

Blurring the lines sparks unexpected connections.

Meredith Quigley-Rooker, senior associate of OMNIPLAN in Dallas, highlights that one of the most overlooked opportunities for creating engagement is in the space between the spaces. “In most churches, the usual format is a large space for meeting, then breakout spaces. But so much happens in that transition.”

Quigley-Rooker shares that the best connections are the impromptu ones that happen in the transition spaces. Yet, the transition spaces are rarely on the program list. “We’ve found that blurring the lines between spaces is a strategy that builds community. Placing reading nooks outside of adult classrooms, designing an open library with seating outside of a choir room, oversizing circulation and creating places to land, having walls that completely open up to the community space around it—all of this creates opportunity for natural interactions to happen.”

Real engagement draws people out of themselves.

Michael Kaiser, director of design for The Beck Group in Dallas, shares that liminality is a key to deeper spiritual engagement. He explains, “You know when you are in a movie, and you forget that you are sitting in a movie theatre? You leave yourself. You’ve crossed the threshold—experienced liminality—to become part of the story. People are really engaged when that happens in church. When they start to think about being hungry, or wondering about the time, or checking their phone, they’ve lost it. They’ve crossed back into themselves.”

Kaiser says that getting people to cross the threshold is about how design directs people’s attention. “A very tall space draws the eye upward. Your head moves back. There is a physical reverence in that. Or when you walk into a space, and it takes your breath away, it gives a sense of wonder. Design can engage all the senses. Natural woods and stones are tactile and have certain smells that are transporting. It pulls you into a different internal state, drawing you out of yourself.”

At Austin Ridge Church in Austin, Texas, the design of the new sanctuary leverages natural materials, skylights and height to create that sense of drawing people up and into a more transcendent space. It is designed to help church-goers come across the threshold.

There is more engagement when the design considers special needs.

Randy Milbrath, Senior Partner and Architect at RDG Planning & Design in Omaha works with churches to create an inclusive view of engagement. He shares, “Engagement won’t happen if basic needs are not provided for everyone in a gracious way.”

At First Lutheran Church in Lincoln, Nebraska, the congregation provided a single-user restroom with an adult changing table that has a discrete visual entrance. “This design feature was included to provide a level of assistance for a caregiver,” explains Milbrath. “Without this design feature, some individuals wouldn’t attend events at the church.”

RDG also worked for inclusion of active technologies that support hearing and the hearing impaired, such as announcement display areas in meeting and forum spaces and in the lobby. About 20 percent of Americans report some degree of hearing loss, and that number jumps to 33 percent over the age of 65. Consideration of how different populations will experience the worship facilities can make a big difference in how easy it is to connect.

Crafting an outward focus engages congregations with community.

Nicole L. Thompson of Station19 Architects in Minneapolis, Minnesota shares one of her most significant strategies to creating engagement, which is to reverse the focus of the building. “We’ve seen a shift in churches from being inward-focused to becoming outward-focused. But many churches are still stuck in buildings that feel closed off. Opening up facilities to the neighborhood creates a sense of welcome. People can see that the light is on.”

For Sanctuary Covenant Church in North Minneapolis, the site selection was important to create that open door. They wanted to create an asset for the community that was inviting, open, comfortable and easy to find. Station19 worked with the church to select an underutilized site with condemned and empty buildings. One of the buildings on the lot was salvaged—a heavy block warehouse building—to become the spacious, bright lobby for their new worship center. This unique facility is one shared with the community for a variety of events.

Engagement by design.

Designing for engagement is a unique skillset. It’s a mix of architecture, mission, and an understanding of the group dynamics of human behavior.

Imagine what could happen if your facility was strategically designed to spark connections.

TAGS: Design
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