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Acoustics in the Worship Space III
Scott R. Riedel

From the January 1986 Edition of The Diapason.

Acoustic in the Worship Space, I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX have appeared in The Diapason, May 1983, May 1984, January 1986, May 1987, April 1988, April 1990, July 1991 May 1992, and April 2009 respectively.

The setting is a sleeping compartment on an Amtrak train—the occasion is the return trip after a meeting with a church committee, and I am contemplating the re-design of their worship space; a space that presently meets few, if any, of the needs of its users. I am struck by the design of the Amtrak "Slumbercoach" room—a quick observation reveals a focused and functional design. The railroad car designer surely understood and met the program. The room has some aesthetic features: the window for viewing the passing countryside, the colorful fabric on walls and chair, and the carpeted floor. Every other feature of the space is given to a precise functional purpose. There is a pull-down bed, luggage rack, climate control equipment, plumbing equipment, and an array of associated hardware. The shape and geometry of the space meet the anthropometric needs of the body, and every item has easy access for maintenance and cleaning. The purpose of the space is to house one passenger overnight on the train. The designer has met the need.

I often encounter worship spaces where the admittedly multi-faceted focus of the design does not meet the needs of the users of the room. The example of the railroad car designer and programmer could be used to help the church in the creation of worship spaces. The designer meets every functional requirement of the passenger and provides aesthetic amenities that complement the functional needs. The task is more difficult in the church, but it can be done. Real functional needs can be met in a space with aesthetic elegance and spiritual mystery.

In an organization such as the church, many "needs" and "preferences" are expressed. The church must focus the "needs" upon the real function: worship. The church must also come to realize the true nature of worship, and the true needs of worshipers in developing a design program. The designer must then prioritize the "needs" and "preferences" in a design solution.

Pew pads for comfort and visual and effect, luxurious carpeting, heavy draperies, these are all secondary and of church questionable necessity to the church, yet receive primary attention in far too many situations. The "average" design solutions of secular architecture such as acoustical ceiling tile should not be adopted by the church, but in fact often are adopted with no thought at all. Unique geometric forms for the sake of "design" alone are secondary to the functional needs of worshipers, yet often receive the primary attention of the designer. Every programmatic and design decision must be thoroughly studied for its full implication to the real needs of the church.

The worship experience is largely, almost exclusively, communicated in sound. The word is proclaimed and preached, the congregation prays, speaks, and sings aloud, and listens to the music of instruments and voices. Every act, every sacrament, almost every event of worship has a "sonic" dimension. This is one of the issues that programmers and designers must focus upon. The "decorative" aspects of design must only complement the real needs and functions of a space.

Some examples will show how this principle, particularly applied to acoustics, can mean the success of a worship space.

Example I. The setting is a protestant church building. Communion table, pulpit, choir and organ are all in the central front of the space. Seating for the congregation is on the main floor in an open space, or beneath the rear and side galleries. The congregation can also sit in the galleries. Finish materials include hard plaster walls and ceiling, and extremely thick carpeting and pew pads throughout. The ceiling is a series of five domes or arch shapes.

The problems include "hot spots," or points of concentrated high sound levels on the main floor, and "dead spots," or points of almost no sound energy on the main floor, all caused by the reflection pattern of sound off the domed and arched ceiling surfaces. The extensive amount of carpeting absorbs much sound energy, leaving the sound of choir, organ, and congregational singing dull and lifeless. The real problem, however, is that members of the congregation do not reinforce their neighbors in song and response due to excess sound absorption. They also find themselves sitting in places where they either hear single voices of the choir or organ, or else they can barely hear the choir or preacher at all! Further, the choir is unrewarded as they are unable to sing in ensemble or in tune in the "negative" acoustical environment, and the congregation never hears the full potential of their own choir.

The plight of worshippers in this building is clearly the result of the selection of geometry and materials for the space that do not serve the needs of the building users. The "decorative" decisions have ruined the acoustical environment, and hence ruined a major feature of the worship life of the congregation.

Example II. The setting is a liturgical church with an "Episcopal" style chancel for altar, pulpit, lectern, choir, and organ. Seating for the congregation is in a nave area that is longer than wide. Seating is also available in relatively shallow transepts. Finish materials include stone walls and floor, and varnished wood ceiling.

The problems in the space are none— for all locations in the nave receive strong direct and reflected sound from choir, clergy and organ. The speech of the preacher is authoritative, and given extra clarity by means of electronic reinforcement with speakers directing sound into the body of the congregation, not allowing speech sound to reverberate inarticulately. The congregation sings and speaks with energy and enthusiasm as each worshiper reinforces his or her neighbor. The choir is well received, and the choir director claims that "they sound better than they really are." All this is due to design and selection of building materials and geometry that meet the needs of every worshiper.

Each congregation must evaluate factors important to their lives and worship, and program and design buildings and worship spaces accordingly. The acoustical environment of a space is an important contributing factor to the success of worship life. The room can be reduced to private spheres, where the presence of others is disguised with the acoustical solitude of absorbing materials and restrictive geometry, or can be elevated, to a place for enthusiastic interaction and encouragement from worshiper to worshiper that is a lively acoustical environment full of elegance and mystery. Evaluation of every design decision is required. "Function" is the primary determinant.

Scott R. Riedel is President of Scott R. Riedel & Associates, Ltd., an Acoustical and Organ Consulting firm based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin

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