tile mosaic and copper screen at bell tower

What does the design of a church “say” about the congregation?

Traditional- Historic, older churches well established, denominational, represents continuity, established customs.  The architecture follows rules of a particular style so it can be assumed the rules of the church will be taught and followed within.  Many communities appreciate the design, detail and appointments of a traditional church as this reminds them of the churches of their youth and speaks to them of the continuity of their belief over the centuries.  This connection to the past and the feelings and emotion that can be encountered in a traditional space can be a primary element of a worship experience.  The exposed structure, height, stained glass, stone, brick and wood materials of a traditional building can be an indispensable part of the teaching and worship experience for many people. This type of design is typically more expensive than other styles due to the use of traditional materials and methods of construction. This applies to maintenance of existing churches and construction of new traditional churches.  Often you will see a traditional church with a contemporary or modern addition that may be an issue of cost or a statement of transformation of belief, or a nod to the new mode of worship that is more attractive in a contemporary space.

Before exterior from west First United Methodist Church Kearney MO

Before exterior prior to worship center addition

Contemporary-tends to be a watered down version of a traditional church with some modern touches, this is a very neutral approach to design trying to be all things to all people.  By following some of the established rules of style and design but watering down or breaking others can communicate a sentiment that this church is moving away from the traditions and breaking new ground, but still a traditional church to those who are looking for that type of worship.  Contemporary design is can also be the outcome of using modern construction methods and attempting to use them to create traditional forms.  The construction methods of today tend to utilize larger spans for structure, mass produced finishes that are common in appearance, inexpensive and easy to install.  This can be the hallmark of a rapidly growing church that has many missions to house and is looking for a durable building with a statement of style but does not need to communicate a level of craft or continuity as they are growing fast and the building has become a functional tool versus a symbol.

Crossing light fixture at Prince of Peace

Modern-this is different than contemporary and is a style on its own.  This style is minimal in material and detail.  This style has an appeal as it does not scream traditional church but has a high level of design that appeals to many who enjoy fine materials and workmanship but not necessarily iconography.  For communities offering more music and word based services or services utilizing rock or jazz music, this style communicates this approach to worship clearly. Many communities start in spaces that are spare and minimal and there can be a desire to continue that feel in the new church or to communicate a forward looking direction versus a backward looking reverence for the past.  In contrast to their style older modern churches can be just as traditional in approach to worship as a traditional looking church, many communities built in a modern style to differentiate their community from the older traditional churches in a time when being modern was a statement of optimism and prosperity in contrast to a traditional church being passé and not of the moment.  While this is still a perception it has not been a majority belief in our society as it was during the middle and late 20th century

New Multipurposer church for FirstLight UMC

Entry and Patio with Shade Structures

Industrial/Pre-engineered churches-this approach to building often attempts to be any of the above approaches but I believe it is a style of its own but tends to be more contemporary or modern in appearance or just plain barn like.  This approach is often used to get a lot of space on a small budget and how many rural and suburban communities get started.  The building is typically a multipurpose space that functions as a gym space and a sanctuary. There is message communicated that the “building does not matter” it is the people and the message that are important not the style or expense of the building materials.   This is all well and good but these buildings tend not to perform well in tangible ways that many do not realize until they are using the building.   A few issues to be aware of include thermal performance, acoustics, and building movement. It takes alot of creativity and manipulation to disquise the pre-engineered aethesitc but it can be done if this is not the message you want to convey.

3D View 1

In every instance there are exceptions to these impressions but overcoming the impressions or recognizing that the image of the church does have an impact on how the church is perceived is the first step in discerning what the church should look like for each community.  During my planning process I ask the participants to bring images of what the ideal church is for them or to write in words a description of the appearance of the their ideal church and then we discuss in detail the possible meanings and try to discern what approach will best suit the community.  Without this time spent on discernment the built outcome tends to not match the image the community wants to project.

John E Freshnock, WSKF Architects Inc.

On a recent college tour with my highschool senior I snapped a few pictures on campuses in New England.

