Why Make it Beautiful?

Image courtesy of  http://kevinashphotography.com

I recently happened across a discussion that was started by a pastor who was looking at the bland, white walls of their sanctuary with terrible acoustics and struggling with the why of making it look nice. Thankfully, he understood the need to fix the terrible acoustics. But he was legitimately struggling with the why of making the room look better than blank white. 

Now, as a technical artist, you might think my first thought would be to attempt to justify the need for a ton of LED lights, environmental projection and cool stage sets. And while I think there is a place for that, I didn’t go there first. My first thought was the great cathedrals of Europe. Then I thought of what the Temple of David must have looked like. I’ve seen some artist’s renderings of the temple, and it had to be amazing. 

Who Do You Worship?

Looking at those temples and cathedrals, one has to ask, “What is the motivation to create such an awe-inspiring structure?” In the case of the temple, David wanted to create a temple that was as amazing as God himself. That’s probably not possible, but he sure gave it a shot. The great architects and builders of Renaissance tried to build spaces that would put all who entered into a state of awe and wonder. They figured that since we worship a great, awesome and amazing God, the buildings where we worship should be great, awesome and amazing. 

When you enter such a building, or even see pictures of them, you can’t help but be inspired. The longer you spend in them, the more the Gospel story unfolds itself. Those architects were master story tellers and managed to tell a complete story with the building itself. And that doesn’t even begin to consider the artwork and paintings that often filled the space. 

Little White Boxes for You and Me

Fast forward to today and what do we have? White boxes. Instead of creating buildings that inspire wonder and awe, we build the cheapest, most boring church buildings we can. Well, not all of them, but many fit this description. Contrast this to the mall or the Vegas strip. If one were to evaluate what we value based on the time, energy and money we spend on the architecture, one would potentially come to the conclusion that we don’t really value our God much. 

Spend Money on Ministry!

The cry we often hear when it comes to not spending any money on the building is that we should be spending it on ministry instead. While I think spending money on ministry is a good thing, I think that argument is based on a fundamental lack of faith. The great cathedrals of Europe cost a small fortune to build, and often took a century to complete. But look at the results! Hundreds of years later, they’re still wonderful. 

Today, we live in the most prosperous nation in the world, and we scrimp and build our “houses of worship” with the lowest bidder. The Bible says God owns the cattle on a thousand hills, and He’s not really concerned about finances. Yet we pinch every penny and build the most boring, uninspiring building to worship the God who created the entire universe. Does anyone else see the disconnect there? 

Strike a Balance

Now, I understand we live in a different time and place. A $100 Million cathedral might not be the best idea today. However, our buildings don’t have to be ugly and boring. I think it’s more important to be intentional about creating a space for worship than it is to spend a lot of money on it. 

I travel to a lot of different church buildings and I’ve seen the ugly white boxes and I’ve seen buildings that are incredibly cool and welcoming that didn’t cost a fortune. It’s all about creating a space that is inspiring, calming, welcoming or engaging—depending on what you’re going for. It could be as simple as a few thousand dollars worth of ultra short throw projectors on those blank white walls (they’re good for something!). Or it could be a paint and some cool found objects arranged in a way that tells a story. 

Technology is Changing

A few years ago, every church that wanted to be “relevant” (in quotes because it’s been so over used I’m not sure it’s relevant any more) put up a bunch of moving lights, fired up the hazer and tried to do a rock concert every weekend. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, unless you do a terrible job of it. Or it’s not at all the culture of your church. Some of the best worship experiences I’ve had were in very simple, but very intentional rooms. They used technology—lights, haze, video, graphics—but that wasn’t the focus. You don’t have to go crazy. But you can make it beautiful. You should make it beautiful. It should match who you are as a church. And it should reflect the God who created the universe all around us. How’s that for some inspiration!

When to Involve the TD in a Building Project

The other day, my friend Erik asked me if he should accept the invitation to be involved very early on with a building project at his church. He’s the TD there, and the leadership asked if he would like to be involved with picking the architect. The question to me was, is it worth being involved that early?

Yes

This could be the shortest post I’ve ever written, because I could easily end there. As a TD, staff or volunteer, if you are ever asked to be involved early on in a building project, jump at the chance. Here’s why: You will be the only person thinking about the building project from a production/lighting/acoustical/visual stand point. You know more about how that new room will need to work than anyone else on the staff. You will think of things no one else ever will. 

Not Just Tech

The funny thing is, it’s not just about the gear. This is a common misconception amongst pastors, I think. They are under the (usually false) assumption that the tech guy will just want to spend money on expensive new gear. So they try to keep them out of the process as long as possible to make sure everything else gets budget before production. This is flatly stupid, and never results in agood project. Ever. I’m feeling blunt today.

