There are unique issues involved in the design and construction of religious and worship facilities generally, and more specifically to the needs of Judaic institutions and congregants.
Assess Existing Facilities First
Existing facility assessments are an important first step for any synagogue improvement project. Making the Bimah accessible is a common issue, as are concerns about energy efficiency. An up-front assessment helps put these issues in perspective. For congregations that face political and other internal issues that might cause renovation projects to stall, examining the strengths and weaknesses of existing facilities offers the kind of clear long-range planning that can guide the decision-making process and keep a project moving forward. “A knowledgeable design professional can provide an objective and independent perspective on facility assessment, design ideas, and programmatic solutions,” says Landau.
Let Changing Demographics Drive Changing Space Needs
With shifting demographics as well as generational shifts, many synagogues face significant downsizing or consolidation. Creative design input can help a congregation make the best use of shared services and spaces. These might include Hebrew schools, social and common spaces, as well as spaces for staff and support. Some congregations seek a “big tent” approach that may even offer multiple services in the same facility—at the same time.
Use Flexible Spaces to Maximize Efficiency
Flexibility is the most common word synagogue groups use when describing their goals, according to Zinder and Landau. Most congregations want the flexibility needed to accommodate different groups and their needs during different times of year such as High Holidays, internal programming, or leasing opportunities to external groups. These congregations want their space to be used and to not sit empty, making the need for flexible spaces even more critical. Flexibility also becomes key when addressing issues like the “big tent.”
Expand to Meet Educational Needs
Many synagogues are expanding their educational focus from just nursery and religious schools to also include adult education, according to Landau, who has designed such landmarks as Congregation Adath B’nai Israel in Evansville, Indiana. In these cases, the need for flexibility LANDAU | ZINDER drives the design of educational spaces so they can accommodate the very different needs of children and adults.
Plan for the Holiday Surge
Increased attendance on holidays can reveal a seemingly adequate facility to be a highly inefficient space. But there are creative solutions for resolving the issue. Some of them include using occasional balcony space, integrated tents, sliding walls, and uplift partitions. These systems can also tie into a congregation’s flexibility goals, allowing a social hall to be converted into a large multipurpose space, lounge, or much-needed classroom space; the key is to assess current and future space needs.
Meet the Needs of Smaller Suburban Communities
The trend toward smaller, more adaptable facilities is quickly growing in suburban communities and in the modern orthodox movement. Fewer and fewer 1,500-member Reform/Conservative (sole affiliation) and urban congregations are resulting in smaller facilities, driving home the need to more carefully manage construction and operating costs, while providing highly adaptable spaces.
Adapt to Technological Change
Technology integration in synagogue design has always been a challenge. Today energy efficiency and sustainable technologies are a trend in the construction industry that most congregations want to tap into. However, Halakhah can be a challenge. Design professionals who specialize in Judaic facilities offer expertise in everything from electronic controls for heating and cooling systems, to lobby video displays and video for home-bound individuals, to automatic hand wash sensors in restrooms. Starting with a thorough understanding of a congregation’s needs goes a long way to avoiding problems and annoyances that need to be addressed after the fact.