Faith Through a Pandemic

Those within the faith community know, every sheep needs a shepherd, but also every sheep needs a herd.  Faith buildings are a place for communion with others; a place to uplift, encourage, and support one another.  Maintaining those human connections is more critical than ever now when people may be feeling isolated and afraid due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.  However, in order to love our neighbors well, we need to also make sure we are keeping them safe.  Remember, the faith community is not the building, it is the people, even when they are at their own homes.  Our job as designers is to create a building that is an effective tool to support the congregation.  The coronavirus is not just a health crisis; it is a design problem, and every day we come up with solutions to solve problems through the built environment.  So how are people using the physical worship building to help address the new challenges we face during the pandemic?  Gathering spaces are critical to communities; the support they provide just looks a little different these days.

As the faith family adapts to the new challenges of the coronavirus pandemic, creative solutions make the best use of the available resources. If a large parking lot or a large field is available, outdoor or drive-in services can be an option for the congregation to gather in person, while maintaining social distancing.  This can be accomplished by moving existing audio equipment outdoors or partnering with a local radio station to broadcast the audio live to each car.  An opportunity for this approach exists at a contemporary church project completed by LS3P where a large garage door separates the worship space from the parking lot.  The original intent of this design was to support the church’s mission for outreach through community concerts and other outward focused events, but it can now be easily used to host outdoor services.  Of course, the ability to have outdoor services is dependent on the weather, so when that is not an option, buildings are being adapted to be occupied in a new way.

When worship centers begin to reopen at reduced capacity, it is important to have guidelines in place to create a safe yet still welcoming environment.  In order to limit capacity, but not have to turn anyone away, many have increased the number of services available and have encouraged people to sign up ahead of time for which service they will be attending. Ideally, some seats are also set aside so that if someone new decides to worship they feel welcomed.  While in many gathering spaces, chairs are being moved apart to encourage more distant seating, one creative solution is rearranging the chairs around tables each occupied by one family.  This approach to seating can create a more comfortable environment that feel less forced while still defining a safe distance for seating.  In other gathering areas, there can be a designated area as a more secure space for the at-risk.  This may be an overflow room or a balcony where everyone is required to wear masks at all times so that even the at-risk members of the faith family can attend in person while still feeling safe.

A unique opportunity that has come out of the social distancing protocols in many cities is that large gathering facilities such as movie theaters, event venues, and sports arenas are closed.  This could allow a congregation to use the larger empty building as a space to worship while being much more spread out than they are able to be in their own facility.  An example of this partnership that we have seen locally is a priest reaching out to the owner of a minor league baseball team to use the stadium for Sunday services.  This allows everyone in the congregation to come together and hear the homily given from the top of the dugout while maintaining a safe distance from other parishioners spread across the stadium.  This creative solution balances the need for safety and the need to feel a sense of community.

It is unclear whether the coronavirus pandemic will inspire a new normal in our built environment or whether we will see lasting changes to our approaches to design. More critical than designing beautiful, functional spaces, the health, safety and welfare of the people occupying our designs should be at the forefront of every architect’s approach to design.  We do not know if code requirements will change as a result of the pandemic. Will “COVID-compliant” become a new term in the vocabulary of future architects, requiring such things as mechanical systems with HEPA filters and increased fresh air intact or a reduced occupancy count? Without knowing the duration and extent of these design strategies over the long term, there are some tools and strategies that we already use in designing the lobby, sanctuary, and children’s spaces that can easily be used to make new faith buildings a little safer for the community to use.

In new faith projects, lobby spaces are more than a place to quickly walk through on the way to the worship room. They are a place to gather, get a cup of coffee, and have a conversation with friends.  Although serving coffee may be on hold for the time being, many of the design features of gathering space lobbies can be beneficial for developing a healthy church environment.  Wider circulation areas allow people to circulate freely without pinch points or unintentional contact.  Just off the main circulation, tables and chairs with easily cleanable surfaces can be placed along with attractive lower lighting to create a comfortable environment that naturally encourages people to move out of the flow of circulation for more intimate conversations.  If there are multiple services, increasing the time between services will ensure that one group of people has moved through the lobby and often touched surfaces can be quickly cleaned before the next group of people arrives.  There are also self-cleaning films available that can be applied to surfaces; however, studies are still being done to determine exactly how effective they are against the spread of viruses.  It can also be beneficial to remove any unnecessary touched objects from gathering spaces.  This could include reducing printed material and instead displaying information through technology.  Using screens in the gathering space and pointing people to the church website for additional details also allows information to be updated frequently avoiding outdated printed materials.  Of course, there are other technologies available for designers to consider that can reduce touched surfaces in public spaces including automated doors, bathroom fixtures, sinks, and occupancy sensors for lights.  Because we have already implemented many of these strategies into the design of church lobbies and gathering spaces, throughout the pandemic we have seen churches be able to use them for other activities such as food donation collections and blood drives.