We tech guys are quite unique in our makeup and we see things differently that normal people do. When looking at the plans, we may be the only one to notice that the HVAC guy put the thermostat right in the middle of the upstage wall. We may be the only one who notices that the doors swing the wrong way in the backstage corridor, creating awkward access. We may be the only ones who note that putting glass doors at the back of the auditorium will drive everyone on stage nuts when the sun rises in their eyes. 

All those are actual building blunders that happened because no one listened to the tech guy (or didn’t ask).

We Think Different(ly)

My English major daughter would be most cross if she saw me use different that way, but you get the reference. It’s not that as tech guys and gals, we’re smarter than everyone else involved in the project, it’s that we view the world differently. That different perspective often can help stave off tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of mistakes. 

Many years ago, I raised so many concerns prior to a building project that they finally put me on the building committee. I was the only one who pointed out that the architect they were considering had never, ever built a church before. I was the only one who pointed out that his initial drawings had so many acoustical problems, it would make services a nightmare for the audience. Everyone else was all starry eyed about the new building and I saw nothing but blunders on the pages before me. My natural cynicism came out and slowed everything down so it could be evaluated properly. Ultimately, Mike the “dream killer” saved the church a lot of money. 

Never underestimate your ability to keep a building project pointed in the right direction. It’s not just about gear, you will look at it differently. And that different perspective is desperately needed. Pastors, if you’re reading this, you should always involve your tech person in a building project early on. I guarantee doing so will save money and deliver a better finished product at the end.

Roland

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Count the Cost

Photo courtesy of  Tambako The Jaguar

Photo courtesy of Tambako The Jaguar

This is an article I’ve waited all year to write. And now that we’re right near the end of 2014, I figured I’d give it a shot. I’ve been part of many church renovations, both as a staff member, a volunteer and now as an integrator. I’ve coached many churches through renovations over the last 10 years as well. These renovations have ranged from simple AVL upgrades to full-scope projects. Among all those projects, I’ve seen a few patterns. Some have been quite successful, others have not. Perhaps the single common denominator to a successful renovation project is that the church properly counted the cost of the renovation before they began it. 

This is, in fact, a biblical principle. In Luke 14:28-30, we read:

For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’

Get Cost Advice from Experts Early

One of the biggest mistakes I see churches make is to try to determine the budget for a project on their own. One church I know budgeted $100,000 for a major renovation. Their thinking was, “Hey, it’s just moving a few walls and adding some doors. How much could it cost?” Then the cost estimates started coming in. By the time it was all done, it was $250,000+ project. They forgot to consider electrical (nearly $80,000), AVL ($60,000), HVAC ($25,000), carpet ($50,000), paint ($10,000) and more. They thought this would be a simple project, done in-house without the need for “expensive” GC’s or project managers. Yet, had they involved some experts early on, the dart board budget would have been revised early or the scope changed. More information, fewer surprises. 

Don’t Tell the Congregation You Can Do Something You Can’t

Another mistake I see churches (OK, mostly pastors) make is telling the congregation all the things that will be accomplished in the renovation before having a firm grasp on what it will cost and whether they can afford it. In one project I’m aware of, the AVL budget was running way over the church’s projections. As the scope was being cut to bring the budget down, the pastor actually said, “But wait…we have to do that part; I promised the congregation we would address it!” 

At this point, the pastor found himself in a predicament. He couldn’t afford what he wanted to do, but couldn’t cut it out the scope either. That meant other items had to be cut, and while that sounded like a good solution, it ended up going quite badly. Make sure you get the budget nailed down before you promise things you can’t deliver. And at least have a baseline that you will do (based on a minimum spend or give amount) with optional add-ons based on additional giving. 

Value Engineer Smartly

Almost all projects will get value engineered to some degree. This is normal, and not entirely bad. A good value engineering job helps focus the energy on the right things, and prioritizes the things that must be done well. I always encourage churches to do the things that are hard or expensive to do a second time. Conduit will never be cheaper to install than when the walls are all open or before the slab is poured. Don’t cut conduit so you can afford more blinky lights. Often, speakers systems and dimming systems are expensive, big ticket items with high ancillary costs. Do those as part of the big project while saving budget on smaller items like mic’s, lights and even consoles. It’s a lot easier to drop in a new lighting or audio console a year later than it is to hang a new PA or install a power and DMX distribution system for a new LED lighting rig. 

