Divine Inspiration

May 1, 2008

Architects combine aesthetics with religious symbolism at St. Croix Lutheran High School Chapel in West St. Paul, MN.

By Brandy Huseman

Rising proudly alongside a 1950s brick school building and its recently remodeled athletic facilities, the new chapel at St. Croix Lutheran High School in St. Paul, MN, vividly portrays the mission of its school even to onlookers several blocks away.

Three curved copper walls representing the Holy Trinity are placed one behind the other, the outermost containing a T-shaped opening framing a metal cross fixed to the exterior. Inside, the opening forms a unique contrast between the incoming light and the darker walls, emphasizing the importance of the cross to worshippers. Huge windows on the sides of the facility provide outsiders a view of the religious activity taking place inside the chapel.

"We wanted a signature worship space that would be a visible demonstration of the spiritual aspects of the school, as our mission statement talks about educating the total student - spiritually, intellectually, and physically - in a caring, Christian, family community," says Bill Schaefer, pastor at St. Croix and chairman of the building planning committee for the chapel. "We had a wonderful school building, and we had just upgraded the athletic facilities, so we wanted a building that gave the passerby the idea that there is Christian activity—Christian living—taking place on this campus."

Solid Sound
That it does. The 6,400-square-foot facility, designed by Kodet Architectural Group of Minneapolis, provides an intimate worship setting for up to 500 people in a quiet, comforting environment. Much of the activity inside the chapel comes in the form of daily chapel services, which include both spoken prayer and song. Music director Casey Pufahl used to hold performances in the school's auditorium, which had fluted walls that absorbed much of the sound. "For this facility, I was hoping for some hard surfaces, along with surfaces that were flat but reflect or reverb sound better," Pufahl says.

St. Croix Lutheran Chapel's steel structural frame was left exposed to represent the support people receive from God during worship. Edward J. KODET Jr., FAIA

Fortunately for the school's choirs, the facility does contain several hard surfaces, including polished concrete and hardwood floors. Acoustic ceiling panels and angled coffers above the space frame help direct and control sound. Sound-diffusing materials behind each of the curved copper walls help absorb unnecessary reverberation, and the east and west sides of the facility have beveled glass windows that help direct sound back into the sanctuary.

St. Croix's AV integrator, Audio Video Electronics (AVE) of Maple Grove, MN, was brought in early in the design process to work with the architect on ensuring that all of the technological elements would be hidden. Kodet had integrated a 3-foot-deep rectangular enclosure over the center of the room to hold—and hide—the speakers and blend with the architecture. As a result, AVE had to select speakers that would fit inside the enclosure while still producing a directional sound. AVE vice president Kevin Crow, who designed the system, selected four small full-range horn-style ServoDrive loudspeakers because they were very pattern-controlled and wouldn't energize the room, which, he says, was already very acoustically live. The system allows for its operator to turn off certain speakers so that sound can be directed to one or all of the seating sections.

St. Croix's audio system also includes both lapel and handheld wireless microphones and a mixing console with RANE system processing, which has two modes. When a technician is running the system the RANE acts as a simple processor for the system to produce room equalization. The other mode enables non-technical users to operate the system by acting as an auto-mixer for the commonly used microphones. This element was important for St. Croix because the facility is regularly reserved by the public for weddings, baptisms, funerals, and concerts.

AVE also installed FSR floor pockets loaded with microphone and monitor jacks at several locations within the sanctuary. The technological elements can be input into any of the pockets, which hide the jacks when not in use.

"The technology is 100 percent hidden," says Ed Kodet of Kodet Architectural Group. "Our idea about technology is that it's wonderful to have, and it's wonderful to use for our communication. Ninety percent of the time ... it's wrong for worship. Worship needs to be quiet, and if one takes and puts in all this technology, it becomes busy, it becomes distracting ... the focus should be on the activities inside."

The pockets also contain one video input jack for laptop presentations. AV consultants designed conduit and power for visual projection in the facility; however, the AV budget was only about $35,000 and no visual elements are currently in use.

Above: Usually located in the center of the worship space, the altar at St. Croix has large casters so it may be moved to different locations in the chapel. Below: Large windows provide plenty of natural light for the worship space at St. Croix. PHOTOS: PETER BASTIANELLI-KERZE

Changeable Choice
The floor pockets do more than hide the technology—they also aid another critical element of the architect's design: changeability. Kodet designed the chapel to have a fluid setup, with chairs instead of pews and a moveable altar and altar platform. The floor pockets are located at various places throughout the sanctuary, allowing the technology to be moved around. Usually, the furniture is arranged so that the chairs form a circle surrounding the altar in the middle of the room. (According to Pufahl, this setup helps alleviate the "back row syndrome" people sometimes feel when they are far removed from the speaker.) However, the setup can be changed so that the altar is beneath the cross and the chairs are arranged in rows. The baptismal font, which is the shape of a segment of the River Jordan, is also movable.

Because the altar weighs about 1,200 pounds and the platform another 700, taking full advantage of the architect's flexible design became a challenge early on for St. Croix. This led to the architect returning later to install large casters on the platforms to make them easier to move. With the casters, the platforms can be easily moved by two people.

The use of chairs in the design also required a special modification—they had to link together to meet seating codes. According to Kodet, the chairs used at St. Croix are not normally found in religious environments but were carefully selected for their aesthetics, comfort, weight, and how they reflect the interior character of the space.

Adds Schaefer, "Chairs work better for high school students than pews. You know exactly where your space is, and that's where you sit."

