Mind Your Assets

Volume 46, Issue 4

Religious buildings have a wealth of attributes that congregations can adapt and benefit from.

There is a stealth transition underway, leaving in its wake the abandonment of a great many of our nation’s traditional religious buildings. Reasons range from changes in demographics, differing views in the approach to worship, and building-related costs beyond the reach of congregations. The flip side of this pattern of abandonment is witnessing the myriad inventive ways that secular buildings are being converted for sacred use: movie palaces become tabernacles, storefronts are now sanctuaries, and even a former house of pancakes becomes a house of worship.

In the face of these changes–brought on by financial constraints; skyrocketing costs for building maintenance, energy, and operations; development pressures; evolving needs of spiritual communities–what steps can we take to reasonably predict the future, both from a fiscal and physical standpoint?

Understand Your Assets and Audience

Congregations and the spaces devised to contain them and their spiritual and secular activities tend to be complex and seemingly difficult to adapt to new use. Therefore, when a space becomes underutilized or abandoned, it often remains that way. On the flip side, modifications to sacred spaces often awkwardly subdivide properly proportioned space into unrecognizable–and uncomfortable–forms. Avoiding this destiny requires an assessment and studied understanding of the inherent qualities embedded in the existing building.

Revealing, then capitalizing, on the often hidden assets of our properties allows us to better position them for market opportunities or to reinstate for existing congregations. The triumvirate of performance, stability, and adaptability represents the hallmark of future viability of religious sites, characteristics that define appropriate uses, users, and design parameters.

Performance

Poor building performance leads to abandonment perhaps more than any other cause. Not only can it result in prohibitively costly operations and maintenance, it also affects comfort, space utilization, programming, and joy. Allocation of floor space and volume may no longer be suitable for the present needs of the congregation, or changes in the liturgy. Light levels, acoustics, orientation all have measurable effects on the success of a building to meet performance expectations.

Making buildings better energy performers is a critical first step in staving off undue financial expenditures and stabilizing thermal comfort. This may be accomplished readily by maintaining building envelope, restoring passive systems, tuning up infrastructure systems, and installing controls. In that light, performance is not limited to operations financing, but also encompasses change that can be made to service shrinking congregations via the ability to carve out intimate spaces within large volumes, which affects lighting, HVAC, acoustics, seating, orientation, and access. The benefit of many of our religious properties is that they offer endless possibilities for refinement without necessity of large capital expenditures.

Stability

Religious properties command special places within communities; they are anchors whether one is a member of the congregation or not. Often sited on corner lots or prominent hillsides, they represent the essence and social fabric of a place. Location, of course, can be a two-edged sword. While on the one hand, an iconic building in a central location–often walkable–reflects stability within a community, these same qualities also put religious properties under the klieg lights of developmental pressure. At once a marketing tool for expanded, compatible uses with the neighborhood–those that comfortably coexist with the congregation–we need to be mindful that Trojan horses are present, looking to lure congregations out of their homes.

Adaptability

While the primary objective is for religious properties to remain useful to their intended congregations, we are increasingly faced with a surfeit of religious properties that are under-utilized, abandoned, or threatened with demolition. In such cases, maintaining a building’s presence within the community requires adaptability to new uses. There is a limit, though, to the number of performance spaces–a common re-use strategy–that any community can absorb. Examples abound of design approaches making the most of embedded assets, converting religious buildings to libraries, schools, early- and late-life care facilities, community centers, offices, restaurants, retail shops, and residences. That such a variety of uses is possible is attributable to the many offerings typically afforded by sacred sites: large volumes, public assembly space, parking, central location, art and aesthetics, exterior courtyards, variable lighting, acoustics, a complex of multiple buildings, and shared infrastructure among them.

Development considerations and design solutions are best when they are both specific and holistic, providing benefits to the community alongside those of the users. In this regard, work with municipal government, planning offices, preservation coalitions and thematic district councils to review master plans and district goals can help dovetail a site with neighborhood vision and increase marketability for a variety of potential new users. This approach reduces the likelihood of redundant space offerings or working at cross purposes while helping ensure continued viability of properties experiencing the ebb and flow of change, while new liaisons have the power to turn competition into coalition.

Our ability to accommodate change–as a pathway to rebirth–benefits when we are most attentive to the assets in hand. As the saying goes, nothing is as permanent as change, so let’s embrace it.

Walter Sedovic and Jill Gotthelf are principals of Walter Sedovic Architects, an award-winning firm specializing in sustainable preservation. They can be reached at: [email protected]