By Justin Firesheets
Few events tend to be more exciting for a church than the approval and beginning of a major construction project. It can signal the arrival of a new generation of growth and vision, but for a church tech, it also often signals the beginning of a lot of work behind the scenes.
While there are certain elements of the process that are pretty, well, elemental (yes, you will need speakers and some lights), there are some other aspects that tend to get overlooked, yet are still quite important in the long run.
The look of things vs. the function
What can complicate the lead-up to a construction project is that most designs tend to originate with an architect putting pen to paper for whatever vision is held by senior church leadership. At that stage, the architect’s job is to think more about the look and feel of things, rather than the function.
So, if the right sort of subcontractors (like electrical engineers, structural engineers, AVL integrators, etc.) aren’t part of that process early on, a design could be conceived that lacks focus and attention on notable infrastructure areas, simply because those things may not have been considered by the architect.
Critical conversations need to happen early on in the process
For example, an architect’s design of a main auditorium may first focus on the look of the room; symmetry, sight lines, etc. So, for someone not considering AVL functions, they may propose that the sound booth be tucked into a corner somewhere, slammed against a wall, or even moved to a room outside of the auditorium so as to not “clutter” the look of the space.
However, moving the booth off-center can impact an audio engineer’s mix because they aren’t hearing the PA correctly. Sticking the booth against a back wall can cause a devastating “bass trap” effect, and even moving the booth to another room creates untold issues with having to mix remotely.
So, these are critical conversations that need to happen early on in the process.
Likewise, someone not versed in AVL technical needs may not specify the right amount (or location) for power, may not note the importance of technical (or “clean”) power, or might not consider dimming curve when recommending any sort of LED house lighting.
Hard surfaces can wreak havoc on a sound system
Additionally, even though it’s possible now more than ever to do more live production with less cables there is still a need to think through the idea of future-proofing cable paths and conduit runs.
Electrical engineers, structural engineers and AVL integrators will focus on things that may not have been considered by the architect. Without critical conversations in the early stages of a project, the result may be great form but poor function.
It’s one thing to have conduit going through walls and overhead spaces; those can potentially get accessed or added to down the road, if need be. But for any conduit in or below the concrete slab, some amount of redundancy is a must on Day One. Once the slab is poured, it’s not exactly easy to add more conduit to it.
It’s not uncommon for below-grade conduit to get cracked during construction, which then would allow water to seep in and fill the pipe, compromising any cables that would have to run through it. It’s also not uncommon for conduit to get crushed or collapse, becoming unusable.
So, any time critical paths are run below the surface, like from FOH to a rack room, or from a rack room to the stage, for example, it’s wise to consider running an extra empty conduit or two that could be used for future growth, or as a backup in case one of the others gets damaged during construction.
Consider power sources
Architects or non-AVL electrical engineers tend to be pretty good at specifying needs for house or convenience power—outlets located throughout a space on various walls that can be used for miscellaneous needs like vacuums, lobby displays, etc. However, there’s also a need for strategically-placed house convenience outlets that can support the production team.
If there will be a storage closet where the team will keep gear (or even do maintenance), there may need to be additional power there so that equipment can be tested, or so batteries of some sort can be charged.
In a backstage area, there may need to be additional outlets to provide power to charging stations for wireless mics or in-ear packs. Or even an outlet just to plug in a simple rope light that can illuminate a dark area so people don’t trip while walking.
And, if there’s ever a desire to have a mini-fridge or coffeemaker in a tech booth (yes, these are important…), it’s better to have those on house power instead of tying in with the rest of the technical power in the booth, just to avoid the risk of adding any interference or ground hum, or overloading an electrical circuit.
Acoustics require special design plans
Lastly, when new spaces are designed, it’s easy for much of the energy to get focused on the look and feel of a space: How the floors are finished, what sort of cool treatments or add-ons are placed on the walls, does the space feel rustic or industrial, etc.
Unfortunately, while many of those elements can definitely improve the look of a space, they can also notably detract from the sound of a space.
Polished concrete floors and lots of windows in a lobby may look modern and allow for lots of sunlight, but all of those hard surfaces can wreak havoc on a 70v ceiling speaker system, which may then do nothing but add more unintelligible echo to an already noisy space (to say nothing of the bearing that natural light could have on hallway displays/TVs).
It’s even more of a potential concern in an auditorium. Smooth, hard floors may make it easier to clean up coffee spills, but it could also add extra reverb to the room that could create a mixing challenge. Exposed ceilings may look more industrial and modern, but without some sort of lapendary (yes, that’s a word) treatment, the vertical echo could also create a problem.
Consider acoustics early on in the process, and don’t rely on loudspeaker systems to “fix” acoustical problems in the room. That’s not the optimal approach.
Additional things to include in the early planning phase.
Additionally, decisions on the type of stage surface (carpet, performance vinyl, concrete, etc.) all have an impression not only on how the room sounds, but also on how lighting and special effects could potentially impact the space.
Be sure to consider acoustics of other areas including the foyer/atrium, café, offices and classrooms; especially youth rooms (ever been in a room full of screaming five-year-olds?)
When new construction is coming down the line, it’s easy for the big AVL systems to get lots of attention and focus from a church tech, and rightly so. They tend to be more expensive and are obviously very critical.
But there are other, smaller details that can have an outsized impact as well. While they can often be overlooked or forgotten, trying to address them early in the design process can clear up any sort of regret or “what-if” that could pop up down the road.
About the author
Justin Firesheets has been on staff at Church of the Highlands since early 2009. For his first 12 years on the team, Firesheets served as the Production Director, overseeing all of the events, teams, and Production infrastructure for more than 20 Highlands locations, including the broadcast campus in Birmingham, AL. In early 2021, he shifted into a new Project Manager role, working with the IT and Technology Services teams to oversee the network technology components of construction projects and capital infrastructure initiatives for the church and Highlands College, the ministry school Highlands founded that now has around 1,000 students. He enjoys training and investing in ministry leaders from across the world and enjoys sharing his experiences through online articles, public speaking, and on-site coaching.