Creative design pays off for new children’s facility

By Mike Engledow

Church attendance has increased and there’s a waiting list for preschool.

First came the newly designed children’s wing at Hazel Dell Christian Church in Carmel, IN. Then came children’s minister Tony Johnson’s desire to design his own method to kindly, yet subtly, nudge people out the doors after services.

It turns out the new addition is so popular that well after services have ended, parents linger as their kids romp on the indoor play area. His solution? Much as he hates to admit it, he often sees no other choice than to turn out the lights.

“I really don’t want to rush them out of church. It’s so exciting to see the enthusiasm people have for children’s ministry,” Johnson says. “And that enthusiasm is extending to the church as a whole.”

Since opening the 23,000-square-foot children’s wing, attendance is up nearly 20 percent, and there’s a waiting list for preschool. Even finicky middle-schoolers are eager to participate. Yes, it’s important to have strong programs, but Johnson and other church leaders say it’s the design of the facility in combination with creative teaching that’s helped them reach its ultimate goal of educating more children and increasing the church’s membership.

Working in the culture
It all began when Hazel Dell Christian started working with Indianapolis-based arcDESIGN and Pepper Construction to create an expanded children’s ministry for the 1,200-member church in Carmel, just north of Indianapolis. The design needed to reflect the culture of this family-friendly city, where about 30 percent of the 65,000 residents are under the age of 18. Among the most affluent communities in the Midwest, its residents are highly educated and value the education their children receive.

Hazel Dell knows that a strong children’s program often is among the most important elements that help turn visitors into members.

This addition was designed to meet the growing needs of the congregation.

The addition blends seamlessly with the contemporary design of the worship center. But there’s no question that behind the curved, colored glass wall is the children’s area. The congregation understands that impressions are made from the moment someone pulls into the parking lot. While aesthetics were important, the space has plenty of security and safety features as well.

Those features – for both children and teachers – were factors considered throughout the design. All classrooms have half-doors that are high enough that children can’t see out and get distracted, yet low enough that parents can observe. Plus, the openness makes it easy for teachers to summon help if needed.

Then there were the basics, such as a security system, which was designed to give parents peace-of-mind, but is far from looking like an airport security checkpoint.

Security prime concern
“There was no question we had to have a security system, but we wanted to make sure it was easy and quick to use. At the same time, newcomers needed more hands-on attention,” explains Russ Love, chairman of the building committee. “We needed all of that without making it look like a military post.”

To accomplish that, there are two distinct areas at the entrance: A welcome desk for newcomers, who can ask questions and get information. And a computer kiosk for self check-in.

Beyond safety came practicality. Teachers’ input was sought early on, which was the impetus for the resource room where all the supplies are stored in clearly marked containers. The design also led to some changes in teaching style. Instead of smaller, individualized classrooms, older children have one large room. It was designed to accommodate large group instruction and performances, but also is flexible enough for small group discussions or teamwork. Custom-designed, fabricated partitions covered with brightly colored patterns look like artwork when they are flush against the walls, but they easily swing open and serve as room dividers.

The children’s area definitely has big “wow” moments. There are the two-story steel columns made to look like a huge tree in the library and a diner-themed fifth and sixth grade area complete with retro-looking booths and a counter with swivel stools. But it’s some of the smallest details that have made the greatest impact. There are alcoves with cushioned-bench seats, water features, glass mirrors that look like bubbles over the bathroom sinks and a custom-designed play set shaped to look like mountains

The key to the success was the careful planning, understanding needs of parents, children and teachers, and a church leadership team that was willing to take some risks. Add to that an eye-catching, functional design, and it’s already paying off. As more people discover Hazel Dell Christian, the building committee already is talking about the next expansion.

Mike Engledow,  AIA –LEED AP, BD+C, is an architect in the design of religious architecture. He is a principal with arcDESIGN, in Indianapolis, IN.


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