Defining Good Church Design: Measuring Your Facilities’ Form & Function

Both form and function need to be equal partners – often at great tension with each other- that need to be brought together harmoniously to create great design.

 

The American architect Louis Sullivan coined the phrase; Form follows function.

“It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human, and all things super-human, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law.”
Louis Sullivan 1896

Sullivan is the creator of the modern skyscraper that started popping up in the growing large industrial cities in America in the late 19th century.  The great improvements in steel and also skeletal design at that time fueled the growth in popularity of the skyscraper.

A skyscraper is a good example where function (driven by the need to go vertical as cities grew) was a strong driving factor in the design of buildings in that era.

As we look at our church buildings, what is driving the design form or function?

A modern-day example of form winning out is the Crystal Cathedral (now owned by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange in Garden Grove, Orange County, California.

Completed in 1981 it was touted as the largest glass building in the world.  The Cathedral was known for its terrible acoustics.  The initial $1.2 million sound system installed at the construction of the building was completely unintelligible. The system was 2,800 pew back speakers each row on a digital delay.  Three crystal clusters (custom built speaker clusters) also provided coverage.  Altec horns were added in the ceiling grid to get better frequency response.

However time and phase was not addressed, thus the sound was unintelligible.  The nearly 3,000 speakers were eventually replaced by 11 speakers that created a system intelligible enough to last the next 18 years.  But, it was still not a great place to hear a sermon because of the acoustics of the building.

A modern day example of function leading the way is the trend over the last decade to build black box theater type of worship centers.

In general, they are designed to be acoustically very dead, the ceilings are painted black and as the antitheses of the Crystal Cathedral there are no windows. These spaces were designed specifically to do production style of worship.  The dead acoustics allows for a studio like sound from the worship band.  The controlled lighting and video presentation provides the feeling of a concert.

As inspiring as the Crystal Cathedral was to look at, the black box theater style of worship space screams forget about the building watch only what is happening on the stage.

The two extreme examples above show that when the scale is tipped to heavily to either form or function there are great tradeoffs that end up happening.

My goal is not to say that the Crystal Cathedral or the Black box style of worship center is bad.  Rather my goal is say that both form and function need to be equal partners, often at great tension with each other that need to be brought together harmoniously to create great design.

How can form and function translate to good design at your church?

Function

1. Traffic flow inside and outside

I have a friend who writes a blog and basically makes a living online.  He talks all the time about making interactions with his customers as frictionless as possible.  He posts multiple places, uses multiple social media channels and does direct email.

His reason is to make it as easy as possible for each person to receive and engage with his content.  Traffic flow should be looked at in the same way.

How are you providing the easiest way for your attendees to get in and around your building?  Have you ever just studied your traffic flow on a Sunday?  Often some minor changes to a building or some signage updates can greatly improve the traffic flow.

2. Climate, heating and air conditioning
If your attendees are not comfortable it is difficult for them to fully engage.

Do you have someone who is monitoring the climate control system?  They should be looking at objective data, temperature and humidity.  Everybody has their own comfort zone regarding temperature so the best thing to do is pick a standard and then stick to it.

If you determine temperature off how someone feels on a given service that person may have a cold and thus turn up the heat to try to create comfort for themselves. At the same time this puts many other into discomfort.  The key is consistency. With consistency people can choose what they wear knowing that they will be comfortable at a service.

A person that I know brings a sweater every Sunday (even in the summer) they know sometimes it’s a little too cold for them so they come prepared.

One other note you should check your system every 4-6 months.  I suggest doing it at the change of the seasons.  Check to make sure the system if performing optimally also check the temperature in multiple different spots in the room to make sure the temperature is uniform throughout the space.

3. Sound (lobby noise and sanctuary sound)
I argue that one of the most important parts (if not the most important) is sound.

This includes background noise in the sanctuary and lobby. If people cannot hold a conversation in the lobby because of all the noise created by other people having conversations, consider getting some acoustical treatment to help deaden the sound.

One of the main social functions of church is that people get the opportunity to talk to friends and meet new ones, so create a space that helps make those conversations comfortable.

I also argue that the spoken word is the most important element of a worship service. A poor performing sound system where people need to strain to hear, or like the original system at the crystal cathedral where you could not understand what was being said makes people uncomfortable and frustrated.

