Posted in education on March 3, 2014 9:58 am EST

The Three Responsibilities of Designing Sacred Spaces

An essay from an environmental evangelist—with a challenge for the modern church architect











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TAGS: design, worship space,


By Andrew Robinson

Andrew Robinson

Those involved in the design of worship facilities are presented with a unique opportunity—to participate in the creation of a sacred space. Whether an architect, an engineer, or an interior designer, there are many ways to contribute to the construction of a worship facility. This opportunity should be considered a privilege and an honor. However, this privilege carries with it great responsibility—responsibility that is often overlooked.

In contrast to building a school, an office complex, or even a home, a worship facility is a consecrated place. This is far from a modern phenomenon, as the earliest Biblical texts illustrate the reverence bestowed upon worship spaces. The most prevalent example that comes to mind is the tabernacle. As Brevard Childs mentions in his book The Book of Exodus, “God created the whole world in six days, but he used 40 to instruct Moses about the tabernacle. Little over one chapter was needed to describe the structure of the world, but six were used for the tabernacle.” This emphasis on the construction of holy space should not be misconstrued as treating our church buildings as idols. However, there is a Biblical precedent, and one can argue a mandate, that our worship facilities should be built with great attention to detail and ultimately reflect our relationship with God.

Designers of worship facilities are blessed with the opportunity to be the creator, using the talents and creativity God has bestowed upon us. In undertaking this responsibility it is imperative that three essential perspectives are considered: financial, environmental, and public health.

1. Financial Responsibility

Recently in the news, the alarming, widespread trend of China’s crumbling buildings and infrastructure has been highlighted. Many buildings and roads are falling to pieces despite only being constructed within the past decade. If the same care and attention to detail is given to worship facilities in America, it not only will be disrespectful to what is supposed to be a sacred place, but also will inflict a major financial blow on the respective congregation. These buildings should be made to last and be installed with durable products.

In addition to building durable structures, worship facilities should also be energy efficient. In times when budgets are tight, finding energy efficient products that require less replacement and cleaning will help save churches money and therefore provide more money for their ministries. The numbers surrounding these efforts are not pocket change either. According to Jerry Lawson of Energy Star in Washington, D.C., if America’s more than 370,000 houses of worship cut energy use by 10%, nearly $315 million would be saved for congregations’ missions and other priorities. Considering that the average savings from using energy efficient products is 30%, American congregations have the capability to save close to $1 billion.

2. Environmental Responsibility

As people of faith we are called to care for God’s creation. While we are blessed with the opportunity to construct and dedicate a place to worship, nature is the ultimate sacred space. The environmental impacts, both in the construction and lifespan of our worship facilities, should be heavily considered. Once again, the numbers are striking if the 370,000 houses of worship in America collectively reduced their energy use. If 10% were cut, more than 1.8 billion kWh of electricity would be available without additional cost and pollution. Also, more than 1.3 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions would be prevented, equivalent to the emissions of about 240,000 cars, or to planting nearly 300,000 acres of trees. Again, considering that the typical savings are 30%, we are looking at almost 750,000 cars off the road and planting nearly 1 million acres in trees.

3. Public Health Responsibility

When entering a house of worship, the last thing on congregants’ minds should be the safety of the building. However, when worship facilities are not constructed with the proper products and materials, air quality can deteriorate to hazardous levels. Central to creating a safe space is proper ventilation. Studies have shown that indoor air is on average two to five times more polluted than outdoor air, and can be up to 100 times more polluted. According to the EPA, immediate effects of poor air pollution can include irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat, headaches, dizziness, and fatigue. In the long-term, repeated exposure can cause respiratory diseases, heart disease, and cancer. In light of these serious consequences, worship facilities should be designed to address proper air ventilation and other common air quality concerns.

Next Steps

When Moses was leading the Israelites in constructing the Tabernacle, it took a great deal of intentionality in creating the sacred space that God commissioned them to build. Attention to detail and extreme care were given to the process, all in an effort to revere God. Creating the space of worship was in and of itself an act of worship.

Today we are given the same opportunity to intentionally create a space that reflects our relationship with the Creator. The resources available to create a space responsibly in regards to finances, the environment and public health are widespread and readily available. Worship facilities can start by receiving an energy audit that can uncover areas where churches can save thousands of dollars while having a positive impact on the environment and public health. Oftentimes, the local solution is the best. The key is taking the first step by recognizing the importance in intentionally engaging these issues. And in doing so, we are worshipping our Creator.



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