Posted in practice on April 9, 2015 2:55 pm EDT

The Final Touches, from the Very Beginning

The elements in the furniture, fixtures, and equipment (FF &E) package aren’t simply "sprinkled on" at the end of design.

This welcoming lobby at North Side Baptist Church in Greenwood, SC uses café-style furnishings and informal seating arrangements to encourage fellowship before services. Designed by LS3P; Photo Credit: Fred Martin.











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TAGS: architecture, business, design, ff&e, ifraa, interior design, sustainability,


By Chuck Hulstrand

The translation of the ephemeral into the physical is the challenge and delight of faith-based architecture. This complicated task always begins with a church’s ministries, needs, and character, which will inform every decision from the first programming discussions through the placement of the last chair.

"We have learned that church FF&E has to be carefully coordinated, and is not just something the church adds in at the end."

—Spencer Dixon, AIA, LEED AP BD + C, Associate Principal, LS3P, Greenville, SC

This “last chair,” in fact, is no small thing. The elements in the furniture, fixtures, and equipment (FF &E) package aren’t simply “sprinkled on” at the end of design. These critical elements of the worship experience should be an integral part of the design process at every stage.

FF & E decisions start with the schematic layout of the worship space itself. Is the seating straight, or curved? Should there be a center aisle? What arrangement maximizes space for a growing congregation? Traditional and contemporary churches approach layouts from diverse perspectives, each yielding interesting design challenges. Traditional churches might feature straight pews and a center aisle for procession, while contemporary congregations often choose a curved theater-style layout, eschewing a center aisle in exchange for additional seating space.

The layout of St. Michael Catholic Church in Garden City, SC features a central aisle for procession, with pews accommodating 1,200 worshippers. Designed by LS3P; Photo Credit: Jonathan Edens.

Weddings represent a small fraction of the space’s use, but may factor heavily in the decision to provide a central aisle. A fan-shaped layout can offer a compromise between the demands for seating and procession. Fan-shaped layouts could cost more, but may accommodate additional worshippers in closer proximity. Like so many other decisions in architecture, it’s a matter of balancing cost, functions, and the character of the space. The layout will inform the type of seating required. Traditional congregations looking for a timeless atmosphere tend towards pews and wooden chairs, while modern choices such as fixed theater seating or stackable chairs appeal to contemporary churches. For growing churches with crowded services, individual seats offer the added advantage of allowing ushers to fill every seat, whereas pews are more difficult to fill completely.

Early in the programming process, the team must decide whether the worship space can double as a fellowship hall or event space. If so, the furnishings must be flexible, moveable, and easy to store, and the floors must be flat. If the space will be dedicated to worship only, sloped floors with fixed pews or theater seats are often desirable, and may be required for good sightlines when serving a capacity greater than 1,500 people.

Spencer Dixon, AIA, LEED AP.

Spencer Dixon, AIA, LEED AP BD + C, is an Associate Principal in LS3P’s Greenville, SC office. Dixon, highly experienced in designs for worship, knows what questions must be asked at the beginning of the process. “We have learned that church FF&E has to be carefully coordinated, and is not just something the church adds in at the end,” he explains. “For example, when the layout requires hard flooring under the seating and carpet in the aisles, these details require coordination and scheduling up front.” FF & E coordination is not just a cosmetic issue. As Dixon points out, “In many churches, we need to consider the weight of the altar and other elements in the sanctuary to make sure the structure is sufficient to bear the loads. We also need to coordinate the location of blocking in the walls to support iconography, stained glass installations, and other elements.”

The worship style of the congregation will have a huge impact on the size and complexity of the altar and other ecclesiastical furnishings. A contemporary service may favor a spare aesthetic, and may require very little in the way of stage furnishings other than a very simple stand for notes or a Bible, and perhaps a high stool for the speaker. A traditional service, on the other hand, will often include a central altar, often historic, and substantial furnishings in the form of pulpits, chairs, choir seating, and other pieces designed for sacred spaces.

Attention to the FF & E of support spaces is also key to helping translate a church’s vision into reality. Gateway spaces such as the lobby or narthex are critical zones for congregational engagement. From the formal to the casual, these spaces feature a variety of seating from café-style tables to soft chairs. These spaces for coffee and conversation, relaxing and welcoming in nature, will utilize hospitality furnishings which aren’t necessarily ecclesiastical. Fellowship halls need movable, stackable furniture to maximize flexibility; the design team must be sure to plan for storage space. Children’s areas encourage creativity in FF & E possibilities, ranging from a traditional school setting to a more “Disney” experience with specialized fixtures and furnishings.

In short, FF & E is much more than the “icing on the cake”; it’s very much a part of the cake itself. When carefully considered as an integral part of a project, these elements support a worship experience that truly reflects a congregation’s vision.



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