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Acoustics: How Not to Build or Design a Church

How NOT To Build A Church by Joseph DeBuglio
Edited by Steve Walters of Omega Media.

If your church is planning or is in the midst of a construction project, using these tips will save your church thousands of dollars and prevent many headaches. Most of these recommendations cannot be applied once the walls are up however these guidelines can still help in your existing space. Please remember these are guidelines to ensure a good foundation. They are not the answers to solving every church’s acoustical problems, and they certainly do not cover every potential acoustical problem. An audio and acoustical practitioner is still needed to determine exact values required.

Here are the most common mistakes churches make with their audio systems, acoustics, new churches and church renovations. This list will not tell you how to live with or fix them. For that you need expert help. If your sound system designer, who should be an “expert,” fails to respond to these problems, do not be surprised when your new church, sound system and acoustics cost more and sound far worse than desired.
1.Do not design a square sanctuary. Acoustically speaking, it is the worst shape. Excess sound storage, standing waves, excess noise from early and late reflections are just some of the problems caused by square shapes.
2.If you do design a square church, place the platform in the corner. This will help, however there is no acoustical, sound or architectural reason to build such a space in the first place. You can make such a room speech and music friendly, but this is about all you can do.
3.Do not design or build a round church.
4.Do not build octagon or hexagon shaped rooms (or any room shape where there is an even number of walls and all of the walls are of equal length and height).
5.Do not design a church with long parallel walls without any diffusion on them. Simple statues, pillars, out-rounds, or zig zag walls can make the difference between a great sounding room and a sound booth for the drummer.
6.Do not make the back walls of a church large and flat. It will create a strong echo problem which will decrease the audience’s ability to understand the spoken word, amplify musicians’ mistakes and challenge their ability to keep a steady beat.
7.Do not build a fan shaped room greater than 160 degrees wide. Do not plan your seating where the minister must turn his or her head more than 50 degrees in either direction. If you do, make sure your pastor has a bottle of aspirin in his lectern.
8.Do not build walls with less than 2” x 6” studs inside the worship space. 2” x 8” are better on 12 inch centers. Every wall inside a church should be insulated.
9.Do not drywall with less than 5/8” drywall. (Two layers of 5/8” is best.)
10.Do not drywall without adding insulation compressed at least 50%.
11.Do not build a balcony less than 12 feet above the floor if 8 rows are under it, 13 feet for 11 rows or 14 feet for 16 rows.
12.Do not build bulkheads over the front of an alter or chancel area unless you are purposely building a theatrical stage.
13.Do not design a deep proscenium arch (a.k.a. ‘tongue’ or ‘spit’) or an arch in front of the choir.
14.Do not design the roof to be angled in such a way that it is lower over the audience, and higher over the pulpit. Think of a trumpet or sound wave, better yet, remember the inverse square law of physics.
15.Do not build a church with an inside roof less than 24 feet. A higher roof is always preferred.
16.The lower the roof the more expensive the sound system and acoustical treatment.
17.Do not add domes and concave walls in a church. Such surfaces are best used in high traffic areas like the foyer and offices.
18.Do not accept the RT60 measurement only at 1K (1,000 hertz). Rt60 should be over a range from 200 hertz to 5000 hertz minimum.
19.Do not accept a building with a reverb time at 200 hertz of less than 1.4 seconds or greater than 2.3 seconds.
20.Do not accept a building with a reverb time at 2,000 hertz of less than 1.4 seconds or greater than 2.3 seconds
21.Do not accept a sound system that scores less than 90% intelligibility or a room which scores less than 92% intelligibility without a sound system in the first 4 rows. 90% intelligibility means of 100 words spoken 90 of them will be understood by the average listener.
22.Do not put speakers in bulkheads.
23.Do not put subwoofers under the platform.
24.Do not put subwoofers on the platform.
25.Do not have the Organ and Piano further than 20 feet apart. This also depends on the size of the church. Either way, they should be reasonably close.
26.Do not put the organ pipes or organ speakers over the heads of the choir.
27.Do not put a piano in a pit or against a wall with carpet under it.
28.Do not paint over acoustical materials until you are advised by an acoustical consultant who will take responsibility for the job. Paint has tremendous effects on room acoustics. Even if a wall material is soft or if you feel you need to paint the unpainted block, watch out. True, you cannot hurt the brick but the acoustics can change so much that you may have to sand blast the paint back off. It has happened.
