Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Chapel conundrum...


Lately my brother and Molly and I have been reviewing proposals for ways of bringing natural light into the chapel. This is really the design question of the moment for the chapel, since we almost certainly won't be completing the interior right away. Finishing the interior more slowly over time will save on initial cost attached to our mortgage, and I also think it's the right thing to do in order to ensure we end up with the chapel we really want. Statues and other art and iconography take time and money to obtain, and we don't want to be rushed to design the interior and regret it later.

But, in order to build the enclosure we need to know where any windows will be going. This does have to be done now, and it's been an interesting discussion. We definitely want natural light to come into the chapel, but I also had strong feelings about not wanting to be distracted by outside views. I think having light come in from "up above" not only raises our eyes toward heaven, but the absence of outside views at eye-level concentrates the mind and makes a statement that the chapel is not a "sun room" where one goes to enjoy the views. It's a room for prayer. Molly and my brother agreed with this and so at least this point is very consistent in all of the options. But the options themselves are very different. We can go through them briefly and I'm sure you'll have your own thoughts and comments.

Here are my brothers' initial proposals...

Option 1: Clerestory windows offset in plan

First, before getting into this too much, here's a really interesting Wikipedia article on exactly what is meant by the term "clerestory window". The article is quite good. And by the way, it's pronounced "clear-story," something I screwed up. Anyway, my brother explained that a vertically oriented window would be good for ensuring that water leakage wasn't a major issue, and it is fairly easy to install, and I agree with that. It's also a good way of indirectly getting light into the space. But in this case, for one we thought the windows were too big. My brother wanted to continue the rhythm of the windows on the upper floor of the home across to the chapel, but it looked like the windows were almost floating in space. Another concern was that it felt like the windows should not be the tallest item on the roof of the chapel, and that they should come down towards the outer wall. This kind of inversely-pitched dormer also is kind of a novelty of some modern architecture (often called a "light scoop") and while it may work on some non-religious buildings I don't think it works on a chapel or church. It looks like the chapel is unnecessarily trying to call attention to itself.

Another rendering of the interior shows an idea my brother had of filtering light into a pushout area for the eastward facing altar...
Light is brought in from an exterior window of some sort (that is kept out of direct view). He said that certainly other geometries could be done too, like a rounded top or triangular. We definitely liked this idea.

Option 2: Clerestory windows symmetrical in plan

This is basically the same idea as Option 1, with the clerestory windows aligned on either side instead of staggered. Again, our thoughts and feedback are pretty much the same as those for Option 1.

Option 3: Clerestory windows symmetrical in plan with exposed scissor trusses

This option is the same as Option 2, but here exposed cross beams are added. My brother noted that the dimensions of the room are such that these beams would not be needed to support the structure, and given that alone, we didn't think we would go with them (for design honesty and to save on cost). Also, it tends to make the room feel a little shorter than it otherwise would, and we definitely want to emphasize the verticality of the room.

Option 4: Longitudinal skylight at peak of roof, with rose window

There's a lot going on here. First, the longitudinal skylight. My first question was whether the structure could be supported with such a window in place, and my brother did say that some small supports may have to be added that span the window. This window seemed costly, and again it doesn't really fit with any Catholic architectural tradition, and seems more oriented toward a generic "spirituality" instead of a purposefully Christian one.

Second, what's shown here is a barrel vaulted ceiling, which I personally would love to have, but I know they are extremely expensive. I'm glad it was shown here though, because I think it does take away from the verticality of the room a little bit, so I'm not sure I would want it even if we could afford it.

Lastly, the rose window we definitely like. This was a suggestion of mine before my brother did the renderings, that we should have a window on that wall somewhere to take advantage of the "ad orientem" ("turned towards the Lord" or to the east, towards the rising sun) orientation of the chapel. It would be great to have a window that floods the space with light as the sun rises, as this is extremely aligned with Christian tradition going all the way back to the church fathers.

So, at the end of all these options, where we stood was that we definitely liked a pushout in the east wall of the chapel for the altar, we definitely liked a circular rose window on the east wall, we definitely liked the clerestory window concept, but still weren't satisfied with how the clerestory windows looked. Given this, and my ability to do some modeling with Google sketch-up, I decided to look at a different option for the clerestory windows on my own, just to brainstorm.

Brendan's Option 5: Clerestory windows formed by shed dormers

A shed dormer is the simplest, most inexpensive dormer style, and consists of singled-planed roof with a shallower pitch than the rest of the roof near the window. This would still allow a vertical window, but would allow more of the light to contact the ceiling, and would preserve a design more oriented with tradition. The pushout in the back I modeled as rectangular from the outside (for lowest cost) but from the inside I made the top rounded to align with the circular window. The exterior look of the push-out could be different, this is simply the way I modeled it. I like the pushout idea because in essence it adds a small sanctuary to the chapel, which is really cool. And though a rose window is typically located on the front wall of a church, I like how the circular window recalls a dome above a typical sanctuary in a cruciform church. Consider the bottom picture above, and this picture below of Coutances Cathedral in Normandy, France:
The really cool thing about a circular window on the east wall is that later we could overlay a stained-glass window on the inside. The exterior window would protect the stained-glass window from the elements and provide thermal insulation. I wanted to understand the look of this, plus actually add in an altar and a crucifix in it's likely location, and here's what I came up with (click to enlarge):
I found an image of a circular stained-glass window of the Holy Family and was able to overlay it onto the circular window in Google Sketch-Up. I added a marble-clad altar with a crucifix in the pushout area. The effect you don't get here is lighting, as there would be light coming through the stained-glass window, and the altar area would be more bathed in light than it shows.

