Church Buildings and Sacred Space

October 9th, 2012
EOA Architects | Christ Church

We all know the church is more than a building, the church is more than a steeple. Tracey Ford and Gary Everton with EOA Architects understand this in a unique way. I talked with them about church buildings and was pleasantly surprised to find that they not only “get it” but that Gary actually helped edit a book entitled Designed for Worship.

EOA is located in the former St. Paul A.M.E. Church on Fourth Avenue in Nashville, a space that was renovated for their offices. A list of their religious projects on their website highlights work with both historic and contemporary churches. They are serious about understanding the congregations they design for. “We’re designing their worship space; it’s not our space,” says Gary.

Trends They Are Seeing in Design

  • Flexibility in space—it’s rare to see stationary furniture and elements
  • Less stadium seating—everyone sitting in rows
  • Fewer performance-based configurations and more defined sacred space

One example is modern churches that look like performing arts theatres, which introduces the challenge of making the space feel worshipful. A space that doesn’t feel very spiritual, holy, or traditional but works really well for AV/Media, theatre, acoustics, and big crowds can be transformed through design.

“We’re working on finding something between the extremes, one that doesn’t feel like a performing arts hall that is dark with no windows," says Tracey. "Early on, to use media you had to have it darker. . . . Technology has overcome this hurdle and natural light is not the problem it once was. You still have to consider glare and the sitting orientation, but you don’t have to have a dark room unless that is what you want for performance."

In a church Tracey is working with right now, the idea of the church being a community is very important. Currently, they worship in a gym. They have the stage/platform and altar up front. In their new building, they’re discussing how to move more into the audience and be less separate. The church is asking, “What about the whole space will make it holy, spiritual, and less of a stadium or performing arts theatre?”

Sacred Cows

You can save a lot of time and headaches by taking the time up front to work with an architect. Preferably the architect would be from an outside group who can observe what defines worship in your congregation and gauge whether one element in design goes too far. There are elements that are important to your worshipers and how they experience worship.

“What you don’t want to do is get to the point that your worshipers feel lost or uncomfortable," says Gary. "There are certain things that you can test the limits and tolerance level on for creating and re-creating worship space. Media is one of those lines that can divide a church. It’s important to know the ethos of the church. Who are they? We ask a series of questions that try to get at those issues. How open are they? Do they want basilica seating (think rows of chairs or pews) or a fan configuration (semicircular, curved)?”

When asked specifically about screens and projection, both agreed there are no standard answers. “Go into that gradually," says Tracey. "Projectors have gotten stronger and brighter. Dual screens are less intrusive than the center screen, and you absolutely have to consider sight lines. . . . After about 700-800 worshipers, you’ll need to think tiers of seating.”

What’s Really Important

“I like to find out what the most important thing is: the spoken word, music, preaching?" says Gary. "The goal is to tease out what the congregation views as important for worship. Learning what the church is set on including is important." Finding the nonnegotiables can save time, money, and headaches. “You learn what the congregation’s tolerance for change is by their uneasiness, and you can tell a lot from body language."

Two other key elements they observe are how the congregation celebrates baptism and communion. They also suggest working with sound and lighting professionals because acoustics and media are that important now. Most new churches aren’t choosing to add stained glass, but EOA has worked with Emmanuel Studio, who specializes in art glass.

Hire Professionals

Hire architects who fit your church and your ethos. A lot of people who have decorated their house are going to volunteer to decorate the church, but you are better off hiring a professional. You still won’t make everyone happy, but you’ll get the benefit of an impartial outsider. One contractor told Gary, “I’ve only done work in my church once. I’ll never do it again. I haven’t had a worshipful Sunday since.”

New Buildings

New church buildings can be fun and exhausting. Your ultimate design speaks volumes to those who worship with you and to your community. Make sure the message you are sending says what you want it to say. Here are a few tips:

Avoid the LEGO® Look

An architect will help your church leaders plan your facility’s needs for now and into the future. Creating a master plan with growth phases will help communicate where the facilities are headed and what the financial needs will be. The end result will be the church building flows and doesn't look like a kids' toy.

Build Now, Remember the Future

“Churches are morphing organizations," says Gary. "Your children and youth ministries may need space, and many congregations spend lots of money on those areas, but the kids grow up, and that means you need to be able to adjust the facility for new ministries."

