It is always impressive to see a building beautifully renovated just as it is always impressive to see an empty building find a new resident, but the vision and design that went into turning the Compaq Center, a former sports arena once home to the Houston Rockets, into the new Lakewood Church campus is nothing short of spectacular. With seating for 16,000, a congregation of more than 40,000, and an additional 200 million households watching on television, there is no question Lakewood's dynamic pastor Joel Osteen has taken center court thanks to a design team that included some of the best in the business. The new sanctuary itself is a part of a larger $92 million dollar project of building the Lakewood Church campus in downtown Houston with offices, classrooms, and outreach ministries, featuring the reconfigured arena as a television facility that beams the Word out to millions weekly.

Award-winning LD Bill Klages, in collaboration with Lakewood's lighting director Tom Stanziano and renowned production designer René Lagler, designed the lighting for the live presentation and its television ministry.

Studio Red Architects is the design and executive architect for the Lakewood project, under architect Pete Ed Garrett. “At first, we were looking for empty blank property to build a new facility,” says Garrett. “Then the city put a ‘For Lease’ sign on the Compaq Center, and we started looking at the conversion of that and if it could work. Today, the building is 600,000 sq. ft., but we had 300,000 sq. ft. built, and that was the seating bowl. That was $30-35 million of construction already built. So that was a $30 million head start.”

The design team played with the sanctuary area in a number of different configurations, but in the end, the presentation area was carved out of the west end of the arena. The sermon is delivered from the downstage platform along with the featured singers who also perform on this level. The orchestra is directly behind the platform and is on a motorized Gala Systems Spiralift so that the orchestra can be lowered out of sight during the sermon. The choir — on permanent, elevated levels — frames the orchestra left and right. Offstage of the choir levels on each side is a cascading water feature. Upstage of the orchestra lift is a signature globe, 11' in diameter. The globe rotates slowly and can be raised and lowered. Further upstage, header columns frame a motorized drape that serves as a background in the center. The center area is framed with light boxes and LED screens offstage left and right and one large screen in the center.

The basic bowl audience sections around the arena were retained in the conversion of the arena. However, the original flat floor main seating was completely rebuilt with a rise of about 1:16 for sight-line improvement but also to tangibly reshape the focus of the space from a basketball arena. Klages feels it was the most important decision made.

“The thing the architect did — Pete Ed Garrett, who was brilliant by the way — was to alter the arena,” Klages says. “The big fear was that a building like this would always retain the stamp of an arena, and of course, it is not an arena anymore; it is a sanctuary. The single element that most changed it was raising the floor.”

“With the basketball floor in the arena, all the focus is toward the center of the court,” says Garrett, explaining the effect. “We demolished about 4,000-5,000 sq.ft. of seating at one end to place the worship platform at that end. We then converted the basketball flat floor to a slope, like a regular performing arts center auditorium. Raking the floor really reorganized all the seating of both the lower bowl and the upper bowl toward the worship platform.”

While the architects were working on the initial design development, Stanziano attended a talk given by Klages about lighting for television. Stanziano asked Klages if he would like to discuss consulting for the Lakewood project.

“Knowing the size of this project, I felt we needed someone who had done this before,” comments Stanziano. “Listening to what Bill had to say and his experience, we knew that Bill was the right guy. In our old home, we were primarily set up as a television studio. They would call it an 8,000-seat TV studio. Now, we are more of a live venue as well and a studio on a whole different scale.”

Early on in the design development process, Klages suggested that the design team bring on production designer René Lagler, who had collaborated with Klages on many TV and event projects over the years. “I have done a lot of shows with René. He is a wonderful designer,” says Klages. The team now had two designers who, between them, have a total of 12 Emmy Awards.

“The staff wanted me to come down and give it a ‘wow’ factor,” explains Lagler. “So that is what we did. On the back of a napkin — on an American Airlines flight — I drew an idea of what it should look like, and when I got home, I put it on the Xerox machine, blew it up, and sent it to them. They said ‘yes, that would work.’ That is how it all started.”

Lagler clarifies what the “wow” really is. “In my design, I tried to give visual movement where the choir was with the waterfalls. I was then able to continue that shape all around, with the arch above, that all gives it what I call visual movement. Your eye never rests, if you will. That was some of what we were trying to accomplish. Also, we wanted something that has longevity to it. We have some drapery that can change out and of course the lighting changes, but overall, we needed something that would have some longevity.”

For Klages, the first priority was to design and implement a functional catwalk to provide the proper infrastructure for the television lighting. “[This is] the most important consideration in a temporary or permanently installed system, as Lakewood is completely dependent upon proper and accessible instrument mounting positions,” says Klages. “It is that simple. You can always buy a piece of equipment, but what you can't build in any building, or any tour, or any event is the mounting positions. These can be hard fought battles, depending on how much cooperation you have with the architect. In this case, we had a lot of cooperation and a lot of communication. These are the best catwalks that have ever been put in a place.

