Growing Big To Stay Small

Sept. 1, 2007

Technology defines space in Greensboro house of worship

By Gregory A. DeTogne

At 307,800 square feet, 47 ushers are needed for each service at the newly renovated Westover Church on Muir's Chapel Road in Greensboro, NC. Standing five stories tall, the main sanctuary has space inside for 2,800 worshipers. In the parking lot, you can take your pick from one of 1,040 spaces. In total, 16 miles of cabling loops through the house audio system, which includes 320 loudspeakers driven by 70 amplifiers.

Yes, on one level everything about Westover is big. Having grown from several hundred members in 1994 into one of the area's largest megachurches, 3,500 people now attend at least one weekly service at this nondenominational house of worship. Given the church's sheer physical size, Pastor Don Miller frets that people looking in from the outside may lose sight of its real purpose.

"For some reason, we've been gifted with numbers," he told the Greensboro News & Record last August shortly after the church opened its new doors for the first time. "Yet I don't know anybody at Westover who is driven by numbers. That is so far removed from what we want to be known for." His vision is to promote better relationships between people young and old, rich and poor, and from all backgrounds. That's why he and other church administrators sought to bring a sense of intimacy to the sanctuary, making it seem smaller even as it grew bigger.

To accomplish this seemingly contradictory goal, the church relied upon an enterprising fusion of architecture and technology. Providing details like a wraparound balcony that brings seating closer to the pulpit, architect Rick Ball of Greensboro, NC-based Bradley & Ball Architects proved that big doesn't necessarily have to mean distant.

Ball, himself a Westover congregant, also nurtured the perception of intimacy within the $28 million expansion plan by giving the sanctuary a traditional look and feel. Accomplished with the aid of wide-scale visual deceits relying upon finish materials that adroitly hid the required technology, Barisol membrane panels were used widely on the main floor, ceiling, and in the balconies. A microperforated material that looks like sheetrock, Barisol was chosen for its acoustical properties, helping transform the highly reverberant space into one of relaxed intimacy.

"By using the Barisol panels, we went from having the excitable, acoustical properties of a large hall to something more akin to a small theater," says Armando Fullwood, principal at Design 2020. The Charlotte, NC-based audiovisual systems design consultancy developed both the audio spec and program of acoustical treatments for the church. "All the auditorium walls and front balcony surfaces were covered with acoustic or vari-trap panels as well. Our goal with all these treatments was twofold: to reduce the bigness of the space by shaping and controlling the acoustics with tight precision and to hide many of the components comprising our core technologies. Since the Barisol panels are acoustically transparent, they are excellent for discreetly keeping loudspeakers and other system components out of view."

Another goal was to design a versatile acoustical space that would perform well with different music styles - from large-scale touring bands to a simple choir. Ball's collaboration with Fullwood and Design 2020 led to the development of a reverb enhancement system fed from the house Midas XL8 digital mixing console, a 96-channel board that was the first of its kind delivered in the United States.

Among the central players in the reverb enhancement system are a series of loudspeakers surrounding the perimeter of the room. "Had we built the sanctuary using traditional sheetrock, it would have sounded great for choral music but been totally offensive for the amplified music often heard in the room," Fullwood explains. "Our acoustical treatments took the reflective response out of the space that total sheetrock construction would have provided, and that's great for full-tilt concerts. Next, however, we had to provide a way to put some of that back when it was needed for quieter times. That's exactly what the reverb enhancement system does. Now we have the ability to make the room be something for everyone's uses with a high degree of control accessible from the front-of-house mix position."  

Westover Technical Director Danny Slaughter played a key role in developing the sanctuary's audio plan. "Here at Westover we wanted a traditional look as well as the modern technology that you'd expect in a high-performance venue. Together, we shaped the feeling and finish of materials so that we could incorporate all the technology we needed as well as hide it. There is indeed a lot of technology in use here, but little of it is perceived by worshipers," he says. 

Beyond the Midas XL8 mixing console, system components used in the sanctuary include main loudspeaker arrays incorporating Xi-1183 and Xi-1123 enclosures from Electro-Voice, Shure PSM 600 and PSM 400 personal in-ear stage monitoring systems, a dozen Shure UHF-R wireless systems, and a Sonar Producer 6 digital audio workstation.

"The end result here at Westover is that you can use as much of the technology as you like, or none at all. True design success accommodates everyone, and on that level I think we've all succeeded here," Fullwood says.

Gregory A. DeTogne ([email protected]) is a writer covering technology and architectural topics who lives and works at the Electric Gnat Ranch, his rural refuge in Lake County, IL.

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of I+S Design, create an account today!