Christ Community Church is a good example of how EOA worked with the leaders to have a master plan. A key question was where they would be in five and ten years. “You don’t want the worship space to feel empty, and you want to try to avoid boxing yourself into something that you can’t deal with later” [Gary]. A master plan can include a balcony that can be added later without shutting worship down during construction or demolishing everything to re-create something new.

Pay Attention to Demographics

Think through all your options, keeping in mind where you are now, your future demographics, and where your community is headed and growth patterns.

“Change will happen," Tracey says. "You’re making a good guess about how you think your building will be used, but once built it might be used differently. Be prepared for it."

Create Wonder and Awe

Your worship space has to feel different than everyday life. “You’ve got to communicate a sense of wonder and awe," Gary says. "The worship space has to feel different than the everyday hustle and bustle. There’s this manipulation of space, material, and acoustics that helps create a feeling of reverence."

Restoration and Renovation

Updating or repairing an existing facility brings its own unique challenges.

Remembering Who You Are

Madison Street United Methodist Church was almost completely destroyed by a tornado, and the church’s Gothic architecture and pipe organ had defined their worship style and their church in the community for years.
The original towers, which would have been expensive to replace and not a good stewardship decision, were a creative challenge. The design solution was a little hard for some church members to see at first, but EOA was able to evoke an image of what was by using steel and copper. An added bonus was a skylight located at the base of the new towers allows sunlight to create interesting shadows on the wall and floors below. In the restoration, they added a new 600-seat sanctuary with a narthex (gathering space inside the door). Originally, when the outside doors were opened, the worshipers walked immediately into the sanctuary. In the winter, everyone inside felt a blast of cold air from the outside. (Can you imagine a visitor coming in a bit late?) The new sanctuary was also designed so that once again music was a central part of worship. The Gothic feel continues in a hallway and wasn’t achieved using beams but rather the arch in the ceiling. Viewing the entire length of the hallway from a distance, you see the pattern.

To Stay or Leave

It can be very tempting to sell your church property when the land value sky rockets, especially when it could mean you move just a bit further away and build a building and twice as much parking. Moving from your downtown church is never an easy decision. Besides the years of ministry your congregation has provided, Gary reminds churches to “remember you have embodied energy in the existing building, and as a society we have an interest in sustainable green architecture. If you reuse an existing building (by renovation) it costs less per square foot than if you build something new and calculate the cost of moving and shipping building materials to a new site."

In many cities, people are choosing to move back downtown. Your established, downtown church building and your people communicate through your physical presence in a different way than groups coming into town to “do” ministry.

Older buildings are sturdier than we think. Renovation has its challenges, but with newer materials and technology your building can be renovated and efficient. EOA’s building has weathered several big downtown building projects and through renovation is exactly the space they need for the architectural work they do.

Don’t Overlook the Obvious

Warehouses, stores, and other buildings in your area can become exactly what your congregation needs with the help of an architect. EOA worked with a church that had purchased an old Media Play store; they incorporated the word play from the sign into the children’s ministry area. While we’re on the subject, flooring options for children’s spaces have become very green, affordable, and much easier to clean! (Upkeep matters: Your building represents your stewardship and is a precious commodity. If it’s run down, it looks like you don’t care. Don’t neglect your building wherever you are!)

Know the Limits

There is definitely a line when the change has gone too far. Your leaders, with the help of an architect, can be sure where that limit is. What you don’t want to do, whether in a traditional or a contemporary setting, is create change that causes people to feel lost and uncomfortable.

Plan Smart

Think not only about the first costs of building but also about the maintenance costs. “You can bump up the first costs so that the lifecycle costs are lower," Tracey says. "You can be green and economical."

There are many new lighting options and lighting system choices that provide quality and savings. You can have a mechanical system that allows for turning the system off if you are not using specific areas of the buildings daily, and yet the systems can adjust when 800 people arrive for worship and the sanctuary needs to cool off or warm up fast.

Make sure to think multi-use. Space should serve several purposes—for example, an office can be used for a small group, and a bridal room can be a meeting space for a support group. Just make sure to think, Gary says, "if you open this part of the building for evening classes or events, are there restrooms nearby? If you serve meals, how close is it to the kitchen? For the dollars spent per square foot, you have to think about what else the space can be used for."

The building is just a place, but it does need to represent your church, or rather your worshiping community. As Tracey says, “It’s a shame to put the church in a box that doesn’t work for them. The space does matter."

What’s your church building story?

What challenges have you solved by hiring professionals?

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