By Lorianna Kastrop, Vice President, The Kastrop Group, Inc. Architects
The Wall Street Journal reports that “Construction of religious buildings in the U.S. has fallen to the lowest level at any time since private records began in 1967.” http://www.wsj.com/articles/decline-in-church-building-reflects-changed-tastes-and-times-1417714642 This reflects trends in society and, of course, rising land and building costs. According to the article, congregations are making decisions about how to spend money: on their ministry or on church infrastructure.
We think that this also reflects a change in the way people look at the usefulness of their built environment. New alternatives to traditional structures have emerged. Many young professionals prefer chic multifamily transit-oriented living spaces with a myriad of shared amenities like recreational facilities and roof-top gardens instead of single family houses with white picket fences. In the same way, many faith communities are making the choice to worship in adapted environments that don’t look like the traditional large and highly decorative churches of the past. It is a way to get a lot more “bang for the buck”.
We recently remodeled a suite in a 1950’s office complex into a worship space for the First Church of Redwood City, United Church of Christ http://www.firstchurchrwc.org/. The new space has tall ceilings and a welcoming, contemplative feeling that certainly is appropriate as a chapel and gathering space for religious services. It is also very modern and efficient, and can be adapted for use as a concert space or party/reception space. Offices, a counseling/meeting room, and a kitchen are adjacent to the main room. Decorated with inspirational banners that can be changed for the season or event, and windows that allow natural light, the church is appropriate for a multitude of uses. It is part of an office complex, and shares a parking lot with a big box store. The parking is complementary. During the week the parking spaces are used by the businesses but on the weekends the church uses them. This allows parking spaces to be used 7 days a week, rather than the typical one or two days of use for many church parking lots. First Church is also an oasis from the hustle and bustle of the outside world. The young men from the high-tech company that leases the space above the church are made to feel welcome when they come in and go from the building. Being in an office environment provides a regular connection between the church members and their community.
Several years ago Mike worked on the conversion of a single denomination Christian church into a space that is used by more than one church. Joint Venture Churches is a partnership between the Episcopal Church of Almaden and the Congregational Church of Almaden Valley, United Church of Christ http://www.congregationalchurchofalmadenvalley.org/joint-venture-churches.html. Keeping the space spiritual, without overt icons from any one religion, the church is appropriate no matter which group is using it. A multi-faith Board holds regular meetings for shared decision-making. Building maintenance costs for each church are effectively cut in half. This is another clever answer to the construction cost conundrum for smaller faith communities.
Our firm remodeled a beautiful wooden French Gothic Catholic church in Menlo Park that was originally built in 1872 http://nativitymenlo.org/. While that church has the steeple and stained glass of traditional churches, it now is retrofitted for seismic safety, has fire sprinklers installed, is accessible to the disabled, is “looped” for the hearing-impaired, has a modern sound system and many other modern amenities.
So, whether a faith community is large or small, has substantial funds or very little money, wants to update a traditional structure or move to something completely different, there is a way to make it work. And as architects, it is a happy challenge to help you do it.
While it may be true that there are fewer new churches being built, it may also be true that it is time to look at sacred spaces in a new light. Perhaps there is no less need for spiritual worship, just more need for creative ways to accommodate it.