In worship spaces, we have learned from the pandemic that planned flexibility can be very beneficial in reacting to change.  Assembly spaces without fixed seating have been able to easily space the chairs out for a reduced occupancy.  Those with a flexible platform and audio/visual system have been able to move their worship outdoors.  We do not know what will happen in the future, but planning for the ability grow and adapt to ever-changing needs can be beneficial because change is constant.  Throughout recent years, we have seen the increased integration of technology into worship services.  This shift has been slow as it is an investment both of money and of time to learn new systems.  However, because of months of stay at home restrictions, we have seen the acceleration, adoption, and acceptance of new technology in worship facilities including the use of cameras and online giving.  When the building is closed, there are many options for filming ahead and editing content for at home viewers, or live streaming the sermon from unique and engaging locations.  However, it is more of a challenge to find the balance between both creating video content that is engaging to some people still in their homes while not infringing on the experience of those who have chosen to return to worship services in person.  Camera locations and lighting should be considered carefully for this reason.  Incorporating an acoustically treated and aesthetically pleasing filming studio as well as production suites, camera platforms and media risers will become more typical in faith-based designs.

Children’s spaces may be the most challenging location to accommodate new healthy protocols and have, therefore, been the last type of gathering spaces to reopen.  However, there are still some strategies that can be used to improve the design of these spaces.  When entering the children’s space, a check-in area is ideal for security for the classrooms, but can also be a convenient place for temperature checks or any other safety protocols to be implemented.  From this point, a one-way circulation loop connecting the classrooms to the lobby is helpful to avoid crowding while parents drop off and pick up their children.  Ideally, classrooms should be scheduled to be used only once per day so that they can be cleaned between classes.  In the classrooms, separate areas can be defined with furniture or different colored carpet in order to encourage the children to maintain safe distances.  Finally, the typical playset with tubes and slides is impossible to clean, but can be replaced with outdoor recreation spaces.  These spaces also provide the opportunity for athletic or community activities throughout the week.  Increased social media presence is also very effective for reaching youth throughout the week for online activities.

We have seen inspiring examples of the community pulling together during crisis. What can we as designers do to help as well? We need to be prepared to react as faith communities are evaluating their ministries and innovating their outreach strategies.  The building should be the thoughtfully designed tool that supports the current and future needs of the faith family and does not limit them as they develop new creative solutions.  While the coronavirus pandemic has proved that we cannot always know what is coming next, we can be resourceful in the way we incorporate adaptability into the built environment.  Faith has been a critical part of the community for centuries and will continue through this pandemic and whatever the next crisis is as well.  Let’s design spaces that can adapt to the changing needs of the faith community and therefore facilitate its ministries.

About Spencer

Associate Principal Spencer Dixon joined LS3P in 1995 and currently serves as the Faith Studio Leader in the Greenville office. He brings 24 years of experience at all phases of design in construction and works extensively in designs for faith-based clients at all scales across the Southeast and beyond.

Spencer was born and raised in Trujillo, Peru, as the son of missionaries and speaks Spanish fluently. He holds both a Bachelor of Architecture in Design and a Master of Architecture from Clemson University.

About Marissa

Architect Marissa DiLoreto has contributed to a diverse portfolio of projects for LS3P’s Greenville office, focusing on faith-based designs including Riverland Hills Baptist Church in Irmo, SC; Embark Church in Orangeburg, SC; and Gracelife Church and First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, SC.

Marissa, who joined LS3P in 2015, is a graduate of Clemson University with both a Master of Architecture and a Bachelor of Arts in Architecture (Magna Cum Laude) with a specialty in Digital Ecologies. Active in professional and community service, Marissa currently serves as Chair of ACE Mentor’s Upstate Affiliate and is a member of the Greenville Chamber in both the Young Professionals and Pacestters programs.