My brother liked these ideas, though we all agreed to more thought on the shed dormers. One thing he suggested was that we could extend the interior cut-outs from the windows downward into the wall for placing statues. That seems like a cool idea.

So we're not done yet, but we're making progess.


John Curran said...

I absolutely love the rose window idea; had hoped you'd consider that option. I like the way you show it over the crucifix and altar, but wonder if that is a departure from what I seem to think is the usual location on the opposite end of a church?

I like the way the clerestory (which I've also mispronounced, apparently) windows look on the inside views, not so much from the outside, where they do seem large and attention-calling.

Glad you've decided against the exposed fake beams!

What about clear glass, square windows placed high enough on the walls to let in light and sky, but not a 'view' of the backyard? I'm thinking of the sort of traditional barn windows...

One more idea: how about a "greenhouse" type "Roof", topping off the peak of the actual roof?

Brendan Koop said...

You're definitely right about rose windows typically being at the opposite end of the church. But check out my discussion above the picture of the cathedral interior, hopefully that answers your question.

And one thing to keep in mind regarding the term "clerestory window" is that they are any window located up above as in these options. So the shed dormer windows are also clerestory windows, just a different geometry. So when you refer to the clerestory windows that you don't like as much on the outside, I think you're just referring to the light scoop orientation.

As far as the greenhouse type roof at the peak, it seems similar to the Option 4 concept, just a different geometry, is that right? I'd really like to not do something "novel", and be intelligible from a tradition standpoint, so I'm not sure that would fit, but I definitely hadn't thought of that option.

John Curran said...

I had to read your rose window remarks more carefully! I do love the image of that window over the Crucifix and altar.

I do like the play of light from the clerestory windows, of all kinds; it is the outside views that I'm not in love with.

And you're right, something "novel" is not what you're after. Will look forward to further developments...

Brendan Koop said...

Just FYI, I was reading the wikipedia article on rose windows it notes other examples of rose windows that don't occur on the front facade of a church. Some have been done on the transept facades of a cruciform church, and some even occur in the sanctuary. Here's a pic of Milan Cathedral where you can see a rose window in the sanctuary.

Also, just to be sure, you also don't like the outer appearance of the shed dormer clerestory windows (in option #5)? No problem either way, I like feedback, I just want to make sure I understand.

Evan Koop said...

I really love the last chapel design. One minor point to remember for the future: somewhere in the chapel there needs to be significant shelving and/or a closet. Any chapel will need to have a place to put prayer books, candles, linens, vessels, and perhaps even some vestments for when mass is said. I only bring it up now because it might just be easier to have it built in somewhere (like the back wall) rather than waiting to put it in later.

Brendan Koop said...


You are definitely right, thanks for the tip. Though, we could wait do this later. Anything on the inside can be done later. What hope to at least get done in the construction of the home is the outer envelope, windows, and potentially electrical, though I could do that myself later. Drywall, flooring, and any built-ins (such as shelving, or built-in sliding closet door along the back) can be done when the interior is finished. Though, now that I think of it, you're right that the framing would have to be done to allow for the shelving. I'll definitely keep this in mind. Thanks!

John Curran said...

Brendan, I like Option 5 the best of all the choices, yes. I am glad you welcome feedback, as it is very enjoyable to be in on the ground floor of this exciting venture, and of course one has ideas to share, regardless of what you and your family eventually choose!

Evan brings up an excellent point! The storage solution could also be a piece of ecclesiastical furniture "rescued" from somewhere.

Joe Clarke said...

Option 5 is definitely my favorite. I really like the rose window and pushout ideas. Depending on how you eventually add furnishings, that pushout could become of what would feel like the head of a cruciform layout from the inside. Both window concepts add some good visual interest from the outside as well.

Not sure if this would work with the height and indirect lighting concept, but, how about some windows (similar in size to option 5) near the top of the wall instead of working them into the roof? St Peter's Basilica is this way.

Brendan Koop said...


I think what you suggested with the windows is definitely an option, and I've considered it, but I think we'll only go that route if cost becomes a major concern. That would definitely be a more inexpensive way of getting light into the space, but I'm not sure it would be as visually interesting from the interior.

Joe Clarke said...

I totally agree.

Francis said...

This is interesting, if you are still collecting information about home chapels : an (Anglican) chapel built in an old garage.

Frank Casher said...

I think I'm rooting for #5 too, although I'm sure by now you have made up your mind. I think I've seen a chapel somewhere in Miami that has the same type of dormers, but I think they were more far apart. The roof was made of metal, so the architect made sure that the dormers didn't make it all look crowded. Do you have any photos of how it turned out?