Willow Creek's new North Shore multisite campus is a functional suburban Chicago standout.
It was this Bible quotation that provided the inspiration behind the design of Willow Creek Community Church’s North Shore campus in Glenview, Ill. While Chicago-based Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture (AS+GG) wasn’t required to move mountains to design the new church, it was an especially meaningful project for the firm because Smith is a Willow Creek member. Designed as a landmark for the Chicago suburb, the building is circular in shape, much like the mustard seed referenced in the Bible.
"The architecture was so integral to the story and message of this project. It was imperative that our [AVL] systems supported that."
—Peter Fitton, Senior Design Consultant, Clark, Atlanta, GA
Early on, Smith called upon Sara Beardsley, AIA, senior architect at AS+GG, to serve as lead for the project. “We started talking about what Biblical passages might be relevant to inspire the design, and the passage that we came across was about the mustard seed, and [how] if you have a small amount of faith, the size of the grain of a mustard seed, then nothing is impossible. With the daunting task in front of us of building this church, we thought it was very fitting to use that passage, and it became integral to the design concept,” Beardsley explains. From world’s tallest to single floor
The building’s form also facilitates access, navigation and foot traffic. Its circular shape helps visitors to locate areas dedicated to, for example, children’s activities and programming, or youth spaces. Once they’ve dropped their kids off, parents can then congregate in the main worship space, situated at the center of the building. It also helps that everything (with the exception of some service and mechanical spaces) is located on one floor—a somewhat different concept for AS+GG, which is behind the design of some of the world’s tallest buildings, including the 2,716-foot high Burj Khalifa in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Beardsley relays that originally, AS+GG considered a two-floor design for some areas, but that approach proved too costly and it took up valuable real estate. “We put everything down on one floor in order to facilitate circulation and save the space that we would need to use for elevators and stairs,” she says.
Idibri, a theatrical and technology design firm based in Addison, Texas, was called in early, during the concept design phase. For the main worship center, the consultancy made recommendations for room shaping, stage layout, catwalk layouts, control booth locations and planning, and camera placement. The firm also submitted early concepts and budgeting for general power and heat loads throughout the building, as well as core acoustical guidelines for the entire facility.
Idibri has enjoyed a long relationship with Willow Creek, having worked with the church on its 8,000-seat auditorium at its main campus in South Barrington, Ill. Robert Rose, LEED AP, senior consultant and vice president at Idibri, explains that, for that facility as well as for this new 1,200-seat worship center, Idibri provided theatre consulting. During these sessions Rose and his team discussed the relationship between the platform to the congregation and between members of the congregation. “These relationships affect the form of the room, how it works for presentation and community, and impact the layout of the platform, the wrap and focus of the seats, sightlines, and the rake of the seating,” he explains.
Rose notes that theatre consulting can be applied specifically to churches so that designers can have discussions about how the room form influences what’s going to work within the room. In the late Nineties, he reports, worship spaces were designed to be presentational to accommodate large-scale productions. These days, churches tend to focus on creating a sense of community within the space, which oftentimes leads to fan-shaped seating configurations. Multi-site AVL considerations
Video venues where services on the main campus are transmitted to remote locations—as is the case at Willow Creek North Shore—require a seating layout that isn’t so wide that members and visitors cannot see the screens. As such, Willow Creek North Shore’s auditorium seating is configured in a narrow fan shape, with the front seats wrapping slightly more than those in the middle and rear of the congregation area.
AVL partner Clark, headquartered in Atlanta, was charged with developing and installing the worship center’s AVL systems, including acoustical and infrastructure designs and recommendations. The firm also designed and installed digital signage throughout the building and AVL systems for the children’s spaces, atrium and the entire campus.
Peter Fitton, senior design consultant at Clark, explains that providing intuitive technology was crucial for this project. “Most of these systems are managed and run by volunteers, so they needed to be as maintenance-free and user-friendly as possible.”
He adds that he and his team also aimed to blend the technology with the architecture, saying, “The architecture was so integral to the story and message of this project. It was imperative that our systems supported that.”
Houston Clark, co-founder and principal at Clark, notes that, “While Willow Creek North Shore is a remote site, and there were minimum systems requirements in place, the building’s architecture—its lines, its curves—required a much more attentive design than most buildings.”
Clark adds, “We wanted to have the systems seamlessly integrate with the structure. With our designers and engineers dedicated to each of the AVL disciplines, we could offer that attention. In addition, because of our experience with helping individual churches program their unique spaces, we were able to walk alongside the design team and help them make the right choices, both in terms of design and budget. Because we have a database with two decades of actual installation costs, we could (virtually) in real time inform the team of the impact of design decisions to the budget. Also, having separate in-house professional project management and installation teams meant that the installation reflected the intended design."
This was not Clark’s first time combining forces with the team at Willow Creek. The firm partnered with the church on its main campus in the summer of 2015 to upgrade the auditorium’s video broadcast system. Collaboration on this project and others led the firm to dedicate a resource specifically to support the church’s ongoing needs.Community-minded branding + design
For Beardsley, one interesting aspect of the project was Willow Creek’s identity: it’s a modern church, so while the building is designed for worship, it doesn’t look like a traditional house of worship. With community as much a focus as existing congregants, she reports, the building needed to be open, inviting, accessible and welcoming to both existing congregants and members of the community who may eventually make it their place of worship.
Willow Creek also wanted the facility to have a strong connection to nature—something that is in line with AS+GG’s own design philosophy. Outdoor courtyards are visible from different indoor vantage points, offering visitors a view of trees and gardens, while many interior areas are lit by natural light. The graded landscaping enabled the building to be slightly elevated, and the main entrance is enhanced with a pond and fountain. Eco design elements
AS+GG invests a considerable amount of time in energy modeling and exploring how buildings and communities can best optimize energy use. For Willow Creek North Shore, the firm oriented the building straight south, and took a strategic approach to window placement. One of the main exterior features is a sun shade on the south side of the building—an architectural element with a practical application that decreases the need for air conditioning during the warm months; this, in combination with patterned glass, cuts down on glare. All of the building’s solid walls house four inches of insulation— “it’s more than code requires; the building is actually about 20% better than code in terms of the amount of energy it uses,” Beardsley says. Open ceilings, raw finishes, and polished concrete flooring is featured throughout, highlighting the shape of the building rather than detracting from it with elements like drop ceilings.
As a multisite church, Beardsley believes that Willow Creek’s North Shore location can serve as a prototype for future campuses. “We’ve gotten a lot of good comments on the building, and we’re really proud of what we were able to do,” she says.