Creating a great acoustic environment is one of the most important aspects of building a vibrant worship space. I have colleagues who emphatically claim that creating good acoustics is more important than lighting, cooling, heating and luscious interior design. We all know that the best sound system on earth will sound horrible in a space that has bad acoustics.
After years of working with Houses of Worship (HOWs), I am certain that the primary goal of most leaders is to build a worship space, install the gear and, finally, get people into the space so they can experience worship. Acoustics are not always given much consideration. That must change.
I believe that we can do more to help leaders understand that building a vibrant worship space, equipped with good acoustic properties, begins in the development stage—long before the first foot of concrete is poured or the first nail is hammered into place.
If we are being totally honest, then we must admit that acoustical design, which is an intangible, is not the easiest concept to explain to HOW leaders. They can visualize a building; they cannot, however, visualize acoustics. Because of this, we do not always give the acoustics discussion due diligence. Instead, we move to what we know best: namely, selling tangible items, such as lights, loudspeakers, video projectors and other things. The truth is, we must overcome that mindset and embrace the fact that we are not properly serving HOW leadership if we fail to convince them that they must take seriously the need to create good acoustics in the worship space. In the long run, they must spend the money needed for good acoustics. Otherwise, they risk creating a less-than-vibrant worship space.
Let me lay out a scenario that occurs far too often: HOW leaders do not allocate budget for acoustic design and treatment. Instead, they purchase and install the best sound system on earth. During the first worship service, the music sounds horrible and the speech lacks intelligibility. The band (or choir) members on stage can’t hear each other and, as a result, they perform poorly. They also become visibly frustrated. The audience, too, becomes frustrated because it hears a loud roar, rather than distinct instruments. The congregants do not fully engage in the worship experience, and they leave the worship service feeling frustrated instead of uplifted.
The leadership can sense the frustration from the congregants. After all, a brand-new worship space has fallen short of everyone’s expectations. Only then do the leaders begin to understand the importance of having good acoustics in the worship space. Unfortunately, to remedy the problem, they will need to spend a lot of money…much more money, in fact, than if they had prepared a plan in the preconstruction phase.
I believe that we can help HOW leaders understand the importance of good acoustics. I am not an acoustical engineer; however, I do know a few bits of information that are useful for persuading leaders to take acoustic treatment seriously.
First, as stated, HOWs must address acoustics in the planning stage. In the planning stage, problems are uncovered and spending can be managed. Second, allocate five percent to 15 percent of the budget as a starting point for acoustic treatment. Third, although five percent to 15 percent is a general percentage to allocate, the real figure will emerge once the size (height, width and length) of the worship space is determined. Fourth, the shape of the worship space also affects the budget for acoustics (and equipment needs). For example, a square room can enable sound waves to bounce back at each other. Actually, any worship space with parallel walls will generate standing waves that will impact the quality of sound.
Continuing on, fifth, the type of construction and decorative materials used inside the worship space also impact the quality of sound and the type of acoustic treatment that will be needed. For example, floors and walls made of wood, cement, marble, block and tile will generate numerous reflections and, thus, numerous arrival times to where people sit. Various types of acoustic treatment will more than likely be required. Sixth, room layout also affects the acoustic properties of a worship space. For example, posts, columns, doors, stained-glass windows and regular windows all contribute to a room’s acoustic signature. Seventh, cooling and heating noises can affect the acoustical properties of a room.
Never allow the architect to place the air handlers near the stage, or anywhere that will raise the noise floor and the sound pressure inside the worship space. I have witnessed this mistake in many HOWs. In these venues, the sound has to be raised to very high volumes just to get over the roar of the air handlers and air-conditioning systems.
The good news is, most of the acoustic problems that are inherent in creating a worship space can be resolved. The consequences of not giving acoustics high priority will be detrimental to the success of the worship experience. However, I believe that addressing concerns about acoustics will increase the opportunity to create a vibrant worship space where people can engage in a rich experience. That is what I believe. Please tell me what you believe.