Form

1. Beauty
What are you doing to bring elements of beauty into your space, indoors and outdoors?  Take a fresh look and walk around in and around your building.  Would painting an accent wall or adding a piece of art bring beauty?  How about planting some flowers around the entrance and trimming the bushes well you are at it?

A question I ask myself as I visit and consult with churches is; does this space feel institutional or warm and inviting?

Then the important follow up question, Why?  Color, furniture placement, plants and many other things factor into the feeling a space gives.  What are the things of beauty in your space?  What could you change to make the space inviting?

2. Engaging
Along the same lines as making the space feel inviting, what causes engagement in your space?  I have seen artwork bring engagement as well as beauty.  People stopping to view a piece of art and reflecting on its meaning.

Architecture can also do this.  Is there anything on the exterior of your building that engages people?  A recent church I worked with was looking for a new home, the building that they chose to purchase was purchased impart because the industrial look of the building fit well with their brand.

3. Uplifting
We attend church to have an extraordinary experience.  I am not talking about the cool light show and production. The point is the overall experience should not be like our ordinary daily experience.

A building has a personality, it invokes emotion from those who come into contact with it.  Is the personality of your building uplifting?  Do people sense and see something out of everyday ordinary life that lifts their spirit?

Yes, Sullivan is correct when he says the form follows function.  The building needs to work well and suit the needs of the congregation.  It also should point us to our creator with beauty and form.

I contend that good design involves form and function working together to create an extraordinary experience.

What is Good Design and How Does It Impact Your Church Facility?

Take a new look at your facility and apply some creative design ideas to raise both the form and the function of your building.

 

What is good design and how does it impact your church facility?

We live in what I have heard Daniel Pink describe as the dawn of the conceptual age.

As we moved long ago from an agrarian society to an industrial society to an information society, we are now making the transition to a conceptual society.

Pink in his decade old book A whole new mind talks about this transition subtitling it Why right-brainers will rule the future.

As most know the brain is dived in to two hemispheres and in generalities the left side is our logical side with the right side being our creative side.  Breaking this down a bit more, the left side thinking grasps details. Things like logic, sequence and analysis take place there. The right side takes care of our thinking related to the big picture it synthesis information, controls our emotions and gives us the big picture.

Pink outlines reasons for the rise of the right brain and its importance in the “conceptual age”. Part of what he argues is for the importance of design.

Design, at its core is our ability to create our environment in new ways that serve our needs and give meaning to our lives.

Paola Antionelli design curator at the New York Museum of Modern Art in her TED talk, Treat Design As Artstates that her view of heaven as satisfied curiosity.  She has also been quoted regarding design, “good design is a renaissance attitude that combines technology, cognitive science, human need and beauty to produce something that the world did not know it was missing” I would add that good designers have the ability to synthesize current needs, issues and culture.

Good design will create something that never existed or it will have people interact and have a new behavior with it.  BMW’s Chris Bangle states: “we don’t make cars, we make moving works of art that express drivers love of quality”.  A car is not new, but Bangle sees design as providing a new way for people to interact and experience a car.  Design dives into our emotional response to an object or what is around us.

The Tabernacle was a good example of God’s design and laid out in detail in the book of exodus. It provides us with some insight into design:

1) The tabernacle was first and foremost a very functional facility.  
The tabernacle was designed to be used, each of the Tabernacle had materials used based on function and purpose. It also solved the problem of a holy God dwelling in the midst of a sinful people.

2) It displayed wealth and beauty.  
The Tabernacle was a work of art.

It was inspiring and directed people’s thoughts and emotions to connect with God.

3) The building of it involved all of the people.
Designed for use by all people. It was also build by the very skilled craftsman who would worship there.

4) It reveals the character of God. 
The excellence of the tabernacle, both in its materials and its workmanship, is a reflection of God.

5) While composed of various elements, it displays the unity of all, in design, function, and purpose.
The design was complete, it was a sum of parts that all came together to produce a hole that was greater than the sum.

Through the Tabernacle God reveals that design is not just about objects, art, function or beauty.  It is about all of them with an emphasis on the behavior that these elements produced.

In today’s contemporary church I see a lot of emphasis on stage design.