Bowdoin Chapel

Chaple at Bowdoin College

Church near Brunswick Maine

On the road to a shore dinner

Old Chapel at Amherst

Original Chapel Converted to classrooms at Amherst

Side Porch at Tufts

Chapel at Tufts, go Jumbo’s

View to church from South East

This mantra by Vitruvius, Roman architect to Caesar Augustus, from his treatise De Architectura or the Ten books of Architecture is one of the first measuring sticks used on architecture students and probably the most difficult to succeed with in the day to day world of design.  All architects learn this phrase and its meaning as the basic ingredients of great architecture.  There are parallels in virtually all professional disciplines of a three factor formula to achieve balance and the quality results.  Another that architects and contractors are well versed in is the three legged stool of “Quality, Time and Cost”, but that is another post.  This dictum Commodity Firmness and Delight has been the subject of much discourse through the ages and there is a lot of material out there on who said what and when but I have found that the majority of my clients are unaware of this simple formula and how important it is to achieve a successful project.   I find in the practice of church design often the first two of the three legs are included but the third is missing all together or has become the VE item, or all three are minimized to the point that the three legged stool is just a plank of wood with no legs, it raises you up a little but not much.  So what are Commodity Firmness and Delight and why are they important to design?

Commodity:  Simply stated, is the part design that deals with the functional aspects of the building. Does the design meet the physical needs of the client, are all the program elements present and working well, does the design meet the building code, is the budget appropriate for the use?  Leg number one.

Firmness: Is the structural capacity of the design and its durability.  Are working parts of the building up to the task, are they durable and appropriate for the intended use and duration of use of the building, is the building energy efficient? Leg number two.

Delight:  Does the design have beauty, does the design lift the spirit and create the desire to experience the key moments of your life in that space?  Will it be appropriate for your child’s baptism, will your daughter’s wedding be as beautiful as she imagines, will your funeral be celebrated in a space that reflects the values of your life.  Leg number three.

New Multipurposer church for FirstLight UMC

Entry and Patio with Shade Structures

Delight is a bit of a subjective measure and you may have noticed there is no code or formula for beauty but this is the core of what the architect is tasked to provide.  Vitruvius helps us here as well with a measure for beauty which he divides into several key categories.  These are all taught in school as well and soon forgotten or sacrificed in the budget to the other more easily understood stool legs.

Order-Do the differing parts of the design share proportion and measurements which relate to each other and build to form a comprehensive whole?

Arrangement– are the spaces arranged to reinforce the function and give the design additional meaning by creating a sequence of use that culminates in the most meaningful space having the a place of prominence and logical arrangement?

Harmony-Do the spaces of the design reflect the use proposed by having, well proportioned, width to height ratios that are comfortable for the users?  Do the building components visually appear to have proportions to support the loads imposed or imagined?

Scale-Does the design have a visual presence that is appropriate for the use and the scale of the surrounding buildings and site?

Décor– Does the design of the interior reflect the use and the client’s intention, are materials appropriately deployed to reinforce the other aspects of beauty?

Distribution-Does the design distribute the available resources in an economical way to create a design that is balanced and provides the elements of beauty above without sacrificing parts of the work.

FirstLight UMC Gardner KS

View from West

When one of the legs dominates the others suffer and so goes the design.  We have all seen a church that is ill proportioned but was very expensive to build, we have seen churches that just do not have the arrangement of spaces that function well but were very economical to build. Hopefully we have all experienced a church that achieves balance and provides for economy durability and beauty.

Commodity, Firmness and Delight don’t be afraid to ask for all three.

Stone and precast concrete Columbarium

Columbarium, Higginsville Missouri

To many this is a new word Columbaria, the plural of columbarium a place to entomb cremated remains.  Believe it or not I have always wanted to design Columbaria. As building types go the columbarium is a rare project so I relished the opportunity to work with the State of Missouri Veterans Administration to complete this design.  The columbarium in Higginsville Missouri  is a wall in the landscapes not really a building but the history of columbaria includes locating them inside churches, under churches and in gardens or cemeteries adjacent to churches.  Most faiths have a history of entombing cremated remains and have differing approaches or rituals but historically columbaria have been a part of the religious experience.  Today it is a cost-effective and conservation minded approach to burials but also columbaria can create an opportunity for communities to create another way for members to stay connected by creating gardens or integrating columbaria into the interior of a church.