“In my previous experiences — particularly doing shows in film studios — you utilize the catwalk system,” continues Klages. “I always mount the units off the catwalk, so that people have an unobstructed walkway. There is no cable, no restriction, nothing, and the units are accessible. This idea of double piping on both sides can increase the mounting positions so you never have to pick and choose and compromise.”

Stanziano concurs, “The way Bill laid it out, he said, ‘you are going to be here for 30 years, so do it right the first time.’ In the end, everyone realized he was right.”

The lighting catwalk is complemented by three front lighting trusses and a centerline followspot platform. There are also full-height cross lighting slots for the lighting of the upstage curtain. “Those three trusses were a necessity in order to get that front lighting position, particularly for Joel,” states Klages. “When you get down to it, the main shot of this whole thing is Joel delivering the message. The music is icing on the cake.”

When it came time to choose equipment, Stanziano and Klages went over a number of options to give them the best possible tool for the job. A main concern was the type of fixture for the key light. “We looked at 10kWs; we looked at using 5kWs. But it came down to using VARI*LITE VL3500s,” explains Stanziano. “We needed the correct color temperature as well as the correct intensity. They are all corrected to incandescent using dichroic color correction.”

“A VL3500, corrected to incandescent, proved to be ideal in providing proper exposure level as well as spread,” Klages explains. “Only under extreme circumstances in all of my experience would I ever use a moving light in preference to an incandescent, so this was quite a departure. The use of a VL3500 as the front light is a little different, but the added advantage was that the shutters provided accurate means of controlling spill. The shutters were great; it is a beautiful instrument. Gentle fill light was placed on side trusses.”

Klages used followspots as the front light for the music section, another departure from the norm and the style of most church services, but, he says, the choice is “consistent with the very contemporary nature of the music. Followspots are the only way that you can get those effects for a show like that. No matter what anybody says, there is no way that any fixed instrumentation or general area lighting is going to give you that look.”

In addition to using moving lights for the front light, Klages did use some 5kW Fresnels. “People may question the use of 5kW Fresnels. This was an effort to get in certain areas — particularly the choir — for a single-source face light type of look, clean and photographically neat,” says Klages. “You can get some nice looking portraits when you go in for the tighter shots, similar to the way the VL3500 is lighting Joel, similar to the way the followspots are lighting the music principals. The orchestra has 10° [ETC] Source Fours on them as portrait lights for their close-ups.”

Like Lagler, Klages looked for longevity. The ability to grow the system down the road was a main issue that he and Stanziano kept in mind with the system design. “One consideration was the ability to easily expand the system by only the purchase of additional instruments but with no increase in outlets, dimmers, or electrical capacity,” Klages explains. “In order to contain the system size, the basic light plot was developed very early in the project. It was also decided that system expansion would be by the addition of moving lights only. In other words, the number of conventional instruments that would ever be required was limited at the outset. This resulted in a compact but efficient system.”

One of Klages' clever fixture ideas that Stanziano liked was a labor-saver. “Bill's idea to have Altman put [MUT Enterprises] T-Handles on all the c-clamps has worked out great,” says Stanziano. “Coming from a television background, he does it in every studio, and it was a great idea.”

The determination of the operating exposure level of the TV cameras was pursued during the design and development phase of the project. Klages used his broad experience in television lighting to determine the exposure level with the lighting design. “For television, it is important that the viewer be aware of the extent of the congregation and the facility's real estate,” says Klages. “What drove the exposure level of the venue was how much audience lighting we could get. It is actually a little low. But the advantage of being low is you get the full exposure just from the downlight on the audience, plus the fact that everything else shows. All the effects, the graphics, and whatever you do with the moving lights are easily attained because of this lower light level.”

The congregation's comfort during the service is important, particularly when considering glare, so for lighting the audience and to limit glare, Klages specified narrow spread ETC Source Four® PAR luminaires for downlighting. “Glare is the enemy,” says Klages. “You don't want people sitting like you would at an awards show with direct light on their faces. Somehow, you have to get around this. You have to light the audience. Basically, the majority of the audience is done very typically like you would do with house lighting — downlight. However, the intensity is not five footcandles; it is 50 footcandles. For the near audience, where all of the really tight close-ups come from, I do light those people. I give them face lights from the stage area.”

