The discussion of how and when to return to a sense of normalcy following the COVID-19 pandemic has evolved into a somewhat polarizing one. Everyone seems to have an opinion on the matter and the endless media coverage seems to come at us from every angle.
There is also a plethora of information available to church leaders, ranging from ways to do online church and engage more effectively with members digitally, to how to go about re-opening church again. Pastors have undoubtedly been overwhelmed with daily emails and online ads offering strategies, recommendations and expert opinions.
Even though there is a wide range of opinions on whether the total shut-down of the economy during this crisis was the correct response and even more disagreement on the length of the shut-down, we are reminded in God’s Word that it’s not really about us. Regardless of our own opinions on the matter, we must be willing to consider the needs and concerns of others before our own, particularly when it comes to health and safety.
Facilities are obviously a central part of this discussion. As architects that serve ministry-based organizations, our recent focus has shifted to how these aspects of change will influence the way that we approach design in both existing and new buildings.
So how can we address the needs and concerns of the most vulnerable in our facilities? Based on what we know about this virus, we believe there are three key areas of consideration for church buildings: occupant density, indoor air quality, and high touch areas.
We believe the experience of COVID-19 will challenge the tried and true 80% rule for church facilities. The 80% rule says that a worship center or parking lot that is 80% full communicates to visitors that, “There’s no place for you.” This rule applies to every ministry the church is engaged in and has been a useful tool for us in helping churches plan their future facilities. Due to the need for improved social distancing in spaces, which could become normal practice even after a COVID-19 vaccine is released, the 80% rule may become more like the 60% rule for worship gatherings. This means a 200 person worship center would begin to reach its perceived max capacity around 120 people instead of 160.
As we consider the implications of lower occupant density in our church buildings, a key area of focus will be finding ways to limit choke points in the flow of people from one space to another.
Potential solutions include the incorporation of movable glass acoustical walls between the lobby space and worship area to avoid crowding during exit, which also allows for expandability and added seating capacity in the space. Other potential high traffic “choke” points where we are exploring design solutions include children’s check-in areas and cafe spaces. We could see an expanded use of larger, garage style door openings with roll-up doors, which have been utilized in BGW church designs for youth and other large group gathering spaces, both at exits points and as connections to other spaces within the building.
The open layout or community center style floor plan has been a growing trend in church design for a number of years and will become even more important in the age of social distancing. In recent years, the percentage of space devoted to the lobby or “Third Place” gathering area has continued to grow. Today this space typically accounts for a minimum of 75% of the space allotted for worship and we anticipate this could grow to 100% of the worship footprint.
We believe there will also be an increased utilization of outdoor space in church designs, both for transition spaces and for gathering spaces in warm climate areas.
Improving Indoor Air Quality
The COVID-19 crisis has created more urgency to focus on the indoor air quality of our buildings. There is mounting research to suggest that clean, disinfected air plays a vital role in preventing the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus causing COVID-19. While respiratory droplets are considered the primary transmission route, aerosols are being considered by many health authorities as a possible mode of infection transmission along with surface contact. This suggests that viral particles can remain suspended in the air for long periods and can be inhaled.
Plasma Air International provides an innovative bipolar ionization technology that has become an integral part of BGW’s standard HVAC package. We have found it to be a superior solution because it proactively treats the air in the occupied space at the source of contamination. As air passes over the unit, millions of positively and negatively charged ions are formed – just like in nature.
These bipolar ions disperse into the occupied space through the duct system, proactively attacking airborne contaminants where they cause the most problems for occupants.
Recent independent testing has shown that Plasma Air Ionization reduces Coronavirus Surrogate MS2 Bacteriophage by 99% in indoor environments.
These units also reduce the amount of air changes required by building code from fresh air sources, which reduces the required tonnage and cost of HVAC units by up to 25% and reduces energy costs.
Another design consideration that we feel will be gaining momentum as we look for innovative ways to improve indoor air quality is underfloor air distribution (UFAD). This is an alternative method of delivering conditioned air into buildings, as opposed to conventional ceiling-based air distribution systems. Since the fresh air enters a room from floor level at low velocity, it takes advantage of natural thermal buoyancy, with warmer air rising towards the ceiling. Along the way, the air currents force pollutants up and away from occupants, allowing the air to be treated for any contaminates prior to occupants “sharing” the air.
Standard overhead air distribution systems are designed to mix the entire air volume in an enclosed space, causing any suspended pollutants or particles to linger for greater periods of time and reach more occupants. In many cases, underfloor air systems allow for higher air quality while using 20% less fan energy, saving money in the form of lower energy and installation/construction costs.
Considerations For High-Touch Areas
We believe that the innovation of products in high touch spaces will become even more crucial in providing a safe space for people in our church buildings. Architects will need to have an in depth understanding of products that are proven to help prevent the spread of viruses but are also cost-effective solutions for ministry organizations.
The architects at BGW have been researching a wide range of products for our church and school design specifications, including hands-free door openers for restrooms, hand-sanitizing stations, anti-microbial washroom accessories and surfaces, and even anti-microbial lighting that can prevent viruses like COVID-19 from replicating and spreading.
Manual cleaning and other sanitizing solutions act only as a band aid and are a temporary solution to an ongoing problem and it’s nearly impossible to keep up with the cleaning demand.
BGW Architects has an exclusive partnership with the non-profit Cornerstone Building Supply, which has negotiated factory-direct pricing with leading manufacturers across the country who have a heart to support Christian ministry, eliminating at least one layer of mark up, sometimes more.
When selecting manufacturers to partner with, Cornerstone researches the most innovative and highest quality products that can deliver not only the best up-front savings, but also the lowest long term “life-cycle” costs. Cornerstone’s goal is to ensure that ministry buildings remain affordable to operate and maintain, so that these dollars can be invested back into ministry objectives.