An Architect’s Secret Weapons: The Space Between Buildings

What would you say if your architect told you he could design you a space that is beautiful, functional, and spacious, and it would only be about 10% of the cost per square foot of the typical building? You might ask him what he’s been smoking, or you might say “I’ll take it!” before you even hear what it is. Too often architect’s forget about this secret weapon. The space between buildings can be an amazing environment, and guess what…you don’t have to put a roof over it or air condition it and that’s where the cost savings come in.

Shopping center behind a sea of parking

Shopping center behind a sea of parking

Town Center Mall Aerial

Typical Mall is an island in a sea of parking

Great outdoor space can change the entire experience of being on a site and visiting a building. When attention is paid to the arrival sequence from the time you visually see the site, drive onto it, park your car, and walk up to the buildings, you can create an exciting experience out of a typically mundane one. Picture your average Big Box shopping center on one hand with its sea of parking facing the road and compare that to New Urbanist developments that creatively find a way to stash the cars and move you right into a pedestrian friendly environment.

Vickery Village shopping center with great spaces between buildings

Vickery Village shopping center with great spaces between buildings – Cumming, GA

Baxter Town Center - Fort Mill, SC - Pedestrian Friendly New Urbanist Development

Baxter Town Center – Fort Mill, SC – Pedestrian Friendly New Urbanist Development

Make no mistake, cars are a part of American culture, and unless you are in a dense urban environment with good public transportation, which most of the country is not, you are not going to get away from having a significant amount of a site dedicated to parking, but the parking lot doesn’t have to be your most prominent feature if you have a good design team. I don’t want to spend too much time discussing parking here, because my main topic is the space between buildings where people interact and where true community has a chance to develop.

Millennium Park in Chicago

Millennium Park in Chicago

Throughout history outdoor public space has been the center of community life for people. Whether it was the Greek Agoras, the Italian Piazzas or the American town square, people have a desire to come together in an environment that is appealing in design, comfortable to hang-out in, and where they can enjoy God’s creation outdoors. Even in the harshest environments of extreme cold and extreme hot climates these spaces are being developed. The weather may not be conducive to outdoor activity every day of the year, but when it’s nice these places fill up. Environment’s don’t get much harsher than Chicago (freezing, snowy, windy winters and hot, baking summers), but head out to Navy Pier or Millennium Park on a nice day and the places are packed with people. If they can develop great outdoor environments in a climate that harsh, then what’s your excuse for not doing it on your site?

Navy Pier in Chicago

Navy Pier in Chicago

Navy Pier in Chicago

Pedestrians enjoying Navy Pier in Chicago

How much more would it have cost to take all these great outdoor environments and put walls around them, throw on some roofs, and air condition and heat those spaces? Plus how different would they feel? There’s a reason no indoor malls are being developed anywhere in the country anymore while New Urbanist open air Town Centers are popping up everywhere. People like to be outside and developers don’t have to build huge enclosed “spaces between buildings”…it’s a win-win for everyone.

Church with Mall-type Parking

Church with Mall-type Parking


Crossroads Christian Church in Corona, CA with pedestrian friendly layout

Crossroads Christian Church in Corona, CA with pedestrian friendly layout

Crossroads Christian Church in Corona, CA with great spaces between buildings


These same concepts can be applied to church campus designs. Churches often get stuck in a rut called “tradition” or “the way it’s always been done.” With church design that usually means plopping the building down in the middle of the site and then surrounding it with parking, just like the malls and shopping centers do. Church leaders and church designers could learn some lessons about creating places people enjoy coming to that include great outdoor public spaces that are “gifts” back to the community. Crossroads Christian Church in Corona, CA is a good example of this intentional decision to incorporate pedestrian friendly design features and create interesting and inviting “outdoor rooms” between the buildings.

If you are a church planter or pastor of a church and you are contemplating your first building project or an expansion of your current campus, wouldn’t you want to develop spaces that your neighbors would desire to visit, and that your congregation would enjoy hanging out in between services and during the week? The “old school” church site and church facility sits empty six and a half days a week. Is that really good stewardship considering the amount of money being invested in land and building costs? Isn’t it a better investment to make your building and the spaces between them serve a purpose and serve the community the rest of the week? Isn’t getting people on your site a win-win? They can see that you’re not some “scary and secretive institution” and that you care enough to provide these great spaces with no strings attached. Before you start your next project figure out how to turn your church inside out so passers-by can see “community” happening right in your front yard every week.

Where is your favorite outdoor room? What features does it have and how could they be used as an outreach tool on your church expansion project? If you missed the post on “Weapon One”, you can read it here.

Read more from Jody here.

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Jody Forehand

I am the national Vice President of Operations for Visioneering Studios, an architectural, urban planning, construction, design, and development firm based out of Irvine, California with other offices in Phoenix, Denver, Austin, Chicago, and Charlotte (which is where I’m located). Every day is an incredible journey and I’m excited to have the opportunity to work on some amazing projects with some of the most dynamic and fastest growing churches in the country as well as spend time with incredible people both as coworkers, clients, and friends.

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comment_post_ID); ?> I like it Mac and do agree with your opinions on the matter. Thanks much
— winston
comment_post_ID); ?> In this era, we have the opportunity of professional church staff today who utilize their gifting to shape the image and atmosphere of the church organization. But the 100% real impact on the church visitors is genuine evidence of changed lives by the gospel and the active growing discipleship (just as it was in the first century church). One demonstration is financially rich believers ministering equally together with poor believers (how odd, and incredibly miraculous; all humble and bow at the foot of the cross.). It is the awesome contrast of church members vocations, race, gender, age, maturity, gifting, humility that demonstrates to visitors "there is a Spirit in the place". That first-time guest list of 10 are "physical excuses", not spiritual excuses. Those don't tell the story. The condition of facilities and publicly greeting people have zero to do with it. The power of God in and through believers lives dedicated to impact other people with their relationship bridge-building of acceptance of the lost around them. Empowered believers are infectious, loving, helpful, giving, self-less, dynamic, compelling, bold, Christ-filled. As I have been in many church settings domestically and internationally, the facilities can be poor, and yet the fellowship can still be rich. We need to operate with first church humility. People come to Christ on His terms, not on our human abilities of hospitality. A huge catastrophe in a community, disaster relief brings lots of people into churches – many come to the church in those terrible conditions no matter the physical condition of the local church. Off the condition of facility, and onto the condition of God's people (living stones).... and everything else will grow.... and the other physical issues will be corrected by the staff.
— Russ Wright
comment_post_ID); ?> "While I understand the intent behind this phrase" Expound please. What do you understand to be the intent behind that phrase?
— Ken

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