This is where a good integrator can really help you. They know what items and systems carry costs beyond simple equipment, and can help you phase installations well so you get maximum value. It really helps to do this ahead of time, however. 

Plan for Contingencies

Things will go wrong during the project. Some things will take longer than allotted. There will be unexpected surprises when you open up the walls. Subs won’t show up when scheduled, which will throw off the timeline. The structure you thought was there won’t be. This happens all the time. Smart builders will always add a contingency amount to the budget to account for the unknowns. As a church, you should also plan on a contingency. Not only for the problems that come up during the project, but also for the, “While you’re here…” items. You know, while you’re here putting in all new lights, can we address our video recording system, too? Or, while you’re here re-building the stage, can we re-build the baptismal at the same time? Sometimes these are easy adds, sometimes not. But be prepared. Things will come up.

No one wants to come down to the last few week of a project and find out it went way over budget. By doing some of the hard work up front, you can minimize that risk, and be much better stewards of Kingdom resources.

“Gear

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Don't Skip These 3 Steps in a New Building

There are some conversations that I have over and over. Of late, conversations about building a new building have been popping back up. Of course, hundreds of things need to be considered when building a new building, but there are few themes that seem to get missed more often that not. Skipping these things ensures two things: First, you and your congregation will not be happy with the performance of the sound, lighting and/or video in the room. Second, there will remain a healthy market for companies that specialize in fixing churches that were designed and built poorly. 

With that said, here are three things you cannot skimp on when entering a building project.

Fix the Acoustics Before You Build

First, the overall acoustic signature of the room has to be correct. This is where most churches take short cuts. They let the architect design the building; which is fine except most architects really don’t understand how acoustics work. Now that I work with architects, I understand why. They don’t look at buildings the same way we do as production folks. A few are getting better at it, but they're the ones who design churches for a living and have AVL guys on staff. 

The problem is most architects want the room to look nice and be easy to build. They never consider standing waves, comb filtering, reverberation time, reflections, and other nasty acoustical anomalies that will make it hard to get decent sound. Some argue that it can be fixed with electronics. It can't. There is no magic black box that will suddenly cancel out the bounce off the back wall that makes it really hard for everyone in the room to hear what the pastor is saying. 

So I strongly suggest all churches have an acoustician look at the plans before they are finalized. Most of the time, it only takes a few tweaks here and there to make a huge difference in how intelligible the room will be, and most of the time the cost to build is the same or only marginally higher. Very few churches get this part right, and it's why there's a huge market for acoustical study and retrofit of existing buildings. Given the acoustic treatment budgets in some of our remodel projects, I can guarantee you it’s a lot more expensive to fix it later. 

Don’t Skimp on Infrastructure

The second thing to consider is infrastructure. Again, most churches don't think of this. Audio, video, and lighting take a lot of wiring. If you leave it to the electrician to do it, you will be fighting the building forever. Especially if you are on a concrete slab. You need an easy way to get cabling from the tech booth to the stage; to speakers, to video projectors and to the dimmers. That means conduit. Conduit is cheap and easy to put in as the shell is going up. Afterward, not so much. Once you determine your needs for right now, lay out the conduits you need and make double-dog sure they get put in. Then add a few more empties just in case. And go big on the empties. Nothing is quite as frustrating as trying to figure out how to get a VGA cable down a 3/4" conduit (unless you enjoy making up Mini-15 connectors...). Having a couple of empty 2" conduits will make your life (or someone who comes after you) a lot easier in a year or three.

Get Your Systems Integrator Involved Early

The final thing (well, I could think of a dozen more, but these are the biggies) is to get your A/V/L systems integrator involved in the project now. Again, most churches wait until the building is up and drywall is being taped before considering who they'll use for the A/V. Bad idea. As with the acoustician, the earlier you get the A/V guys involved, the easier, cheaper and better the final product will be. They will be able to tell you what kind of wire to have pulled while the building is open. They can work with the acoustician to get the speaker fly points set correctly. They will be on the watch to make sure a duct run doesn't end up where you need to put a screen or projector. 

Choose your vendors carefully of course; make sure they have a proven track record of getting church design & install correct. Don't skimp on the design and planning phase. Cut out equipment if you have to. You can always re-purpose your existing mixer and upgrade to digital later. It's a lot harder to acoustically retrofit a poorly designed building. It's better to start with just a few lights and add as you go than to be fighting too low of a trim height because the building wasn't designed properly.

There is a lot to do when starting a building project. Sadly, the systems that churches rely on every single week to create powerful and engaging worship experiences are often afterthoughts at best. Don’t make that mistake. Your congregation will thank you later.

Roland