Exploring the latest triumph at one of America’s most influential churches
South Barrington, Illinois - The visual impact of Willow Creek Community Church’s newest auditorium set atop the campus is impressive. The structure’s facade is vast. Striking lines of steel are accented by walls of glass and warmed with amber-hued brick.
The real beauty of the new structure, however, is not found in its curb appeal. This building is not about glitz and flash; its true worth lies beneath the surface. Into this concrete and steel the leadership and congregation have poured out their collective heart and soul to create a facility built to serve people.
As expected, a thoughtfully planned worship facility takes time. Willow Creek journeyed seven years to accomplish a building that would meet its goals and expectations. In this article you will get a sense of that journey glimpses along the way from the Director of Campus Operations & Development, Scott Troeger and from the architect and contractor who were selected to join a team that designed and constructed this amazing facility.
As with most churches Willow had humble beginnings. Their first services were held at a local movie venue, Willow Creek Theatres. The flourishing church drew attendees with its unique “seeker” services containing contemporary music, dramas and biblical teaching. In 1977, ninety acres were purchased in the Northwest suburb of Chicago where Willow Creek’s campus still resides today.
Some thirty years later, an average of 19,000 people walk through Willow’s doors to attend one of three weekend services. Upon entering the new building’s main east or west entrance service-goers are welcomed by a generous lobby area. The two-story atrium is filled with natural light that illuminates the 18-inch-square decorative ceramic tile below. Two sets of escalators wait to usher guests to the mezzanine above. A grand staircase intersects the main floor sweeping down from the mezzanine to the activity of the children’s area below the lobby.
An unexpected but engaging wall of water brings movement and life to the space. The “water wall” both serves as a focal point and provides a unifying presence. Scott Troeger, explains, “We felt the water feature was an important piece to add to the environment. It helps create connection from the different floor levels so that people, especially those below the lobby, don’t feel like they are in a basement.” Troeger continues, “We have a lower level incorporated into this building much like the other buildings on campus. But the other buildings with their topography always had outside views almost like an English type of basement that let natural light in. Unfortunately, we didn’t have that opportunity in the new facility. So, we dug our lower level deeper to create a sense of a higher volume of space.” The water feature begins on the mezzanine level and collects in a pool underneath the staircase adjacent to the children’s ministry check-in area. The new basement houses the children’s ministry as well as rehearsal areas for the stage, a green room (space for the programming and production teams to gather), suites for video and sound editing, and valuable storage areas.
Back upstairs in the lobby are kiosks interactive computers where people can access virtually any information about Willow and its ministries. Here in the lobby’s concourse people can browse at a number of these information terminals suspended from structural steel.
One of the integral team members responsible for designing the space is Architect Doug Pasma with Goss/Pasma Blomquist Architects out of Evanston, Illinois. “The church itself is a place where we wanted people to come and stay,” tells Pasma. “So, there’s a very warm kind of family-room quality about much of the space. It’s definitely not a stark institutional or commercial look or feel at all.”
In fact, just off the lobby people have access to a large yet cozy café - think Starbucks - complete with a stone masonry fireplace. Intentional furniture groupings and intimate seating provide an area where people can congregate, sit and build relationships.
Throughout the facility inlayed stonework, a design element used on the exterior and carried inside, is paired with millwork and drywalled interiors in warm earth-toned colors. Accent lighting is also prevalent with incandescent fixtures washing walls with light, showing works of art and pictures depicting the church’s ministries.
While some spaces are designed to encourage people to pause and reflect on meaningful visual accents, other areas are intended to move foot traffic. “People flow out of the auditorium is a major concern”, says Pasma. “First, we accommodated that with four very large entrances and exits off of each level. We have three levels in the auditorium: the main floor, a mezzanine level and the balcony. The 7,200 seats are divided pretty evenly among the three levels. We had to think how we were going to move two-thirds of our people up. That’s why we included escalators from the main floor. We felt from the mezzanine we could use stairwells to get the remaining attendees up to the balcony level.” Per code the four elevators, adjacent to the main entrances, are accessible at all floors. To serve attendees’ needs, each floor of the new facility offers numerous washrooms and parents’ rooms with audio/video feeds. Handicapped church attendees are provided with optimal seating to meet their specific needs. All three levels offer individual LCD screens mounted on seatbacks ahead of handicapped chairs. This way people constrained to a wheelchair will be able to view of the entire service, especially during stand-up worship times.
