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Part of the PMI Publishing family:  Church Production  •  Church Designer

A Holy Transformation

An exclusive report on trending challenges and solutions in historic worship space renovations and retrofits.

By Keith Loria   •  January 9, 2018 12:06 pm EST

Tags: architectural design, avl design, collaboration, historic renovation, infrastructure, worship,

As ministry goals and worship styles have evolved over the last 50 years, there has been a need for the worship space and technical systems to support these changes.

“Many churches have a greater desire to run production-style services while stressing the importance of congregational participation and community,” says Vance Breshears, director of Idibri’s San Diego office. “When it comes to modernizing an older church building, the two main goals are to update the technical systems to support production and improve the seating configuration to encourage participation.”

John Storyk, founding partner of WSDG Architectural Acoustic Consulting in Highland, N.Y., says older worship spaces typically have little interest in making any architectural modifications due to economic reasons or, more likely, historical preservation reasons.

“What clients want is greatly improved acoustics but [they] usually want this accomplished with technology rather than modifying the architecture,” he says. “To add to this challenge, they often do not even want to see the technology.”

Chip Lindeke, principal of Rafferty Rafferty Tollefson Lindeke Architects in St. Paul, Minn., says generally, older churches, short of needs for expanding seating capacity, are looking to update many areas, including finishes, seating and especially sound/media and lighting systems.

“Upgrading worn out and outdated finishes, seating and worship appointments have always been on a church’s wish list in recent years,” he says. “Addressing inefficient mechanical and electrical systems has also been very important, with energy efficiency and sustainability high on the list of goals for many churches.”

Robin Whitehurst, a principal at Chicago's Bailey Edward says a lot of older churches were not originally constructed with adequate space to informally gather before and after worship, while conversely attendance at formal worship is not as high as it had been in the past.

“The renovations generated by these needs are to create larger fellowship areas, and multi-use spaces that can be utilized for both informal and formal gatherings by the church membership or outside groups,” he says. “We of course have seen the creation of education areas and daycares, as older churches and congregations shift away from traditional Sunday school. We have also seen the need to create more performance-style classroom space for youth and elementary school aged children.”

Amenity spaces such as coffee shops and bookstores also are a trend, he says, since these spaces can feature seating, which if connected to the worship space can allow for participation in worship in an informal location.

Tech Innovations

High quality sound for the spoken word, as well as instrumental and choral music, is a must in today’s churches, and many worship spaces look to improve these segments when making renovations.

“We’re seeing line array speaker systems and wireless microphones being used in renovations because they are less visually obtrusive, yet provide high-quality sound

projection for the spoken word,” Lindeke says. “We are less familiar with sound systems for music, since most of our work utilizes music reinforced by the acoustics of the space itself, rather than technology. The ability to project visual images and telecast and record worship events is important to better reach the church community and its broader audiences.”

In addition, many older churches lack infrastructure for contemporary multi-media presentations in their worship spaces.

“Driven by changing ministry needs, video and multimedia presentation technologies are being added such as movable screens, multiple screens and image magnification to engage audiences more,” Whitehurst says. “Presentation lighting and house lighting systems also usually require updating. We have completed several projects where the platform of the worship space needs to be made accessible and flexible to coordinate the installation of multi-media presentations, oftentimes a key component of contemporary worship.”

Storyk says many worship clients want to achieve balanced acoustics both for music and speech, but balancing these often opposing acoustic realities can prove difficult.

“In recording studios and other types of venues, we could and often provide multiple electroacoustic systems and variable architectural acoustic elements,” he says. “For older churches, we are lucky if we can find locations for a minimal number of speakers.”

Storyk notes the firm makes use of a wide variety of digital signal processing- (DSP-) controlled directional speaker systems, which allow control [of] reflections geometrically as well as in both the frequency and time domains.

“Most older churches are typically over reverberant for some uses (i.e., speech), while more than comfortable for music content,” he says. “Often, we can create different DSP settings for different uses. Additionally, although limited by the fact that we usually cannot alter any surfaces, what we can do is make very accurate in-situ impulse response measurements and then compare them to accurate acoustic models.”

Another big trend is the rise in video projection and cameras being incorporated into worship spaces during retrofits.

Security system features are also important. Lindeke says sophisticated video monitoring and door security systems are being utilized to protect facilities and property, as well as control security around children. Various card readers and electronic lock devices, many of them wireless and with a central control location, are available.

