One large Texas church proves the best church building outcomes are all of the above
By RaeAnn Slaybaugh
Having undergone a few previous building projects, Senior Pastor Dr. Jimmy Pritchard and his team knew exactly what (and who) they were looking for: the right partners.
From the architect, to the A/V/L systems integrator, to the security & surveillance provider, the goal was the same: meld the past with the present at First Baptist Forney — but also plan for the future.
Since completion last April on a 98,000-square-foot expansion to the existing 129,000-square-foot church campus, everyone who visits First Baptist Forney now enjoys a 2,000-plus-seat worship venue, full health and workout facility for the community, two basketball courts and a walking track, massive open area for events and gatherings, a full-service coffee shop, and expanded children’s areas.
Yet, while the facility — and everything inside — is certainly impressive, the church’s careful, considered and coordinated approach to creating that space and experience is also well worth examining.
But first, we need an architect
Though the original worship space at First Baptist Forney (built in 2001) is large — with a 900-seat capacity — even more growth was projected as the surrounding community exploded.
Senior Pastor Dr. Jimmy D. Pritchard was already hosting three services, but it still wasn’t enough. It was clearly time to expand.
With an ideal worship seating capacity of 2,000+, not to mention the need for expanded fellowship spaces and children’s areas, Pritchard knew this would be a big project. With an eye toward good stewardship, he was looking to get more out of the space. “I personally had difficulty spending that much for a facility that we use maybe a couple of hours a week,” he says.
Pritchard visited a nearby church’s multipurpose worship and gymnasium facility and says he knew immediately it was what he wanted for First Baptist Forney. Uniquely, this would be a space for Sunday worship, but also for weeknight and adult and children’s sport ministries.
Tricky a balance as it was, this dual functionality was key; the church already had a popular sports ministry. It was meeting in local school gyms, but Pritchard wanted to bring all that activity onto the church campus.
Though he and his team vetted several different options, they ultimately chose HH Architects for their massive facility expansion — the same firm that designed the multipurpose worship space he’d visited and admired.
That bricks-and-mortar reference obviously made a big impact on Pritchard. However, having overseen previous large-scale church building projects, he also appreciated HH’s focus on churches, specifically.
“We’ve stepped in a few potholes in the past, so we knew ourselves where some of them were,” he acknowledges. “But it was still important to us to get an experienced church architect.”
Part of this appeal, of course, is familiarity with church processes and thinking. HH has completed hundreds of church projects.
“[The church] wanted a ministry partner,” says HH Architects President & CEO Bruce Woody. “Our extensive experience in ministry design allows for strategic planning, thought-provoking discussions and, ultimately, ministry spaces that exceed needs and expectations.”
Moreover, Pritchard needed to feel confident in the firm’s ability to coordinate and consult with not only the architectural and engineering factions, but also with the production and security aspects. For a cohesive design, all of this would need to be synched during design and construction. Additionally, it would enable him to take a more hands-off approach than in previous projects, focusing instead on spiritual leadership.
To this same end, Pritchard recognized the need for a “vision leadership team” — which ultimately was the basis for the building team, the finance team, and the technology team. Each team was comprised of laypeople with professional experience in these areas. About once a week, Pritchard met with his executive pastor to discuss the project. Then, a few vision team leaders met with that executive pastor every few weeks. They also served as liaisons between the church and bank representatives, construction contractors, architects and more for the duration of the project.
“I probably didn’t have to [ get deeply involved] but four or five times,” Pritchard says. “I leaned on [these teams] very heavily, and I was able to just to concentrate on being the pastor.”
With the right church people in the right seats, the focus turned to ensuring a multipurpose worship space that transitions from recreation to worship — quickly. The resulting design achieves this goal with beauty and innovation.
QUICK FACTS ABOUT
FIRST BAPTIST FORNEY
Year established: 1869
Number of staff: 18
Combined weekly attendance: 3,000+
2019 budget: $4.5 million
One section of the new, 2,000-seat worship center at First Baptist Forney is permanently set up for worship, seating 700. An electronically operated folding partition separates this area from the gymnasium portion, which features 1,300 more pull-down seats on bleacher-like platforms that pull out from the walls.
