Rock Church's City Heights campus in San Diego is designed to embrace natural light and glass in a video venue.
City Heights sits in the center of the San Diego metro and is the city’s most economically disadvantaged area, and perhaps its most culturally and ethnically diverse one, as well. Lining its streets are signs in Vietnamese, Arabic and Korean, to name a few, and more than 200 dialects are spoken.
"There’s always been a connection between light and the divine. Light provides a different experience, one that could help restore churches to their historical significance."
—Trent Sommers, Project Architect, Sommers Architecture, Del Mar, CA
“There are 50 countries represented in a four-mile radius, and we sit in the middle of it,” says Ron Fulton, facilities director for Rock Church’s five campuses in the San Diego area, including its newest one in the heart of City Heights.
Rock Church, launched 15 years ago, has grown to 20,000 weekend attenders. It wanted a presence in City Heights for five years, but couldn’t find the right location until the owner of a former Ford training center and energy efficient car dealership contacted the Rock to say they wanted the campus there. Literal Transparency
According to Fulton, the building is iconic in the neighborhood—a modern, angular structure of concrete, steel and glass—a lot of glass, specifically in the only space that could serve as a sanctuary.
However, when Rock Church Senior Pastor Miles McPherson visited the space, he envisioned a place of transparency reaching out into the neighborhood. He wanted people to see in and see the church played out. That meant the glass would remain unencumbered.
“It presented a unique set of hurdles, but it was going to allow [Rock Church City Heights] to be way more transparent than a lot of churches. It really would be a city on a hill, a light,” recalls Trent Sommers, project architect with Sommers Architecture of Del Mar, Calif., who has worked with Rock Church on various projects, beginning with its first remote campus. Recreating Rock
All of Rock’s campuses have several things in common, including strong children’s programming, plenty of gathering space, a consistent interior feel—accomplished by its in-house interior designer, Margaret Diggs—and immersive, production-heavy worship that’s dubbed the “Rock Experience.” In addition, each campus streams and displays the message on screens. The scope for the City Heights location was no different, but the methods would need some finesse.
“For the other remote campuses, the black box theater [setup] was key, but we had to change that to work in this transparent space,” says Sommers.
To develop a plan, Rock turned to Clark, the AVL consulting firm with offices in Los Angeles that had set up its other four campuses and overall streaming system. “From a sound and production standpoint, we knew it was going to be challenging to reinforce sound energy,” says Houston Clark, co-founder and principal of Clark. “[The room] is wider than it is deep, so there wasn’t a lot of throw from the stage location to the glass walls.”
Having worked with Rock before, Clark’s team had a solid understanding of the church’s programming needs and was able to zero in on the right products very quickly. “We’ve always spent a significant amount of our operating budget in research and development … so at any given time, we’re aware of and evaluating emerging technology for the church space,” says Clark.
The chosen audio solution was the Martin Audio MLA Mini loudspeaker array with CDD speakers. Clark shares that this particular Martin product is equipped with Avoidance Zones—a capability that is able to keep sound from hitting certain areas of a room by mapping the room using Martin’s built-in software.
There was also the concern of ambient light affecting the video display of the sermon. On a typical projection surface, the abundant sunlight would have washed the projection out, but the church secured a 9x16 LED wall from AdVantage Inc., a subsidiary of VER, a video equipment rental company based in Los Angeles. Clark’s designers integrated the video wall into the overall system. The LED wall is used in worship, as well, and the brightness of the LEDs overcomes sunlight streaming in, regardless of time of day, according to Clark.
As the systems were planned and tested, Clark’s team of consultants and engineers worked in lock-step with Sommers and the project’s structural and electrical engineers to ensure the adaptation of the dealership’s layout and systems could support the AVL plan. At first, the teams met weekly, but as the project progressed they would hop on video calls as often as needed to answer questions and verify compliance. Adaptation for Growth
Elsewhere in the building, the challenge was simply changing the space’s uses. Since the dealership had previously served as a training facility, there was plenty of classroom space, which Sommers was able to ideally configure into adult and children’s education spaces, and the gathering areas vital to Rock’s DNA.
The exterior of the building was untouched, since Rock is leasing the space and other tenants inhabit the second floor. However, according to Sommers, its modern aesthetic of aluminum and glass merges well with the Rock’s established look and feel.
Because of the building’s shared status, there are several common points of entry, but there is a private entrance leading into the church’s main lobby. From here, the sanctuary, children’s check-in, and all other programming spaces may be accessed.
Seven classrooms were created for nursery through 5th grade children. There is also a shared junior high and high school student room, a green room, and a large adult education classroom, as well as ample office space.
In addition to the 450-seat sanctuary, the original space had a 150-seat amphitheater, which, Fulton shares, is used for overflow seating. Adjacent is a large reception area that hosts various activities seven days a week. Letting in the Light
Rock’s recreating of its signature worship experience in a glass, sunlight-filled room seems to be a risk, but it’s one churches are taking as technology makes more allowances for it. “Over the past few years, the typical sanctuary design has been a black box—but you can only do so much and you have to keep it dark. But technology that allows us to let more light in is here,” says Clark. He cites LED walls and, of course, technology such as Martin’s Avoidance Zones, as products paving the way.
He adds that many churches are seeking out a historical ambiance in the design of smaller chapel spaces, and he shares that he is seeing many creative chapels using natural colors and light to bring the outdoors in. “When you tell an architect they don’t have to worry about light and acoustics, that gives them incredible opportunity to create spaces that are more open to letting the outside become a part of the inside experience,” he says.
Sommers agrees and says he hopes to see more churches return to transparency in design, as well as to being a focal point in communities, as the City Heights campus has done. “There’s always been a connection between light and the divine,” he says. “Light provides a different experience, one that could help restore churches to their historical significance.”
[Editor's note: This piece was originally published in August 2016.]