Tradeoffs – or, just how multi-purpose are we talking?

This past Sunday several members of the building committee had the privilege of talking with the Crossroads class about the building project. There were several good questions asked and good comments raised.

One question that I thought would be of interest to talk about here is the question of multi-purpose space. The question was, how multi-purpose will the “upper room” or “chapel” space be?

I think that one thing that lies behind questions like that is the tradeoff between specific, specially-designed space for a particular function vs. flexible, neutral, non-committal space that can be used for a variety of functions. An example of space that is specific and specially-designed is restrooms – you would not think that they should be designed to also be a place for small group prayer. An example of multi-use space is what is sometimes called a “family life center,” which might basically be a gym with some classrooms around the sides and a stage at one end – everything from a 3-on-3 basketball tournament to a youth worship concert could be held in that space – and a date-night dinner, besides.

My answer in the class was that, in most churches, space becomes multi-purpose eventually, even if it was not originally designed to be that way. This is because buildings last a long time – we are talking dozens of years, at least; but ministries or specific activities change more frequently. So, a space that was specifically designed for the youth might eventually be changed into senior adult space. Or, the large classroom at the end of the hall was nicely outfitted with a multimedia system, so it also gets used by the exercise club on Tuesdays and the men’s breakfast on Fridays that includes a video study and discussion.

For the most part, our current building was designed with a high degree of multi-purpose capability. This was because we had to make some tradeoffs – we did not have enough money to build dedicated space for every use. Spaces had to serve multiple purposes. Also, we felt that space that was too specific in its design would be too costly in operational costs – why have space that was only used once per week, for example? And finally, it would be limiting down the road when the way we wanted to do things changed. So, we created an auditorium with an easily-cleaned floor so that we could hold dinners in it. We created classrooms that could be smaller or larger, depending on how many dividers were opened. We created offices that were not vastly different from each other in size, so that the makeup of our staff could change over time.

What kind of choices will we make about the space we are renovating or building? We don’t know yet. But, it is likely that there will be a lot of multi-use planned in all of the decisions we make. This is inevitable, partially because of cost, and partially because we will want to allow for the future as much as is practical.