garden area in front of columbarium wall in Higgisville

Stone and Granite materials

The design at Higginsville places a continuous wall into a hillside creating a small garden space facing a lake and the main grounds of the cemetery.   Many columbaria become monotonous in their rigid use of the grid of niches.  Higginsville allowed us to break the niches into smaller sections and to bend the wall to break up the panels into scaled sections this also helped us with the numbering system allowing us to add row and range numbers periodically along the wall.  This is done in a subtle way by sand blasting the stone.  Services are performed at a committal shelter then the family gathers at the wall as the ashes are placed and the niche cover is installed.  The design allows for small gathering of people in front of each wall section and provides for the installation of benches.  The design may seem restrained but this is pretty wild for the VA.  On the state level Missouri has allowed each cemetery to have its own identity. The stone is variegated Indiana limestone, the granite is from Cold Spring in Minnesota, the pavers are manganese iron spot deep blue to purple from Endicott in Nebraska.

Sand blasted letters and numbers

Numbering system

I had an opportunity while working Oakland California, to visit a columbarium designed by Julia Morgan, The Chapel of the Chimes.  The design is so cool as it integrates day-lighting, stained glass, cast concrete, tile mosaics and glass fronted niches that allow the urns to visible.   This is done in a gothic style but with a heavy dose of the arts & craft tradition of Northern California.  The urns are really interesting too, some are shaped like sculptures and others like books as each family member gets added there is another volume.  There are several additions forming a maze of courtyards creating vistas through the building and stepping up the hillside.  If you get the chance it is a must see both for the columbarium and the chapel.

Julia Morgan Columbarium

Glass niche covers and daylighting

The final image is a close up of a columbarium in Paris with a wide variety of stone covers and fonts creating a pretty vibrant image, I do not think the VA will go for this.

Paris Columbarium

A Variety of materials

John E Freshnock

WSKF Architects Inc.

Sanctuary before HVAC remodel, worhsip center relocation and seating changes

Before – Sanctuary Remodel

Nave plan seating to side oriented radial plan seating at Hillside Christian Church

After – Sanctuary Remodel

The Sanctuary renovation at Hillside Christian Church accomplishes many key objectives to advance the church mission and values. First, by relocating the altar and pulpit to the side of the existing sanctuary the distance from the congregation to the presider is reduced significantly without meaningful reduction in seating capacity.  This distance is critical to establish connection between the presider and congregation. We prefer this distance to not exceed 50’.  When this distance is greater video screens and large images are required to create any kind of visual understanding of facial expression and a meaningful connection.  The soffit added along the length of the space conceals mechanical ductwork and lighting replacing problematic two pipe HVAC perimeter system that has failed repeatedly.  New windows are proposed to add daylight to a presently dark space. New lighting is proposed as well adding sparkle and metaphor to the design.  New flooring and acoustical remediation will make the space exceptional  for music and speech. The change to seats from pews allows for flexible arrangements, seasonal changes and rearrangement for weddings and funerals.  The renovations proposed look to the future while preserving elements of the past making both stronger in the new arrangement.


WSKF Architects Inc.

John E Freshnock

Aerial View from North of master plan model Prince of peace Missionary Baptist Church of Jesus Christ

Master Plan Model from North

I remember driving with one my clients to look at other churches that they liked and talking about how, with the limited funds we had available, we were going to complete the master plan that we had envisioned together. The master plan was for an urban church located on property that the church, and sometimes the pastor with his own money, had assembled piecemeal over the years as homes were abandoned or burned down on the nearby block.  The city would pay to have the homes demolished and then the lot could be purchased for the taxes and demo costs.  Through quick action and a watchful eye this pastor had assembled enough ground for the entire needs of the master plan.

Abandoned residential sites purchased for new church home

Site of Proposed Prince of Peace Church

The only hitch was to meet all of their needs we needed to build a multi-story densely programmed building. Unfortunately this was not within the means of the funds raised during the capital campaign.  It is hard to add a basement to an existing building later on.  The common belief that basements are free is a falsehood.  So…we are out driving, looking at these churches in the community. We have seen several built on the model we had planned, a multistory church, densely planned on a small site.  Then as we got further away from the city center and into the suburban areas we started to see churches on large acreage 10, 20 acres or more with very modest buildings built obviously as a future fellowship hall or education wing for when the larger sanctuary would be built in the future.