Stage design being band layout, sets, projection or video elements and lighting.  A large number of new churches that have been built in the last decade or are under construction are what I would call the black box sanctuary.

If you have been to a production at a black box theater you know exactly what I am referring to.

Black stage walls black ceiling black covering on the stage floor. Black box is great because you can create an infinite number of “looks” by using set pieces. A good set designer can take this “blank canvas” and turn it into whatever scene or look the designer desires.

For some churches stage design is visited every week and different elements are used to give a new or different look every Sunday.

Others do thematic stage design that is built around the current message series that is going on. Some do 4 sets a year, generally built around the four seasons in nature.

Not all churches are black boxes and thus have elements that already exist and need to either be covered or designed into the new look.  www.churchstagedesignideas.com is a great place to get ideas and to learn about design techniques.

Design not only applies to the stage in the sanctuary it applies to the entire facility.  From traffic flow in the parking lot, the signage that directs you into the building to the artwork on the walls.  Design applies to almost every element.

The late Steve Jobs said “Design is not just what is looks like and feels like, design is how it works” I believe that good design also grabs our emotions and drives our behavior in how we interact with it.

Take a new look at your facility and apply some creative design ideas to raise both the form and the function of your building. After all, Design, at its core is our ability to create our environment in new ways that serve our needs and give meaning to our lives.

 

Understanding the “Why” in Church Planning

The recognition and praise of numerical size can drive some to emulate what Large/Successful churches are doing.

American culture leads us to the false assumption that bigger is always better.  This also spills into churches as we recognize and praise the numerical size of a church rather the spiritual depth that exists at a church.

Greatness is not found in numerical numbers or percentage of growth.  Although, I will argue that growth is a strong byproduct of greatness.

The recognition and praise of numerical size can drive some to emulate what Large/Successful churches are doing.  There is nothing wrong with looking at the successful churches to see what they are doing right. However, when you copy them, trying to emulate what they are doing is when you lose sight of your unique calling and purpose.

I recently was speaking with some church leaders and the discussion began to revolve around the church in the area that averages 15,000 attendees per weekend.

All of us talked highly of the church, its reputation and how it serves so many people. In fact, one of the leaders said I love the look of their stage especially their new set.  In fact, I like it so much I am trying to get our volunteers to build one just like it.

I have seen the set on the stage at the large church and it is gorgeous! It also really fits the DNA of the large church.

I also know that it costs thousands of dollars to build.  Feeling bold and also having a strong relationship with this group, I began systematically questioning first why that church wanted to copy the set and then how they planned to do it.

We didn’t get very far past the “it looks so cool” comment in regards to the why of building it.  Then the how and how much it would cost question pretty much shut down the discussion.  I was not trying to be the dream killer or wet blanket, but I thought it was prudent to first fully understand the why.

I then asked the following question, “if you had one more $, one more staff member or one more square foot of building, would you automatically grow spiritually or numerically?”

The first shot back at me was “It would sure help!” Following the laughter after that comment. I retorted “yes, but would it automatically cause you to grow?”  The discussion that followed was about how all of those things, $, staff and building follow growth, but doesn’t really cause it.

Our discussion also led us to ask the question Why?

Why did the large church have this cool set?  Our speculation was that the large church knew why they designed and built the set, it fit the sermon series and the overall impression that they wanted to make.  The church who wanted to copy it was doing it just because it was cool.  There was no real why.
I have found some successful questions to ask to help get to the Why?

1. Does it enhance your mission and your message?

If your mission revolves around bringing in the poor a $100,000 led wall and huge production is sending the wrong message and most likely alienating and confusing who you are trying to reach.

2. Does it bring engagement.  Does it draw people into worship?

Does it cause people to engage on a deeper level?  A friend of mine uses this litmus test after each service.  He asks the simple question “Did people worship”?

3. Does it show creativity, is it an artistic expression?

Creativity is a gift that God has given us.  I really enjoy when someone uses the creativity entrusted to them in a way that draws me into worship.

4. Does is evoke an emotion or deep feeling.

The most powerful times that I have in worship is when my intellect, my heart and my spirit are in unison praising God.  The environment is helpful in drawing me into that deep, powerful worship.

Answering these questions can help you determine if the next set, moving light, production element….  Has purpose and meaning.  In other words, you’re not just doing it because you think it is cool.