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Special needs, subtleties of faith keys to designing churches

For architects, designing places of worship is not exactly the same as designing other types of structures. There are different issues and considerations, and communication with members of the congregation is a key element.

“One of the biggest things is dealing with committees. You have to be a good communicator because all churches have different approaches to the way they do things,” said J. Carl Franco of JH&H Architects of Jackson. “There has to be consensus building. It’s more time consuming.”

Larry Sones of Brandon agrees and says the committees usually consist of the cream of the crop of church membership. “They’re usually single-minded with their goals. They open and close meetings with prayer,” he said. “I think I’ve got the best job in the world. They pray for me and pay me to do it.”

Since 1992 when he opened his own shop, Sones has done nothing but design religious facilities. He says he’s found his niche.

“I worked with a lot of churches before that and thoroughly enjoyed it,” he said, “and because of my own faith it’s important to me. Churches fill a need that government and other organizations can’t fill.”

Although there are no separate classes for sacred architecture at Mississippi State University’s College of Architecture, Art and Design, Dean Jim West says communication with clients is discussed in a number of classes.

“We recognize the importance of communicating with clients in all cases,” he said. “With churches, committees are volunteers and the people on them may have no experience or expertise in building,” he said. “It’s a different type of setting.”

West said it’s not uncommon for one of the college’s studios to work on a church as a project. “It’s done on a fairly regular basis and some faculty members have a particular interest in it,” he said. “It has more to do with scales, settings and locations. It often comes up as an urban site, and we use churches for that particular vehicle.”

Franco’s firm has worked on 250 church and synagogue projects in 14 states, and presently has 10 going on from Oxford to Gulfport. One of the JH&H architects is an ordained minister who brings that perspective to projects. They’ve designed facilities for all faiths and find that Catholic, Episcopal, Greek Orthodox churches and Jewish synagogues have different needs from Protestant churches.

“We have to get to know the subtleties of the faith and design for their special needs,” he said. “We have to understand how these churches approach ministering to their communities.”
Franco serves on the Jackson Catholic Diocese’s building committee and reviews plans for the diocese. “Some requirements for Catholic churches have changed and I have to keep up with them,” he said.

Sones finds that some functional requirements are unique to churches. “Some are used infrequently and there are issues specific to that fact,” he said. “There are expectations. People think it should look and feel like a church. There are also social pressures.”

He tries to help his church clients maximize the spaces they build. “Some are building multi-use buildings that might be used for recreational activities and fellowship that can also be used for worship; upscale gyms,” he said. “That type does lose some aesthetics and most churches still want a formal sanctuary. But it’s a matter of economics.”

Franco agrees that churches, like everyone else, have financial concerns that don’t always meet their faith needs. “We help them go through the journey of identifying needs,” he said, “and always start with a master plan. We look at their growth, ministry, special needs and plans for future growth. Taking time to understand those needs is important.”
Sones, who’s currently working with Brandon Baptist Church and Central Baptist in Brookhaven, observes a trend toward mega churches. “The ways to worship change and design of the facilities follows,” he said.

He also noted that to reach more youth some churches are designing high-tech media centers and arcade-type facilities. “They’re quite remarkable,” he said. “The idea is to try to get them in with a culture they’re used to and then tell them about Jesus.”

Franco’s firm designed St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Madison with a lot of natural light, but said some Baptist churches are not using much natural light, instead opting for theatrical lighting.

“They have lighting for programs, rear screen projectors and in-house TVs,” he said. “The large ones are a cross between churches and performing arts centers.”

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.

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