29.Do not make foyer walls as hard as possible.
30.Do not install wiring and amplifiers in the organ loft next to the relay switcher. The clicking sound of the relays may be amplified through the sound system.
31.Do not hire an architect first. Design your church yourself with an acoustical expert. Who do you think designed the Crystal Cathedral and other famous houses of worship? Most all of the famous churches are designed first by the minister and church members then engineered by Architects.
32.Check on past client references for everyone you hire including architects, contractors and yes, even the acoustical consultants. By not checking on references, you will ensure the same mistakes are designed into your church that causes so many headaches for churches around the world.
33.Do not follow local commercial building codes. Exceed them. The cost difference between a great building and a poor building is often less than 15%. Building codes are a minimum standard for short term construction (20 years or less). Many churches who follow the minimum building codes find themselves making major building repairs before the first mortgage is paid off. Churches which exceed the building codes often put off major building repairs by as much as 15 to 20 years.
34.Do not rely on Computer CAD simulations to design your sound system. These computer programs can be easily fudged.
35.Do not rely on Computer CAD simulations for worship space designs. They too can be easily fudged. When building a new church, visit local churches built in the last 15 years to create your wish list. Interview the church secretary, caretaker, and deacon responsible for property management. Visit the minister last. Visit and interview former churches your Architect built 3 to 5 years ago and document the good and bad points.
36.Do not put the mixer desk outside the seating area of the worship space. Do not put the mixer desk in a room attached to the worship space, even if this room has large windows. Do not put the mixer desk against the back wall. Do not put the mixer desk in a balcony. Keep the mixer desk where the operator hears what the majority of the audience is hearing: on the main floor, just off to one side of the center.
37.Do not have more than one electrical panel supplying electricity for anything related to, or linked to, the sound system. (This includes outlets on the stage which will power electronic instruments linked with the sound system like keyboards, guitars and electric drums.)
38.Do not have any of the outlets mentioned above share grounds with other outlets throughout the church. Sharing grounds with other outlets related to sound is ok, but sharing grounds with outlets elsewhere in the church that might power things like coffee makers, or heaters, or anything else that people might plug in, is not ok.
39.Do not use more than one phase of electrical power for the sound system. Keep all A/V related circuits on the same phase.
40.Do not accept a lighting system with a foot candle rating of 35 for seating and 70 for stage area. The minimum foot candles should be 60 foot candles for the seating area and 140 foot candles for the stage area.
41.Do not accept an air handling system to be louder than 25db or NC 30.
42.Do not accept an air cooling system less than 1 ton per 500 square feet.
43.Do not install your HVAC system on the roof over the worship space.
44.Do not have your HVAC system physically attached (bolted) to the worship space.
45.Do not install your HVAC system inside your worship space.
46.Do not have an air return system with a duct less than 20 feet long.
47.Do not have the air return next to the soundman.
48.Air returns should be twice the size of the supply lines.

Fact #1: 75% of the churches built today claim they would like to tear down their new church and rebuild the way acoustical experts suggest.

Fact #2: 98% of these churches repeat the same mistakes when given the opportunity.

Churches are the most dissatisfied owners of buildings in the world. Don’t become one of them!

Is it not fascinating how every ministry that starts a new building project, renovation or addition starts out with the best intentions? So often by the time the project is finished they end up with many of the above mistakes. Hopes of saving money or second guessing their acoustical needs, allow several compromises to creep in. The truly unique churches are those that stick to their convictions, avoid the mistakes on these pages and take a leap of faith – only to discover their faith is rewarded beyond their dreams. To do any of the mistakes on this page is a sure fire way to create an over priced, confusing room to be avoided for speech, music and worship.

This entry was posted on Monday, May 2nd, 2011 at 9:38 pm and is filed under Architectlink, Suggestions4YOU. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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