Kodet Architectural Group included huge windows in its design of St. Croix to allow onlookers to see the religious activity happening inside the facility. The windows also let in natural light, which provides an uplifting religious environment for worshippers. Edward J. KODET Jr., FAIA

Progression of Light
One of the facility's biggest improvements from the old worship space in the auditorium is the chapel's natural lighting, which both the architect and the client saw as an important part of the worship experience. Unlike the dark auditorium with no windows, the chapel contains huge windows designed to let in sunlight. "There are no windows in the school building except in an administrative office upfront, so we wanted windows flooded with direct and indirect light," Schaefer says.

The new lighting setup is not only aesthetically pleasing but also spiritually uplifting. Two light scoops (see Figure 1)—daylighting filters located at the entrance to the sanctuary and in the center of the space—produce the effect of a progression of natural lighting that increases the light level little by little as one enters the facility. Most of the lighting happens at the lowest height with an abundance of windows; the smallest amount of light is at the highest location. As people enter the facility, the natural light pulls their eyes from low to intermediate to high, Kodet explains. "The idea is that worship is life-enriching, that one's spirit needs to be elevated. If you're seeking the refuge of worship and want to enhance your life, it needs to be uplifting."

Figure 1: Two light scoops, one at the entrance to the sanctuary and one in the center of the space, filter daylighting into the worship space in the form of both direct and reflected light. KODET ARCHITECTURAL GROUP

Adds Pufahl, "It's much more a religious experience. It's so bright, and it represents Jesus coming into our lives, as opposed to when we used to worship in our auditorium—so drab and dark and dreary. There's a huge difference."

The infrastructure was designed to allow shades to be added to the large windows and clerestory windows in the future. However, because so much of the light from the light scoops is indirect and soft when it enters the space, there is little need for shades. As with any environment that embraces nature, says Kodet, there are always concerns, such as the sun shining into the space too strongly on a specific seat, causing its occupant to have to move. But the client's desire to have high levels of natural lighting won out. In fact, little artificial light was used at St. Croix, and where used it is concealed as much as possible. Can, track, and theatre lighting are all controlled on dimmers and staged to be provided when and where needed, including for special and accent occasions. Even the cross is lit on the outside by lighting concealed in the ground.

Beyond providing high levels of natural lighting, the large windows at St. Croix also provide transparency - an important factor for the client, who wanted the religious activity to be seen from outside the facility.

Symbolic Significance
An especially unique and symbolic feature of the facility is its exposed steel structural frame. Similar to historic Gothic cathedrals, the supporting steel beams were left exposed to symbolize the support God gives the congregation. Says Kodet, "The structure has a way of reinforcing the importance of worship and reinforcing a sense of honesty ... it represents the strength of being well thought-out and the strength of the importance of worship."

The architect's use of chairs instead of pews at St. Croix Lutheran Chapel gives flexibility to the facility's setup. Edward J. KODET Jr., FAIA

The exposed structure consists of a space frame supported by four slender columns, a free-standing metal cross, and planar walls that open to the outside with tall floor-to-ceiling windows. Structural engineer Mattson Macdonald Young experienced some challenges in finding a way to properly resist the gravity and lateral forces without spoiling the architect's design goals. According to Dave Macdonald, principal at the Minneapolis-based firm, solving the problem involved finding a reasonable load path that allowed the forces to find their way through various building elements to the foundation, "sort of like plotting a road map for each type of load." The roof deck was used as the diaphragm that distributes loads to stiffer vertical members. It also helps stiffen the space frame that in turn supports the same roof deck.

Like the exposed steel supports, the walls of the facility contain important religious symbolism. The architect used copper for the walls because it ages over time, paralleling the journey of life. It also has inherent religious significance, Schaefer says, because it is recognized as a precious metal of the earth. The copper, supplied by Berwald Roofing Company of St. Paul, MN, was applied on the outside of the facility in shingles over a weather barrier and exterior sheathing and on the inside over interior sheathing. The walls have 6-inch studs as the primary structure, and the ¾-inch sheathing brings the thickness of the walls to about 8 inches. Because St. Croix was built before the recent increase in copper costs (the price of copper more than doubled in 2006), the walls did not pose a problem for the facility's modest $2.1 million budget.

Successful Solution
Since its completion in early 2004, the new facility at St. Croix has surpassed its expectations, garnering several design awards, including the 2006 AIA Minnesota Award. The acoustics have had positive effects on student participation in the chapel—evidence that the facility is achieving its goal of giving St. Croix's students an enhanced spiritual education.

"It has made chapel a high point of the day, and when you're in worship in the chapel, I would say it has enlarged the worship life of everybody concerned," says Schaefer. "Chapel is something people look forward to, and even though it's mandatory attendance for students ... we've noticed the participation of students is better, the songs are louder, the prayers are articulated better. Student participation is high." •

Brandy Huseman ([email protected]) is new products editor at ARCHI-TECH.


Pro Co custom engraved microphone input jack plates

Lowell equipment rack

HSA rolltop desk for the mixer

Allen & Heath GL2400-24 mixing console

Audio-Technica wireless microphones

Rane system processing

ServoDrive loudspeakers

SurgeX power conditioning

Countryman over-the-ear microphones 

Project Team:

Architect: Kodet Architectural Group Ltd.

General Contractor: RJM Consturction

Copper Cladding: Berwald Roofing Co. Inc.

Glazing Contractor: Midland Glass and Mirror Co. Inc.

Civil Engineer: Larson Engineering of Minnesota

Mechanical/Electrical Engineer: Dolejs Associates Inc.

Structural Engineer: Mattson Macdonald Young

Landscape Architect: Ingraham and Associates Inc.

Acoustical Consultant: Wm. H.O. Kroll and Associates Inc.

AV Integrator: Audio Video Electronics

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