New master plan with multiple phases on larger property

So I asked the question- “Which type of church do you believe you have the most in common with from a land and construction stand point?”  Well, the pastor answered, “The multistory church, and by the way why are we looking at these suburban churches anyway?”  It had occurred to me while we were looking at these distinctly different approaches to building and site design that we were looking at our situation totally wrong. We were seeing limitations where we should have been seeing abundance.  I stated that I believed, contrary to the master plan we had completed a year ago, that we had more in common with the church on 20 acres than the church on 3 acres.  I was greeted with blank stares.

Covered Drop off and main entry to Prince of Peace Church
Church on site of condemned homes in Kansas City, Missouri

I proposed a new vision, I saw that the surrounding lots were not run down bad neighbors but potential acreage for expansion and that we should build only what we could afford while utilizing some of the existing facilities until we could purchase additional ground and afford additional building.  Prior to the completion of the first phase the church had already purchased two additional lots to allow for future building with an eye for 3 more lots in the future.  The perspective of abundance is one I now adopt as my default approach to dealing with master planning and design of churches in general. Too often we see all the things we cannot do versus the opportunities that are around us waiting to be discovered, waiting to be recognized as opportunities not limitations.


Church planning, additions and new building projects take a lot of volunteer hours to organize and begin to understand the needs and goals of the community this is time well spent and critical to the success of most church facility improvement projects.  There comes a time when you have gathered all the data you have surveyed the congregation the Vision, Mission and Values of the community are defined and it is believed that changes need to be made accomplish the goals set by the community.  The danger is getting lost in the details or “lost in the weeds”.  As architects we are trained and have made it our life’s work to solve complex problems creating meaning and delight in the process.  So when you have come to the point of defining the needs and understanding the goals this is the time when an architect needs to be brought in to make sense of the written words, the physical reality of your facility and the financial capabilities of your community.

More often than not the work of gathering data and building the initial consensus around the Mission of the church and how the facility can further the goals of that mission is taken on by the church leadership and additional volunteers. Many denominations have programs in place to lay the ground work for healthy growing communities and have staff that can help communities through that process.  This “third party“ review identifies opportunities and weaknesses and areas for improvement to make the community a better place for worship, education and fellowship. This is an important process and takes time, in some cases a year or more.  Why is it important? It builds grass root understanding of the needs of the church and puts the community on a path of overall understanding of the church Mission and how their work and the facility can make the goals of the church achievable, all this is done prior to a capital campaign. Often the work of design is put before the work of understanding the Mission.  This is a recipe for failure.  Master planning in a vacuum without a base of understanding and support of the leadership and the community is a waste of time and money.  Often the work of developing a Mission and building consensus around the needs both physical and spiritual is facilitated by an architect or a liturgical consultant if a denominational program is not available.  This can be a good option but I have found that a process of evaluation and education is best built from within as it takes time and money to hire a facilitator and the process can be formulaic whereas the community can choose a facilitation model and explore the issues at their own pace and build community and momentum that is real and pervasive.


Master Plan Phasing diagram, St. Andrew Christian Church

Site Phasing Plan

Architects love constraints, were most people see complexity and disparate parts an architect sees opportunity.  The more that is known about the Mission and the goals to be achieved, allows the architect to craft a solution that can solve as many problems and create more opportunities for growth and spiritual connection.  So do not fear the process of evaluation and growth embrace the opportunity to make the Mission of your church a visible and functioning reality.

Wither the Projector?.

This is a good look at the current debate over costs of projectors versus flat panel displays and how they are used.  Many projects I am working on are considering flat panels due to cost, but flexibility and impact also need to be considered.


John E Freshnock- WSKF Architects Inc.

