A Leap of Faith

Feb. 6, 2007
Chapel is transformed by the touch of tech

By Chelsea Houy

City of Trees. That's the slogan for the town of Mequon, WI. Located on the western shores of Lake Michigan just north of Milwaukee, it boasts majestic lakeshore bluffs, stately homes, lush farmland, and expansive, open spaces.

Those expanses and unspoiled views inspired architect Jim Shields during his first visit to Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary Chapel, located in Mequon. "I opened up one of the operable stained-glass windows and I looked out at the most beautiful grove of evergreen trees," says Shields, AIA, a vice president at the Milwaukee office of architectural firm HGA.

The 6,500-square-foot chapel is part of a central seminary building complex located in the northwest corner of the Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary campus. Built in 1929, the complex is constructed of brick and topped with slate roofs to resemble the architecture of Wartburg Castle in Germany, where Martin Luther translated the New Testament into German. A tower divides the complex into two wings - a residence and dining hall to the west and an administrative/classroom wing to the east. The chapel and campus library are part of the administrative/classroom wing.

The chapel not only is a place of worship, but also a pedagogical tool for the 180 students who attend the seminary. The chapel had fallen out of step, however, with contemporary liturgical practice and was, in a word, dark. Over time some windows were covered and others had dark-colored glass. A low-slung ceiling and darkly painted interiors also contributed to the dated appearance.

An extensive opening-up and removal process would transform the chapel into a 21st century worship and teaching space - a place where technology enhances, but not visibly dominates, the spiritual experience.

Creating a Worship Laboratory

Scott Riedel and Professor James Tiefel had been acquaintances since Riedel teamed with organ builder Martin Ott to design an organ for the chapel nearly 2 decades before. Riedel is president of Scott R. Riedel & Associates Ltd., a Milwaukee-based acoustic consultant company. Tiefel is dean of chapel and professor of worship and homiletics at the seminary. He had also been chairman of various campus building committees.

Nearly a year and half before the renovation, the two were discussing the chapel's architecture. "We talked about the benefits of increasing the cubic air volume of the room and the ceiling height and giving it some acoustical space - frankly, giving it some architectural visual lift as well," recalls Riedel.

HGA was hired for the renovation in the fall of 2003, Riedel's firm was appointed acoustic consultant, and Tiefel was appointed chairman of the chapel renovation committee.

During one of his initial visits to the chapel, Shields ventured to the attic above the worship space. His initial reaction was to remove the attic floor in order to expose two large, round windows that had been closed off. With the attic space removed, the ceiling could be raised and the cubic air volume within the chapel increased. The attic produced less-than-ideal acoustics, but Shields wondered what effect removing it would have.

He also wanted to expose three boarded-over arched windows behind the organ. The organ would have to move to the opposite side of the chapel, potentially producing echoes in the long, narrow space.

After consulting with Riedel, Shields learned that an increase in cubic air volume - made possible by removing the attic structure, modifying the geometric form of the space to control sound reflections, and having the correct materials (furniture) in the space - would be needed to properly mix organ music, singing, and the spoken word throughout the space.

The wall opposite the organ was turned into a special sound-diffusing feature that controls sound reflection, yet maintains the clean look Shields wanted. Riedel explains: "It's a convex, partially covered wall, designed so that the sound reflections will allow music to be heard, but the reflections go in particular directions and don't become long reflections that are heard as echoes." The pitched shape of the new ceiling also provides additional surfaces for sound reflection.

Having speakers embedded in the ceiling serves two important purposes:

  1. The speakers are aimed at worshippers, not at a wall or ceiling that exacerbate reflection. (The human body acts as a sound absorber, as do the padded chairs that worshippers are seated on - chosen for their sound-absorptive qualities.)

  2. This creates a visual simplicity. A special acoustical material covering the speakers makes them nearly invisible

"I wanted people looking at the minister, at the action up on the altar platform, at the speaker, perhaps looking at the beautiful view that we've opened up," says Shields. These views are made possible through a bit of handiwork and help from up above.

Fluorescent uplights placed in pockets at the knee of the wall and ceiling work with small, cylindrical downlights to create ambience. PHOTO: John J. Korom

God's Stained Glass

For years, views of the surrounding landscape were only seen through small, dark-colored stained-glass windows on the northeast side of the chapel. When Shields opened up one of the windows and saw a grove of evergreen trees, he thought of another change. "I realized at that point you could remove those stained-glass windows and have this north view and never have sunlight in the space that would be a glare problem or a heat gain problem," says Shields. (Having worshippers and students looking out the windows at the dark vegetation as opposed to a stark object, such as white clouds lit by the sun, is easier on the eyes.)

Shields wanted to remove mullions around the stained-glass windows and replace the stained glass with huge sheets of clear glass. The renovation committee, by contrast, initially wanted etched glass instead of clear windows. They wanted to etch four painted symbols that were on the original chapel walls in the glass. Each symbol would represent one of four theological disciplines under which students at the school study.