During initial stages of planning the leadership at Willow recognized key values to help shape the design of the new auditorium. “We identified what values to include - and that’s different for each church. As a result the new auditorium both mirrors the old “room” and improves upon it.
In the new auditorium Willow’s primary value of community is enhanced both visually and acoustically. While the former auditorium was primarily presentational in its setup the new room is designed to envelop a worshipper in the experience. Troeger explains, “Visually you can see a higher percentage of the people in the new room which gives you that feeling of connect. Also the way we designed the stage [a center thrust from the proscenium] brings the teacher, vocalist, or drama into the realm of the room with the people. Acoustically we created a more live room, which includes stained concrete under the seats and other acoustical treatments, so what you hear more of is each other singing, not just the loudspeaker output.”
Another key to attaining community lies in carefully planned seating arrangements. The mezzanine level features a “communicating balcony” where seats wrap around the sides of the room along the windows and then down to the floor. Jill Gille, Willow Creek’s technical director shared the impression of many first time visitors. “What we hear consistently when people walk in is their surprise that we have 7,200 seats, because the room just doesn’t feel that large.”
The use of quartz halogen fixtures provides warm ambient house lighting. When used to convey a “moment” or mood they also serve to enhance unity among the congregation. “The entire room had to be dimmable,” says Chris Gille, audio and systems director at Willow. “The house and architectural lighting are primary ‘programmed’ pieces of our services, playing a very important role in reducing distractions, drawing focus, promoting engagement and supporting service transitions.”
“It is definitely not your dark interior church with stained glass windows.” Pasma notes, “Willow does just the opposite. It’s all about transparency the idea of having big glass walls that look out and let the outside in was very big to the old room. And we used that concept in the new room.” Troeger explains that the church wanted to maintain some outdoor views of the landscaped areas. “We felt that was an important value we enjoyed at the [old auditorium] Lakeside room.” In response the landscape architects and engineers created a “virtual botanical garden” incorporating a waterfall surrounded by large pine trees. Inside the auditorium the effect of the design is tranquil: immense walls of glass framing lush garden views rather than the 2,900 cars parked beyond.
One improvement over the old room is a motorized rigging system that drops a sheeting device down the window wall. “We designed a pocket in the window jams so that when those shades drop it is literally a blackout space, not a dark space but black. The old model in the Lakeside room had light leakage at the sides,” maintains Pasma and notes, “The forty-foot window wall can be quietly covered in about twenty seconds.”
The room’s incredible technical infrastructure serves in saving man hours and offers the flexibility Willow needs. A full theatrical stage was built complete with a fly loft. “An advantage of the fly space,” tells Jill Gille, “is that it allows us to pre-hang looks (a scenic design consisting of curtains, draped material, and/or constructed set pieces) for services a week or two in advance because they can be hidden in the fly loft.” Utilizing fly space eases pressure off of staff and volunteers who manage set turn-arounds, especially during heavily-programmed conferences. Five motorized lighting bridges hang over the stage supporting automated lights. The bridges can be raised or lowered providing easy access for fixture maintenance. Automated lighting, prevalent in the new auditorium, also saves both time and labor for volunteers/staff. Lighting positions and cues can be programmed entirely from the board, saved and loaded for future events.
In a technically gifted facility boasting a number of today’s finest pieces of equipment, Jill Gille selects her favorite. “My favorite is the orchestra pit made by Gala. It’s a spiral lift that lowers the whole thing down to the basement and back up to stage height. Underneath the stage is a scenic shop where we build and store sets. We roll sets onto the lift and bring them up onto the stage that’s a huge piece for us.” The “orchestra pit elevator” was implemented by Willow to allow flexibility in the stage’s configuration. The span of the lift is considerable, encompassing the entire area in front of the proscenium including the center thrust.
Willow brought over their Yamaha PM1D digital audio mixing consoles from the Lakeside room where they handle main house sound, monitors and broadcast. The speaker selection involved a “shoot out” between audio components of the final two companies being considered. Willow invited average listeners and played music through each company’s speaker system. In the end they purchased not one, but two separate Meyer loudspeaker systems for the new auditorium. Both consist of line arrays. One focuses exclusively on vocals and speech while the other system handles music.