The effect is two truly separate spaces that merge, almost undetectably, for worship services. “When it’s set up for worship, you don’t even know you have a gym there,” Pritchard points out. “You’d have to look really hard to spot it.”
Stepping outside the worship center, churchgoers encounter “the mall” — the connecting point between the old and new spaces. This large atrium lobby allows people to enjoy fellowship in new ways and provides covered, climate-controlled access in between buildings.
Here, too, the focus was on a seamless experience. In keeping with the church’s existing design philosophy (brick colors, window treatments and so on), this expansive area features a clean, modern, curving curtainwall to connect the existing and new lobby.
Pritchard says “the mall” is his favorite part of the building.
“Walking through it from the old building is like that part in the Wizard of Oz when everything suddenly appears in color. You just step into a different world,” he says. “With the couches, the chairs, the coffee bar, the indoor play area — it’s just wonderful to see God’s people in there mingling and enjoying one another.”
The pursuit of A/V/L excellence
Along with the need to seamlessly integrate these spaces from a design perspective, ensuring audio, video, lighting and acoustics excellence was another primary objective for church leaders.
“As the two uses — worship and recreation — are diametrically opposed with regard to lighting and acoustics, the church [needed to arrive at] a unique solution using LED lighting with variable colors and temperatures,” HH’s Bruce Woody. “This, along with many other items, allowed for the church to be able to transition from one to another within one hour.”
With a long history of working with churches, the chosen integrator — Custom Sound Designs, or CSD — was more than up to the challenge of delivering an integrated, immersive experience. The CSD team’s approach of designing and building systems that “make it easy for people to engage and worship” was particularly appealing.
Happily, the church’s tech team says it chose well and calls the multipurpose worship space’s professional audio reproduction system “tuned to perfection,” with attention paid to room acoustics and integration with the various lighting effects which add to the experience.
Acoustical panels are strategically, yet discretely, positioned on the gym walls at First Baptist Forney gym to ensure the Word is heard, even in the farthest-reaching seats.
In the fixed-worship portion of the space, a 25-foot LED display at the front-of-house and two large screens on the sides of the stage enable video and image magnification, lending a real wow factor. “The picture is as clear as the HDTV you have in your home,” Pritchard says.
High-quality cameras capture worship services for broadcast on these screens and beyond.
With regards to lighting, Pritchard says the options feel virtually limitless. “You get a color stimulation in this space; you get brightness,” he says. “It’s just exciting. It lets people know they’re not in their grandfather’s church, that’s for sure.”
But Pritchard’s personal favorite A/V/L element goes back to basics: speech clarity.
“Top for me, obviously, it lends a sense of comfort when I’m preaching,” he says. “As a pastor, if I can’t hear myself or if there’s an echo going on, that’s a big problem.”
The space even accommodates different types of worship.
“We made it to where worship can be traditional, but we can also have the liveliest concert you could imagine,” he says. “We hadn’t really upgraded the technology in our former building for about 20 years. So, the difference is like night and day; it’s really a gigantic shift.”
The tech team was also looking for a turnkey A/V/L solution — including service and support after the systems are up and running. As such, CSD’s national footprint and experience as an integrator was important, but so was its local presence in North Texas with design and service personnel.
“With our first building’s sound system, when we had problems maximizing it, we had problems getting any support,” he says. “This time, we told [CSD] we’d want them to train us and help us, and then come back and train us and help us some more.”
So far, so good — the CSD crew has been back onsite several times already.
“They’ve been very prompt and very, very good,” Pritchard says. “It’s kind of like we got a Maserati, but we didn’t know how to drive it. We needed training.”
When it comes to price, Pritchard says he and the tech team didn’t automatically go with the lowest possible A/V/L bid — and he advises other church leaders to do the same. “It’s better to spend a little more money for excellence because once [the systems are] in there, they’re in there,” he explains. “You really get what you pay for.”
Outside of Sunday, the space is active all week as a community rec center. First Baptist Forney now offers a full rec program with weights, classes and more.
Looking further into the future, the church’s tech team says there are A/V/L aspects they want to incorporate as funds allow. Over the course of several months, meeting with CSD — as well as coordinating various design elements with HH Architects — team members feel the multipurpose worship center’s design is perfectly positioned to accommodate this. In the near term, it meets the church’s current needs and budget. In the long term, the setup provides growth options in terms of audio, lighting and video and allows for future system update options.