Master Plan model

Master Plan Model

The use of models to describe church master planning is often seen as a luxury.  Use of models both in design and presentation of master plans can be a better way to communicate with your community and building committee.  Using a physical or virtual model removes the difficulty of reading floor plans and two-dimensional elevation drawings.  The majority of people have difficulty understanding these tools of the architectural design and construction industries.  Architects are trained to design using models and at this early stage truly do not know what their designs will look and feel like without the model.  After they are trained many architects forgo the model as they can see it all in their heads. Well this does not help the untrained to see the ideas presented and for many without a model they will never understand the intent of the design no matter how many plans and perspectives are drawn.  A model works so well at describing space that some advocate using models exclusively to design and communicate with building committees up until the documents are created for permitting and construction of the project.  Models unlike drawings communicate to all age groups and by their nature as miniature versions of reality tend to draw people in and have the ability to create excitement around a proposed project.  The difference between models and two-dimensional drawings can be crystallized as the difference between painting and sculpture.  While a painting can create a mood and view-point a sculpture will more fully describe the physical qualities of a thing, the same is true for buildings. Models also have the capacity to show the surrounding building context as well as site details such as parking, grading and retaining walls.  Site models can also show phasing and have removable parts to demonstrate a variety of solutions.  Many software programs utilize virtual models to create still views, animations, game like free playing walk-through  and even to output physical 3D model printers.

The use of these software programs such as AutoCad REVIT allows the architect to communicate with 3D views from the very first massing studies without going to the expense of building a finished model or working in clay.  The use of virtual models in this way as a continuously evolving 3D conversation achieves many of the benefits of using physical models and can be displayed using projectors or monitors. Although the images and ability to freely wander though an imagined design is enticing the majority of people still relate to a physical model much easier at least for the time being.  As generations of video game playing young adults become mature they will more readily embraces the virtual models and the ability to enter the virtual world and explore the buildings being designed for them.

large scale model of church addition in the offices of ISI Berkely CA

Large scale Model 1/2"=1'-0"

Beyond master planning large-scale models at ½” per foot can provide realistic modeling of interior spaces and exterior form that can give communities a very real sense of the development of the building.  The act of physically building a model at this large-scale allows the designer to sense the scale of the spaces and the proportion of the structural elements much more immediately than using plan and elevation drawings this process is a benefit to the designer and gives the added bonus of a realistic scale for the community to experience that is much more reliable in its depiction of space and proportion.  The design for Saint Andrew Christian Church was completed using this large-scale model process.  The design elements, window openings and roof relationships were tested and refined using large-scale models.

Courtyard facade model Saint Andrew Christian Church Olathe KS

Model Showing Design of Openings

Courtyard with Colored concrete pavers and benches

Finished facade

Maple and Steel handrails at First Lutheran Church

New Rails at Sanctuary Platform

Most churches include a welcome statement in their bulletin but many churches are not welcoming in subtle ways.  Many churches are missing critical elements of accessibility but more important a critical elements of welcoming.  Getting to the communion rail or up to the lectern to speak should not have to require an usher for help, this is disrespectful to the disabled or elderly person and can be a source of great anxiety and can make members reluctant to participate knowing they may fall or that they will need help.  New churches should have railings and ramps but older churches usually do not.  In my own church it took an older couple to donate money for the rails and then many calls to me to hurry up and get the work done.  It was during the design of the rails that I realized that it was truly a matter of respect and a way to give older members the mobility they needed to worship and not feel separated from the rest of the congregation.

The design pictured here was installed in a 1950’s era church and designed to be removable.  The rail structure is steel painted and the rails are maple to match the other wood trim and paneling in the sanctuary.  The existing risers and altar platform are cast concrete so the brackets to support the rails were bolted to the face of the riser. The intent was to avoid replacing the carpet and to avoid core drilling holes in to the slab.  Of course we hit rebar almost every time and it was still a challenge to get the brackets installed.  The rails are removable, the center rail is moved most often but for the most part the rails are in kept in place except for choir and theatrical presentations that occur in the center of the platform.

Center removable handrail at First Lutheran Church, Mission Hills, Ks

Center Removable Handrail

The rails should be designed to harmonize with the design of the church and not to stand out or distract from the altar, pulpit or lectern.  It may be tempting to use brass for these rails but this should be avoided to prevent tedious wrapping during the Lenten season when brass appointments are covered or replaced with wood.  These rail supports are painted steel and have held up well. The rails are maple and with as much as the center rail is moved it has become little loose over the last 7 years.  I debated the use of curved members in the rail design as the building is very rectilinear but they seem to soften the design and add just enough interest to be worthy of being a part of the altar platform but not too much interest to be distracting.

Welcoming spaces reduce the barriers to full worship and full participation by your members, full accessibility should be a goal for all church communities.  So identify the areas in your church home that can be made more accessible and get it done, don’t wait for the disabled members to rise up in protest or donate money and call you every week till it’s done.

WSKF Architects Inc.


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