Building Authentic Community: Design Matters

As an architect, design matters. The design of a building or a place shapes how people experience the environment in which they reside. Conversely, space that is poorly designed for its intended use negatively affects a person’s experience.

As a follower of Christ, design matters. It is evident in Scripture that design mattered to the Creator of the universe. Now, in a broken world, design continues to matter as a part of reconciliation. In Colossians, Paul writes, “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him [Christ], and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross” (1:19–20).

If we believe that every square inch belongs to God, then all things matter, including spaces for building community. Design matters because the design and form of our work bears witness to what we believe.

Throughout their lives, people experience community in several forms, beginning with the nuclear family in a childhood home. I hear quite often that an organization’s culture and mode of operation is “like family,” no matter the size of the organization. This statement suggests a “smallness” of structure. In many churches, the larger congregation is broken down into house churches or small groups. As a result, people are able to connect more deeply and intentionally on a regular basis. This “smallness,” or narrowing of community, allows for relationship building, vulnerability, and friendship while encouraging connection to the larger body of believers.

An educational setting is typically the next major community experience. In this environment, we are broken down by grade levels and classes, which form identity and connection by age. This segment of life significantly shapes our relationships and vocation. During these first two stages of growing up, we experience life within a village, town, or city. This experience provides generational diversity and awareness of systems, governance, and society. The space in which these experiences happen shapes our understanding of culture, interaction, and community.

Community, from an architectural perspective, is defined as a group of people organized within a common location that is associated with an organization. Clients often ask for spaces designed to create community or to enhance the current community. This design problem and solution is one that takes further study into the organization’s vision. Our goal through design is to enhance and build on the organization’s positive attributes and core values. The desired outcome does not significantly change the organizational culture but builds on and enhances it.

In a study funded by the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), it’s reported that average Americans spends 87 percent of their lives indoors—inside a built environment. Thus, the built environment is critical for the inhabitants of this space. But space in itself does not build or create community. By definition, community is an interacting population made up of various individuals. This interactive nature suggests relationship.

As image-bearers of the Creator, we are designed for relationship. The biblical models of relationship start with a divine relationship that is perfect in all ways: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Scripture defines Christ and the church as a “bride” or as being in a covenant relationship. A relationship that first occurred in a picture-perfect place called Eden, the setting created for authentic community in which Adam and Eve walked with God in the cool of the day (cf. Gen. 3:8). In the New Testament we see the church striving for community and unity. Paul writes, “Then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind” (Phil. 2:2). This is a striving for radical unity and a striving for authentic community—one where we attend to the needs of others, prefer others above ourselves, and bring people together, encouraging a true biblical community where we can love one another.

Space does not create community, but it does have the power to facilitate community building or what is known as “placemaking.” We’ve all heard someone say, “I am not sure what it is, but there is something special about this place.” It is not always easy to put our finger on the exact formula, design, or reasoning that brings about this feeling. What we do know is that when we experience it, we know it. If we take time to understand the characteristics of these places, we can find some answers.

The organization Project for Public Spaces believes that certain characteristics make a place great, including sociability, uses and activities, access and linkages, and comfort and image. These characteristics should manifest as qualities of the setting that are designed into the space. For example, it’s not only booth seating that makes many coffee shops and restaurants a first choice but also factors like daylight, location, size, and enclosure, which create attractive, accessible, interactive, and fun places to bear your soul to your friend, study for a class, or have the best bagel and coffee the shop has to offer.

Design matters. Our homes, schools, campuses, churches, and offices need places in our society where initiatives are transformed with inspiring physical places. We need to remind ourselves, on a material level, that we are called to a higher purpose that inspires our spirits to soar as high as the bell tower. Building a new student center or designing a new learning environment needs to tell the community and students alike that the mission of the institution is irreplaceably important and that we believe that the impact of the entire educational experience is worth the reconciling activities that happen within. The design of these spaces can then tell a story that goes beyond the paint, wood, glass, and brick and challenges us to continue to stay on mission.

David Wilkins (AIC, NCI) is a Project Architect and Managing Principal of GMB’s Grand Rapids office. His 29+ years of design experience spans a wide array of education environments, from K–12 through college and university clients.