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Facility must balance aesthetics, function Print E-mail
By Vicki Brown, Word & Way Associate Editor   
Thursday, August 14, 2014
Flexible or multi-use spaces and renovation of older facilities are current trends in church architecture that likely will continue for a while.

Ross Williams, a Springfield, Mo.-based architect, believes the economy drives the need for flexibility in building design and use. "All are still trying to get the biggest bang for the buck," he said.

Concern about expense also has contributed to some congregations choosing to restore and remodel older buildings, rather than to construct new facilities, according to the Interfaith Forum on Religion, Art and Architecture (aia.org/ifraa), an affiliate of the American Institute of Architects.

Evergreen Church in Springfield, Mo., uses its building to reach its community. Ross Williams Architects, also in Springfield, designed the facilities. Williams believes congregations must balance aesthetics and function.

Each year, the IFRAA and the magazine "Faith & Form: The Interfaith Journal on Religion, Art and Architecture" (faithandform.com) sponsor a design awards program. In 2013, restoration and remodel led the trends.

Based in Irvine, Calif., Visioneering Studios, which includes a division for the Southern Baptist Convention's resource arm LifeWay, promotes multiple-use structures as good stewardship. In a March interview with LifeWay President Thom Rainer on Rainer's blog (thomrainer.com ), Gary Nicholson, director of Visioneering Studios at LifeWay, said the first concern for most congregations is good stewardship.

Churches must be able to continue ministry without "over-taxing" resources, Nicholson said. Leaders have become "more thoughtful" about design and structure to maximize the amount of ministry that can be accomplished on the money available to spend.

Congregations have to be more careful with resources upfront than they may have had to be in the past because of changes in banking regulations over the last five or six years, Williams explained. Equity in property and fundraising pledges in hand generally aren't enough these days to secure a lender.

"That means in a situation where a lender...is involved, the congregation has to start the project with a lot more cash equity," he said. "Land equity alone is not enough to start a project anymore. A typical bank lending situation now requires 30 percent equity with half in cash," Williams added.

Though financial aspects tend to be considered first, building planners believe the church also must look at its mission, ministry and the community it hopes to impact.

Visioneering Studios follows President Mel McGowan's advice that church facilities must allow the congregation to encounter people who come on "their terms" and that the facilities should "enhance relationships" among individuals.

Nicholson told Rainer that the firm designs church buildings to "fit the culture, values and unique ministry strategy that make the congregation different from any other in the world."

Before beginning renovation or construction of a new facility, congregations need to evaluate their culture and values. They must clearly understand their vision and determine the ministry niche God has for them in their communities.

Mantel Teter, a Kansas City, Mo., architectural firm noted for its expertise in church facility design, includes the blog "Hiking Tips" as part of its consulting service. The company views itself as walking alongside clients on their design and construction journey.

One blog post emphasizes location choice: "Make no mistake, location is everything, and your selected location should speak directly about your church's vision and ministry."

Congregations must remain aware of the surrounding culture, making sure the facility functions for its members, fits into the community and attracts people to it, Nicholson said by email. "It should be a part of the community — engaging it, embracing it and inviting it in — as opposed to standing apart and aloof," he said.

Building design is intended to mark a congregation's love for God and the community. "It should be an aesthetically strong design so that it makes a statement about who the church is and what they are passionate about," Nicholson added.

"It should tell a story of their journey of how God brought them to this place of ministry and how he has acted and is acting in their lives today. The story is about God, and it tells who they are as a gathering of his people, what ministries are important to them and how they relate to their context."

Williams also pointed to mission and ministry as the starting point for facility design. But he warned that the church and the architect sometimes can easily get caught up in style or form.

"There has to be a balance between aesthetics and function," he said. "It does no good to design a facility that can't get built because of lack of funds or financing."

He agreed that congregations must be aware of the culture of the neighborhood and how their campus fits into it. "A facility that is too far out there in design leads a community to see that congregation as building an edifice to itself rather than to worship God," he said.

Individual campuses of a multi-site church can reflect the local communities in which they are located, Nicholson said.

Even those meeting in rented or borrowed space can do several approaches with temporary signage to demonstrate "their culture and passion," he added.

The Southern Baptist Convention North American Mission Board offers information and assistance, including the "Church Construction Resource Guide," through its church finance ministry.

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