Two configurable Mitsubishi Diamondvision 14-foot-by-25-foot LED walls are suspended on either side of the proscenium. LED’s are unsurpassed in their ability to provide a bright image. Currently they are being operated at under twenty-percent of their total capacity. Today and in years to come they will provide ample illumination needed to overcome the room’s large windows and high ambient lighting levels. Front projectors were not chosen because, “we would have had to stack four of the latest projectors on each side of the stage. Site lines would be affected and we were not confident that they would line up just right. Their noise was also an issue,” tells Jill Gille. The LEDs also offer configurability and are under the control of a custom rigging motion control system designed and programmed by the systems team of Willow Creek.
Before Willow decided how large of an auditorium they could build the church identified how to maximize the property. Troeger explained that they determined the maximum number of cars they could park on the premises, calculated the number of people those cars would bring in, and that determined the number of seats they would need. Also important was the impact to traffic flow on the major highways adjacent to the church property. After a study was completed we identified that we could build up to an 8,000 seat auditorium.”
“Once we identified the largest building we could construct on the property we then worked the process again,” says Troeger. “We asked ourselves what size is actually the most appropriate for us from a church service and programming perspective - in regards to the visual connection and site lines. We thought through the experience of the person sitting in a seat. That’s how we got the number down to 7,200 seats. The values that we set out on the front end of the design process helped formulate that conclusion.”
Rich Mueller, project vice president of Pepper Construction Company located in Barrington, IL was brought on board in the fall of 2001. “We began the planning process about three years ago - the preliminary schematic drawings were just in process and being compiled so the scope of the project was just being defined. We were busy figuring out how to accomplish the work and budget the overall project cost,” tells Mueller.
Necessary to the success of the project was an intricate orchestration of construction work flow and material deliveries. Safety to site workers and church foot traffic was of utmost concern since the new facility was constructed literally at Willow’s front door, all while normal church operations continued.
A structural steel design was chosen for the new facility. Mueller explains, “predominantly in many of these large auditoriums designs you are going to see a high degree of structural-steel long-span truss systems utilized. I think it’s the most economical, frankly, and we were talking very long spans front to back of the room [the longest span 160 feet]. Not only that but we have a whole world of people and equipment up in the ceiling with the grid works and the catwalks that needed to be suspended by a system and structural steel just made the most sense. So it was an economic decision and also a utilitarian decision.”
Willow Creek handled inspections and permitting by actively taking a three-prong approach using its team of people: owner, architect, and contractor working to overcome obstacles with the town. “For example, if there was a drawing issue the architect took the lead,” says Mueller, “and when the project advanced to the building and specification phase, we as contractors would take the lead. It was really all three of us at different times of the process being involved with the city permitting and review with inspectors that eventually secured the occupancy permit.”
Codes are very important guidelines that go into constructing a building. The challenge with Willow’s new facility is it’s an unusual building and does not fit existing code books. Willow was proactive by bringing town officials into the project very early on in the process “they knew their partnership was crucial to making a new facility possible,” says Mueller.
The planning process was central to the overall success of the new facility’s completion. Scott Troeger, director of campus operations and development reflects, “Really, it took seven years for us to do this whole process from initial ideas of expansion to the grand opening. When I meet with churches they are very surprised at how much time it takes for the planning before they just jump in and buy land and build a building.”
“A value that was held up highly during the planning and building phase was to make sure we did a good process. First we made sure we looked at all the options that were available to us before we made decisions. Our board, elders and management team were committed to making sure that right decisions were being made. We just prayed for guidance. As you put the options out, God opens and closes doors. The more options you get on the table the more it becomes a process of elimination. You will sense God’s hand is more in one and not another.”
Alison Istnick is a regular contributing writer to Worship Facilities magazine and to Church Production magazine. She can be reached at .
Goss/Pasma Blomquist Architects Quick-Link: (847) 475-1250 URL: www.gosspasma.com
Pepper Construction Company Quick-Link: (847) 381-2760 URL: www.pepperconstruction.com
Meyer Sound Product: Loudspeakers Quick-Link: (510) 486-1166 URL: www.meyersound.com