Field Guide to AVL Renovations: Design

Just some of the new conduits we're adding. And this is just a renovation; we already have a bunch in there!

Just some of the new conduits we're adding. And this is just a renovation; we already have a bunch in there!

Since we’re close to embarking on a pretty significant renovation of our main sanctuary at Coast Hills, I thought I would kick off a series on successful renovations. This comes not only from my own experience, but from dozens of others. Just about every month I receive at least one e-mail about a church doing a renovation; and often it’s not going well.

The reasons renovations, or new builds for that matter, don’t go well are not really complicated. The problems tend to stem from a fundamental lack of understanding of how complex even simple AVL (audio-video-lighting) systems are. I’ve heard pastors say, “We’ll just hang some speakers in there, don’t worry about it,” without any thought to how incredibly bad that can be. Of course, they’ll complain about how bad it is later, and probably blame the sound guy. 

So let me say this right at the beginning of this series, if you’re talking about a renovation or build project, now is the time to bring the AVL guys into the discussion. Pastors tend to say, “We’re not there yet, we’ll engage you when we’re closer.” And that is the problem. The time to start planning a successful AVL system is at the dreaming stage. 

Define the ministry objectives, then design the building and AVL system. Those two design processes should go hand-in-hand. As you begin to dream about the kinds of ministry you’d like to see happening in the building, give the AVL guys a chance to dream about the ways technology can be integrated into that plan. Technology can be incredibly powerful, but only when it’s done in a way that supports the mission and vision of the church. Otherwise, it’s in the way. 

As you define your mission and vision and figure out how the building will be used, the AVL guys can be designing a system that supports it. Some churches will protest at this point, saying they can’t afford good design. Those are the same churches that can find enough money to do the job two or three times. Doing things right the first time will always cost less than doing it wrong a few times first. Always.

The AVL system integrates with every trade and building practice. This is another reason to get the AVL guys involved early. Even a simple system uses a lot of conduit. Power is needed in very specific places—and it needs to be the right kind of power. Structure must be in place to support rigging the speakers, video walls, screens, projectors and lighting. We have to make sure HVAC ducts are not in the way of lighting instruments, speakers and other stuff we’ll be hanging in the air. Building design elements will either help or hurt sound and sight lines. 

It’s a lot easier and cheaper to have the AVL guys in the room early to call out things like that. Otherwise, we come in with a big red marker after most of the plans are drawn and mark up what we need. This adds cost, time and often, a significant amount of stress.

Don’t assume that the architect knows what will be needed in an AVL system. That’s something else I hear often, “Don’t worry about it, the architect will handle that.” Unless the architect has also been designing sound, lighting and video systems for a decade—systems that are really good—you better get an expert in. I have  spent the last 20 years tearing out systems that were “designed” by architects, the cheapest contractor and well-meaning but completely uninformed volunteers. I’m begging you, bring in some experts. Early. 

I don’t know if it’s pride, arrogance or both that keeps leaders making the same mistakes. I know they don’t teach the building process in pastor school, yet we have a large enough body of knowledge to do this right. For some reason, I watch church after church push the AVL guys out of the way, bully them into silence, then beat them up when the system comes out badly. 

In 2014, we know how to do a great job with a building. It takes communication, planning, knowledge, good design and having the right people in the room from day one. I think it’s time we stop wasting our congregations’ money on projects that are not functional. 

As we go through this series, I’ll help you define your system objectives, develop an initial budget, choose key technologies, design a system that works for your church, work up reasonable install timelines and commission the final system. That’s a lot; but that’s what a project looks like. A building project is no small undertaking, and it deserves to be handled wisely. My hope is that as we go on this journey together, more projects will go more smoothly. Buckle up—it’s going to be a wild ride!

Roland

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