Regardless of your faith, worship services tend to bring people together through a combination of speech and song. Acoustics are important to both. We often associate acoustics with performance venues and theatres but sound is just as critical in worship spaces and should not be overlooked.
While services will vary from one religion to another, all sacred spaces share similar acoustical requirements; they just need them to varying degrees. The right architectural design and acoustical treatments can create an environment that ensures every member of the congregation is part of the service.
Acoustical Challenges of Worship Spaces
Constructing a place of worship breaks all bounds of creativity. From intricately designed spaces that are generally grandiose and filled with light to others that have geometric patterns or natural elements. Everything from the high ceilings to circular rooms or domes have a significant impact on acoustics.
It can be challenging to modify an existing structure to improve acoustics post-construction. It’s easier and more cost-effective to consider acoustics during the preliminary design stages.
For congregations looking to relocate to a newer or bigger facility, the key questions you need to ask when designing a worship space to ensure optimal acoustics are:
1) What architectural requirements are needed in the design?
In general, different religious spaces have unique design elements that identify it as a synagogue, mosque, temple or a church. Acoustic finishes and geometries need to be considered, as they vary on cultural and varying religious needs. For example, many mosques tend to have high ceilings with tall dome shapes. At certain scales, the domes can create a distinct echo. Changing the scale can change this feature from problematic to a complementing element.
2) How big is the congregation and how do they gather?
The number of people will impact the size and shape of the room. In the past, churches were rectangular and long but today, the preference tends to be wider than long so every seat has a good view. Wide rooms have their own acoustical issues because the walls are not close enough to reflect sound within a certain time window. The result is echo and reverberation. An articulated ceiling shape can provide an effective spread of sound but this can be costly.
In some worship spaces, like a church, the congregation sits on hard pews or benches which can reflect sound and greatly impact acoustics. In other worship spaces like a Mosque or Temple, worshippers sit on a carpeted floor, which does not reflect sound like a bench, instead the carpets absorb it. Understanding how that particular faith group practices will influence the acoustics and help determine what treatments are required.
Larger facilities and crowds will also impact what kind of sound system is required in the space and how it integrates with the room’s acoustics.
3) How will this space be used?
Programming will greatly impact acoustical needs. Does the service have predominantly speech or song or a bit of both? For example, the Muslim call to prayer or the Hindu Vedic chants have a harmony to it making it more like song than speech. Are there multiple services or languages? Is the space being rented out to community groups? Will there be music? If yes, determine what kind of music, instruments and number of vocalists because they will all affect acoustical needs. Choirs and bands with multiple musicians and singers have different acoustical requirements.
4) What has the service looked like for the past 50 years and what will the next 50 years be like?
Many churches have evolved significantly over the decades from Gregorian chants and choirs to rock bands in less traditional spaces. It’s important to find out the history of the service and make note of the direction planned. If they are moving towards a less traditional service and appealing to a younger demographic, this might involve a different type of music or sermon which will impact the acoustical needs in the sacred space.
5) Should we renovate or rebuild?
It can be difficult to balance all of the needs of a worship space especially when there are many parties involved in the design process, including donors from the community. Ideally, a congregation can meet its needs with some minor or possible major renovations without uprooting the congregation and starting over in a new building. Often, it is easier to start with a clean slate than breaking down walls or adding temporary solutions in order to work with what you have.
Traditional design or architecture doesn’t need to be sacrificed to ensure good acoustics but it might require small modifications in size or space to balance acoustics with architecture. If you’re building a worship space, the goal is for it to play a pivotal role in the community for many years to come. Consider investing in expert advice from an acoustical consultant during the design stage to ensure the service inspires prayer and a sense of community.