Dallas Theological Seminary: Designing for Hybrid In-Person and Virtual Worship Design

by | Case Studies, Facilities, Leadership, Production, Worship Service Planning

By Cathy Hutchison, originally posted on Technologies for Worship

The campus for Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS) is nearly 100 years old with sprawling live oaks and brick buildings with cast stone detailing. For a local seminary that started before the first transatlantic flight, DTS has grown to global reach in connection and influence.

When DTS first started working with GFF Architects on the new chapel and student life center, they requested a campus master plan that would help DTS serve students for the next 100 years. This strategy drove how new and existing buildings would relate to each other to create a pedestrian-friendly campus with a cohesive design.

As you approach the new building, you immediately notice the wide-open lawn with students hanging out together. Families walk the pathways with children riding their bikes. There is a fountain and a firepit with built in seating designed for small gatherings. Everything is designed to support personal connection and relationships.

The building has a transparent front façade that helps to blur the lines between life outdoors and life indoors. For students who are on campus all day, it’s a visual invitation to rest, connect with friends, grab food, and study.

“Our motto ‘teach truth, love well’ speaks to the importance of the balance between outstanding academic resources and heart transformation. The addition of the New Student Center & Chapel provides a dedicated space that focused on life-on-life transformation,” says Robert Riggs, Vice President of Operations for DTS.

Designing for connection—both in-person and digitally

“It was an innovative decision for DTS to pair the new chapel with the new student life center. We see this combination of worship space with places to connect socially in churches all the time, but not necessarily on seminary campuses,” shares Stephen Pickard, Principal at GFF who led the design team in updating the campus plan and developing the architectural design for the project. “This project gives people the ability to connect at a variety of different scales. Formal and informal. There are a variety of spaces within the commons or out on the quadrangle to see that allow and encourage people to pause and talk.”

“Last year during the height of the pandemic, universities and churches had to rely primarily on digital platforms as a means to reach people. For DTS, a hybrid approach was already part of their educational program and a key requirement for the design of the Chapel,” shares Jacquelyn Block, Associate Principal and Studio Director for GFF. “The acoustical treatments, finishes and lighting in the Chapel were carefully selected and designed to provide a similar and high-quality visual and acoustical experience for both the in-person and virtual audience.” 

Hiding technology in a high-finish chapel

“DTS wanted the Chapel to feel warm, inviting and to be composed of natural materials, such as wood and stone,”  highlights Block. “Stone and wood, both highly reflective materials, could have created acoustical challenges in the space, but GFF collaborated with theatre consultant, Idibri, who created sound models to study the room and determine where absorptive materials were needed.  Where absorption was needed a combination of acoustical panels and an acoustically absorptive micro-perforated wood system were used to minimize unwanted sound reflections.”

Idibri also collaborated with GFF on the Chapel platform wall colors to make sure the space worked on camera.

“One of my favorite parts of this project was how closely everyone worked together. DTS leadership, GFF, Hill and Wilkinson (the GC), and the subcontractors. There was a lot of communication with everyone. When you design in a vacuum someone gets disappointed, but here the collaboration was tight,” says Jason McKelvey, project manager for Idibri.

McKelvey continues, “The DTS video and audio team knew what they needed, and part of my job was to keep my eye on that. The challenge was to make sure the tech team had the capacity they desired without a negative impact to the aesthetic.”

The chapel features streams of natural light coming from a cupola over the center of the Chapel. Concealed automated blackout shades were designed to allow for a more controlled environment when required for video streaming.

One strategy for low profile technology with high performance was designing a 6-camera production using Panasonic AW-UE150 4k PTZ (pan-tilt-zoom) cameras.

“Using all PTZ’s kept the sightlines in the chapel clear and minimized the number of operators needed,” says McKelvey. “It works in their context because the speakers present from a dedicated lectern. They don’t need an operated camera to follow a speaker who is moving around the room.”

To further integrate technology into the aesthetics of the room without compromising the performance, L-Acoustics A15i series speakers are suspended in the clouds above in compact arrayed positions. Accompanying the main speakers, but concealed beneath the deck behind perforated steel grills, are companion L-Acoustics KS21i subwoofers and X4i front fills. With a transparent presence for spoken word and impactful dynamics during ensemble performance, the system accommodates and adapts to the wide range of programs that the DTS team supports.

Video production for a hybrid experience

One feature of the AW-UE150 camera is that each camera provides output for two images—a wide angle view and a cropped closeup with 1:1 pixel scaling which essentially doubles the camera count. This is especially great for shots from the center camera where output 1a is a wide shot and output 1b is a closeup – from the same camera.

The entire room can participate in a hybrid experience because the video switcher can ingest the video from a conference call computer, and also send program video back to the virtual participants.

A challenge with using unmanned cameras is that they can pick up vibration from things like an opening door. Part of Idibri’s design was to isolate cameras from the primary building structure and walls to keep them stable.

An audience participation position was integrated into the space where anyone can walk up to a microphone to speak or ask a question. Camera angles were carefully modeled with 3-D rendering to ensure a good camera shot of this position, allowing an audience member to speak not only to the in-room audience, but also to the virtual one.

Theatrical lighting positions are integrated into the architecture with video-friendly front-light angles using ETC ColorSource spots and backlight with ETC ColorSource pars. Idibri’s designers kept the fixtures in the same family for continuity of color rendering. The architectural lighting system has the ability to recall preset looks for ease of use, and for higher production events, there is a Vista by Chroma-Q lighting console.

Support for the Master of Arts in Media and Worship degree

When the seminary was first launched, the focus was oriented around preaching ministries. But now there are degrees in media ministry, worship, and much more that require assistance from technology to support their missions. The 500-seat chapel was designed to provide similar technology to what students will use in their future ministry positions which meant the chapel had to balance between delivering the spoken word and also meeting the needs of concert applications.

“A Yamaha CL5 console and companion Rio3224-D2 stage racks were selected by DTS to aid in this practical education of operators while also providing future-forward features. One way that they are leveraging the console is by utilizing Audinates Dante protocol to provide connectivity for their wireless microphone, in-ear monitoring systems, as well as their locally broadcasted Spanish and Chinese translation channels,” shares Luke Krogness of Idibri who provided the audio design for the project.

Located backstage in a dedicated suite are both video and audio production spaces where live stream and post-produced content originate. Utilizing the resources that support the chapel, these rooms serve as the central nerve system allowing operators the freedom to enhance and curate their content prior to distribution or archiving. Together this technology supports the campus’ abundance of weekly events, including their chapel nights and preacher series which are streamed beyond the local student body.

Creating a hub for the next 100 years

The new chapel and student life building creates a hub—both locally and globally—for the DTS campus, one that will have long-term reach.

“The students who learn ministry here are going to go out and lead. There’s no way to predict how many lives will be impacted. While I’m excited professionally about what this project does for the campus plan and architecture, ultimately what is most satisfying is what this project will do for people,” shares Pickard.

“Dallas Theological Seminary is very pleased with the new Student Center and Chapel,” highlights Riggs. “The gathering space and cafe provide a community meeting place for students, staff and guests while the chapel provides a dedicated worship space in the center of campus. The seamless integration of these functions in a single facility, coupled with support offices, emphasize the importance of life-transformation in theological education.”

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