Ensuring security, peace of mind
Of course, protecting all those beautiful spaces and faces is another priority.
To this end, the HH team recommended a remodel of the existing education space along with the new addition, which would allow the church to address security breaches caused by multiple entrances, and corridors being used as flow-through areas. Access control would allow personnel and parents in the in-house community children’s daycare areas but limit the movement of members and guests in these restricted areas.
All these considerations — plus the addition of a new worship venue, along with multiple access points in and out of the facility for a large number of attendees — made it important to choose an integrator with commercial experience to take the church to the next level of security integration. It would need to provide a solution that was sophisticated in its capabilities, but also streamlined and simple to use — no small task.
Even before the building expansion, it took maintenance personnel nearly an hour to lock all the doors using key fobs and regular keys. “But you know how it is with a church — everyone wants a key,” Pritchard laughs.
So, for the new facility, the objective was full facility-access control, including the ability to set up a lock-and-unlock schedule for every door.
The chosen manufacturer was uniview tec. What’s more, it was a known quantity, as Keith Shaver — a long-time church member and leader of the building tech team — is one of its executives.
“With Keith, we obviously recognized his expertise,” Pritchard says. “We basically said, ‘You take a couple of church members and some our staff, and you put together the technology, the security setup. Then, just share with us where you’re headed.’”
Shaver enlisted Dallas Security Systems to be the integrator, given its experience in large facility construction.
As Shaver explains, early involvement in the building process allowed him and the tech team to create a strategy to select and “design in” products which would meet current requirements, but also to plan for future upgrades and system improvements, as well as allow for growth in terms of the number of video cameras and possible changes in the future use of the facility.
“As with the A/V/L setup, this approach would allow additional capabilities as financial resources were available or as future needs were discovered,” he explains.
Shaver and the tech team engaged directly with HH Architects, along with CSD and Dallas Security Systems and other vendors to ensure good communications and trouble-free system installation and integration.
The first step in getting a fully integrated, full-access-control system up and running, was ensuring the existing security & surveillance components “played nicely” with the new ones. As Shaver points out, the old facility was already equipped with intrusion, video security and access control. However, upgrades in technology and capabilities were needed.
“For example, the previous system included lower-resolution analog cameras and some higher-resolution network (IP) cameras,” he explains. “But the strategy was to replace the analog cameras and upgrade all other network cameras to mega-pixel network cameras for enhanced picture detail and quality.”
Additionally, a single network video recorder with multi-channel capability was required as the integration point for all video cameras across the campus.
For Pritchard’s part, he acknowledges he’s no expert in this area. Even so, he really appreciates that all video security, facility-wide, is now integrated. He, staff members and maintenance personnel can unlock doors using a computer, or even their cellphones — no more keys and key fobs! And now, maintenance personnel can set a schedule for doors to lock and unlock, automatically. Or, they can select the zone where they want doors unlocked. And if a group needs to get in the facility off-schedule, all it takes is a phone call to unlock that door.
“It’s just a gigantic timesaver,” he says. “And it takes away the excuse of, ‘I left the door open,’ which is pretty nice.”
Pritchard also values the video clarity of the new systems. Already, it has enabled him and his team to identify some trespassers on the property. It has also come in handy in unexpected ways.
For instance, when the church got word that a front row seat in the pull-out seating section of the new multipurpose worship center was ejecting people, crystal-clear video playback let them see it for themselves.
The potential liabilities were obvious. The church showed the seating supplier the video, and a representative was there the next day to fix the “ejection seat.”
A big ask, delivered
For the HH team, the First Baptist Forney project stands out from others as a massive and intricate coordination of building use types — recreation and worship — allowing for a facility to be used all week. It’s an outreach tool not only on Sundays, but also from Monday to Saturday.
As someone vested in First Baptist Forney’s expansion — both as a member and an integral part of fulfilling that vision on the tech team and integrator side — Shaver’s take is both informed and valuable: “The end result was far more positive than what we would have expected from a ‘siloed’ approach.”
Most important, Pritchard says the new space has accomplished everything the church wanted it to.
“We had phenomenal momentum prior to COVID; the rocket ship had taken off,” he says. “I think we can get back to that when the time is right.”