Challenges Exist ...

The biggest challenge in upgrading an older church, Lindeke says, is [with conduit] and figuring out how to incorporate the systems into the existing walls, floors and ceilings of the worship space to be as unobtrusive as possible.

“Projection screens take up a lot of area and are probably the most difficult element to incorporate without disturbing the design character of an existing space,” he continues. “Cameras and projectors are smaller in size and easier, but hard to completely conceal. Installing signal cabling and power wiring can be difficult and expensive to run inside solid masonry walls and structures to keep concealed, but there are tricks and often [ways] to do so.”

For instance, there are more and more systems that utilize wireless means to send signals.

Storyk says when he can find spaces to deploy acoustic treatment, he uses it. Examples could be attic space, building cavities, etc. In larger churches, when loudspeaker systems become larger, installation (i.e., hanging points or mounting brackets) can become challenging.

In addition, very often renovations involve the incorporation of fire sprinkler systems into older church buildings and these systems involve a great deal of nasty piping configurations, often

impossible to conceal without significant remodeling, especially in older buildings with beautiful exposed wood trusses and ceilings.

Breshears says the biggest challenges for renovating technical systems are integrating equipment into the existing architecture and having sufficient infrastructure for these systems (conduit, structural load capacity, electrical capacity and cooling capacity).  

“Another challenge is being able to modify the existing seating configuration. Seating is important because it determines the ‘body language’ of the room, but in a renovation project, changes to the layout may not be possible,” he says. “In many older facilities, the seating configuration is set up for presentation, not participation. Seats are typically in straight rows on a flat floor, facing forward toward the presenter. Arranging the seating to allow the congregation to see each other’s faces provides a better sense of community and encourages participation, which is the goal.”

Renovation Examples

RRTL completed a $600,000 renovation for St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in St. Paul, Minn., changing the seating configuration and floor plan to create a more liturgically effective space.

“Finishes were upgraded, appointments improved, and the lighting and sound systems were upgraded,” Lindeke says. “A series of simple responsive design steps removed competing

altar areas, resolved accessibility concerns, and replaced the entire lighting system. The chancel floor area was extended forward to create a more intimate setting while defining a larger

and safer area around the altar for communion. The disintegrating flooring was overlaid with new terrazzo flooring tiles.”

The creation of a traditional Rood Screen separating the new chapel from the main worship area was the key and defining element within the worship setting. The original altar was modified, shifting major pieces to accommodate the lowered floor. Within this setting, wall paneling was simplified to create focused emphasis and introduce a sculpted Mother and Child casting.

Vassar Chapel at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., recently underwent a large acoustic renovation at the hands of WSDG.

Storyk conducted a series of tests to measure, analyze, and eventually calibrate the chapel’s acoustics and found that its RT60 reverb time was measured at 2.5 seconds in mid frequencies, far from the room’s optimal 1.5-second requirements. A combination of modern line array and conventional passive loudspeakers were selected to cover the entire seating area and balcony, transforming the church’s sound.

WSDG’s Berlin office (ADA) participated in the acoustic and sound design of the Frauenkirche in Dresden destroyed at the end of WWII over a decade-long renovation from 1995-2005.

“ADA performed detailed investigation of old organ recordings from 1944 to know the old reverberation in the church. This helped to design modern wall materials and DSP sound system to achieve a RT of around 4sec in the new church,” Storyk says. “Complex computer simulation was performed in EASE. The new sound system was installed, mostly hidden in the hall in perforated tubes that appear as HVAC outlets.”

The successful design of any renovation project is a team effort, requiring the architects, consultants, engineers, contractors, and end users to work together in order to develop innovative solutions that will maximize the capability of an existing building.

“That effort needs to begin with a common goal that is clearly identified at the start of the project,” Breshears says. “Once the goal and a solid team are established, the project stands a good chance of being successful.”


Bailey Edward recently performed a facility condition assessment to North Shore Baptist Church in Chicago to determine what upgrades needed to be made, as well as to develop a master plan.

“The church is host to four different congregations, so many opinions needed to be taken into consideration and [the] flexibility of each of the spaces was key to accommodate each of the diverse worship groups' needs,” Whitehurst says. “This project included accessibility and life safety upgrades to the interior and exterior of the building, an expansion of a community/fellowship space for congregates to gather in, and audio/visual improvements.”


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