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Planning Better Church Buildings

I've just finished a quick read of “Planning Better Church Buildings” written by W.A. Harrell. (My version, copyright 1947) William A. Harrell has the listed title of “Secretary of the Department of Church Architecture The Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention”. This book covers many aspects of church construction from location issues to needs/wants, committee formation and fundraising – not to mention design elements.

In the first pages, he discusses the church building in general, including values. On page 7, he states “The functional value of the church building is of great importance. The building must provide for the entire church program. If it does not, it is a failure, no matter how well designed, or how much it costs, or how beautiful it is. The church building must provide for worship and preaching, and it must provide for the educational program. It should never be necessary to adapt the Sunday school to the building; on the other hand, the building should be adapter to the Sunday school and the other agencies in a church program.”

In too many churches, compromises are made in the design which provide the number of rooms needed – or similar provisions – but the layout or other issues compromised on limits the usefulness of the final product.

On the twelfth page he states “A church can hardly have too much property.” How true this is, even today.

Further into the book, on page 36 he talks about lighting in the sanctuary. “Electric light by the indirect method is most desirable. In the matter of first cost and of current consumed, this method may seem expensive. The increased expense is more than justified by the restfulness and satisfaction produces by this method of lighting.” This is the very same comment Joseph De Buglio and I have been saying for years – indirect lighting is best, providing a warmer, shadow-less atmosphere. Bright lighting is also important – architectural standards for lighting in churches produce results more resembling funeral homes more times than not.

Ah, page 37 discusses acoustics. “Acoustical engineers are available. Exact methods of analysis from the architect's plans are employed by these concerns in advance of actual construction and the companies guarantee satisfactory results.” Quite interesting – today people question me whether proper acoustics can be designed into the building while it's still on paper. Not only is it true today, but even 50+ years ago they knew it was true.

What about the audio system? The early and mid 1940's saw some of the first audio reinforcement systems in churches. On Page 38 I read “Every auditorium whether large or small, should be provided with an apparatus for the convenience of partially deaf people.” Interesting. Many years before the ADA standards were put in place, churches recognized the importance of providing hearing assistance to those with hearing loss.

Further down the page the audio system itself is discussed briefly: “Large auditoriums will often be equipped with loud speakers. These aids to better hearing would in no way indicate a weakness in the design of the building. Expert technicians should be consulted as to the proper installation.” Two points jump out at me here – first, he clearly lets the reader know that the installation of an audio system in a room doesn't mean there's a problem with the room. Second, he doesn't say the church should hire expert contractors or installers to put the system in – he says expert technicians should be consulted. Those who consult bring only information to the table; they don't bring catalogs of equipment or salesmen.

The section on the sanctuary also includes a discussion of the needs and requirements for the ventilation and air conditioning system. He states “It is as necessary for the auditorium to be comfortable in the summertime as it is in the wintertime.” New churches today often fail to put enough importance on this aspect – and most such systems are designed with only commercial standards in mind, not the requirements of a church sanctuary in mind.

Page 42 begins the chapter on the Sunday school needs. Two bullet points that stood out to me were “Build for the Ideal Organization Rather Than Perpetuate Present Conditions” and “Build for Future Growth.” Seems rather straight forward – but how many churches expand or construct new facilities only to have the very same problems just months after they move in? (A local church recently completed construction of their first permanent home. However, they've already outgrown both the sanctuary and Sunday school areas.)

In speaking on the Sunday school department classrooms, there are several points made, including soundproofing. “They should be practically soundproof to permit programs of worship and instruction. Movable partitions are not soundproof and should never be used to separate departments, even though they may be used between some classrooms. It is not wise to provide department rooms and then defeat the purpose which we seek by failing to make them soundproof.” How true this is – why bother putting up a partition to divide an area when the partition does no more than to block the sight line from one area to the other, yet allows perfect transmission of sound back and forth.

One of the last points about the Sunday school area is regarding the adult department. Today, we all know there's never enough room for the adult classrooms. Back in 1947, they knew it too – “Very few church buildings, if any, have provided sufficient floor space for the adult possibilities of the Sunday school. The time has come when we must provide for the adults.” If the problem existed more than 50 years ago and people knew about it enough to put it in writing and publish it – why do we continue to have the same problems today?

Finally, in the second appendix, there is a check list of “Thoughtful and yet inexpensive conveniences, adjustments, and additions [which] may add greatly to the pleasure and usefulness of the building.” My favorite, of course, is #23 on acoustics. “Sufficient information is available to such an extent that it is inexcusable for any church building to have poor acoustics. The acoustical results may be determined even before the building is constructed. Acoustical engineers should carefully examine prepared working drawings and report to the committee and architects.”

Read that first line again – “Sufficient information is available to such an extent that it is inexcusable for any church building to have poor acoustics.” Using my handy thesaurus, similar words include “unpardonable”, “unforgivable”, “unjustifiable”, “indefensible”, and even “unreasonable”. Even in 1947 the Secretary of the Department of Church Architecture of The Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention knew poor acoustics was a big problem. He knew that even at that time in history there was enough information available such that no church should have been built having poor acoustics. The use of the word “inexcusable” means just that – there is absolutely no reason any church should have poor acoustics. You may argue providing proper acoustics puts constraints on the architect and the design of the room/building. This is simply untrue – it in fact opens many creative possibilities. You may argue it's expensive – again, this is simply not true. When designed into the building from the beginning – before the first mark is made on the paper or the first points are plotted in a CAD program – proper acoustics costs little more (and sometimes no more) to achieve than poor acoustics. There is no reason to have acoustical problems in any church building – not in 1947, and surely not today in 2004.

While there are comments made which are somewhat dated or simply based on the information available at the time, the bulk of the book is quite good. It's filled with bits and pieces of information which, when brought up today, are often regarded as “new” and sometimes “unreasonable” or “overkill”. We (Joseph De Buglio and I) have supported many of these issues, and have been quite excited to find a publication over 50 years old which mentions many of the very same things we teach and support.

-Blake Engel,
All Church Sound