Because the clear windows would be a quick install, Shields proposed that the committee allow him to put in the clear glass, and if they didn't like it, they could move ahead with the etched glass. The committee accepted Shields' proposal.

Aluminum-framed, double-pane glass coated with PPG Solarban 60 low-E coating replaced the old windows. The glass is fitted into several recessed openings, or niches, along the wall. "The openings are really crisp, and you can't see a window frame around the glass - it looks as if it's just an open hole or aperture," remarks Shields. A small bench just underneath each window acts as overflow seating. HVAC ducting, cleverly housed in the benches, provides a warm seat during cold Wisconsin winters.

After the committee saw how the new windows opened the space to light and the surrounding views, they decided to stay with the clear glass. Shields would affectionately refer to it as "God's stained glass."

The dark-colored windows, low ceiling, and darkly painted interiors of the chapel were peeled away to reveal what was underneath all along: a beautiful worship space.

And Then There Was Light

The increased volume of the space and increased daylight created challenges for Jill Cody, LC, IALD, LEED-AP, a lighting designer at HGA's Milwaukee office. The lighting scheme had to be sensitive to the architectural design, yet flexible enough to meet teaching needs.

Because the new ceiling is directly attached to the roof joists in the space, little room was left to recess fixtures. Instead, small, white, low-voltage cylindrical downlights - manufactured by BK Lighting - indiscreetly hang from the ceiling. Fluorescent uplighting placed in pockets at the knee of the wall and ceiling work with the downlights to create ambience. "What really fills the high volume of that space is that light shining up," says Cody.

The new modular furniture within the space meant that the lighting design had to accommodate changes in room configuration. The chapel had had a traditional basilica design with two long aisles of pews and an altar at the front. Tiefel wanted to move the altar to the center of the chapel. "We wanted to emphasize bringing the congregation into close contact with the preaching of the Word and the use of the sacraments," he says.

The centerpiece of the chapel is an altar platform that can be broken apart into 4- by 4-foot sections, allowing students to experiment with a variety of worship configurations. Chairs can be arranged around the platform, creating an intimate setting.

Because the altar is placed in front of the north bank of windows, two Belfer multiple lamp fixtures were installed to balance the effects of the daylight. Small, low-voltage downlights placed above the benches by the windows provide reading light.

A Lutron dimming system is broken into zone by both lighting type (uplighting, downlighting, altar highlighting) and by changes in room configuration. Currently, all fixtures for a particular lighting type, such as uplighting, are programmed to dim together. If the furniture is moved, however, the seminarians can reprogram the system to activate specific uplighting fixtures.

Invisible AV

From the beginning, Tiefel and Shields did not want technology to disrupt the chapel's minimalist design; that was especially true when it came to audiovisual technology.

When the discussion turned to installing a projection screen, Tiefel said he didn't want it to be a permanent fixture in the space. A proposed option was a projection screen that would rise from the floor, but Tiefel decided against it. "We decided that made it too easy for the students, and we wanted them to think through technology before they willy-nilly brought it into their preaching." In order to use the projection screen, students must climb a ladder and hang it.

HGA called in New Berlin, WI-based systems integration firm AVI Midwest to help with the AV design. The first goal for then-designer Chris Steele was to determine how to get quality projection onto a screen hung in front of windows. An NEC GT5000 projector provided the power needed to counteract the effects of daylight.

A custom-built mount makes the projector essentially invisible within the space while providing proper ventilation for the projector and minimizing the sound of its motor. The enclosure is installed in the ceiling of a small operations room opposite the altar that houses several AV components, including a Crestron PRO2 control system, TPS-5000 touch panel control, and CPC-2000 camera controller; Marshal Electronics LCD monitors; and a Mackie mixing board for audio. Three Sony EVID70 cameras are used by students to record sermons.

The chapel’s flexible, modular design brings the congregation in closer contact with each other and the preacher. IMAGE: HGA

Glowing Reviews

The overall renovation impacted how people interact with, and react to, the worship space. "The Bible talks about speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, and you can see the students sitting on both sides of the chapel actually speaking to one another," remarks Tiefel.

In time the renovation committee revisited installing the etched glass in the chapel. In October 2006, five panes of clear glass etched with five symbols, four of which represent the theological disciplines, were installed in the northeast windows. The original windows remain, but there are three panes of glass instead of two. Because the etch on the glass is no more than 20 percent, views are preserved and plenty of daylight still enters the space.

Shields is delighted how the lighting design not only transformed the interior, but also the exterior. "You come up to the chapel at twilight, and it's glowing like a lantern," says Shields.

The Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary Chapel is a modern worship space in an old skin, a place where technology and design converge in service to patrons and students.

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