In addition to the audience lighting, the ceiling above their heads got some lighting of its own, according to Garrett. “Once we ripped out the scoreboards and the sports lighting, all we had was the catwalks, and you could see the underside of the roof,” he says. “While in Las Vegas during that time at a convention, Jared [Wood, Studio Red Architect] and I saw Cirque du Soleil's “O,” and they have a perforated metal ceiling that the air-conditioning can drop through, but then they have this back lighting, and it changes colors. Jared said, ‘Wouldn't it be fantastic if we could do something like that at Lakewood and create a feeling that there is a ceiling rather than all the catwalks?’ That idea is what became the luminous clouds of net that are all lit by LEDs [Color Kinetics ColorBlast®]. It really reinforces the environment. It is amazing, because people think we built a whole new ceiling or something, but we spent about $150,000 on lights and some fishing net — just nylon cord net.” According to Stanziano, not everyone was thrilled with the idea at first. “Everyone was a little concerned about what it would look like, but it ended up working great,” he says.

Stanziano has ample opportunity to admire the ceiling clouds, since he designs and operates every service. As the primary console user, he was involved in the control decisions. Lakewood ended up selecting the MA Lighting grandMA, using a full grandMA and a grandMA Light, both of which are new to Stanziano. “At the old location, we had a Jands Hog 500, and on tour, I had a [Flying Pig Systems] Wholehog 2, so going into this facility, I had never touched a grandMA,” he says. Lakewood has 12 universes of DMX, with six dedicated to the broadcast lighting system and six for the architectural lighting system. “With the amount of universes we are using and the flexibility of the console, we didn't know anything else out there that could handle it the way the grandMA could,” he adds. “I love it. Everyday, I learn something new on it. It is really cool.”

Klages is also pleased with the choice. “I found it very impressive,” he says. “It is like anything else — you have to get used to it, but it is very impressive. Tom was remarkable to go from the Wholehog to that very quickly. We looked at a number of consoles, and the grandMA prevailed.”

A fiber-optic network is used to interconnect all the major elements of the lighting system. The lighting networks were designed by Klages and supplied and installed by Barbizon Light of the Rockies. “Peter [Maurelli] of Barbizon, as broadcast lighting integrator, was responsible for furnishing all the television lighting instruments, control equipment, and network components for the Broadcast Lighting System,” explains Klages. “In addition, they provided the crew to install and focus these components.”

There are actually two lighting networks that are interconnected, according to Klages. “We use the main network for the broadcast lighting and ETCNet for the architectural lighting. The two systems were coupled together in kind of an inexpensive, easy fashion. I went into the architectural network with DMX, and the architectural network went into the broadcast lighting dimmers on the ETCNet, so the two networks were completely isolated — very simple and straightforward.” Klages designed the system so that the architectural system could not control any moving lights. “I didn't want tours coming in and putting on lights that have limited lamp life. All the conventional lighting is addressable from the architectural system. I basically set up a tour look that is nice lighting visually and the [ETC] Unison system handles that.”

The designers couldn't get everything that they desired. There were some items that the budget would not allow. “When we started, we thought we would have LEDs in everything, and then, of course, the cost kills you, so we put LEDs only in the vertical columns and neon in the header piece,” says Klages. “Altman Micro Strips were used for the orchestra coves and fluorescent light boxes for the Duratrans, which are the clouds that appear. Those choices were mutual between René and me.”

Lagler feels the changes maintain his design intent. “From the way the choir risers rose, there were these two shaped walls that you would see very evidently from left and right and even straight on. I wanted to develop that in some way that could have some visual change to it. The idea was to put lighting in there and have it be able to change color. I think the Altman Micro Strips worked very well.”

As for the end results, according to Garrett, “I think it is a result of the really good teamwork. The efforts of Bill Klages, René Lagler, Lakewood, and ourselves combined...we all did it together as a unit, and we all listened to what Lakewood wanted to do. Everybody is extremely happy.”

Pastor Joel Osteen believes there is a new generation rising at Lakewood Church, a generation without limits, a generation that believes all things are possible. The success of their new home is a testament to that belief.

Broadcast Lighting Equipment
24 VARI*LITE VL3000Q Spot
8 VARI*LITE VL3500Q Spot
8 VARI*LITE VL3000 Wash
6 High End Systems ColorCommand
33 Arri 12" 5kW Fresnel
300 PAR64 Fixture
60 PAR64 Fixture with
Wybron CXI Color Changer
20 ETC Source Four® PAR
24 ETC Source Four 5° Ellipsoidal
14 ETC Source Four 10° Ellipsoidal
18 ETC Source Four 19° Ellipsoidal
60 Altman EC-1 EconoCyc Luminaire
3 Strong 2kW Super Trouper Followspot
3 MDG Atmosphere Hazer
6 ETC Sensor® Dimmer Racks with 498 20A and 39 50A dimmers
1 MA Lighting grandMA Console
1 MA Lighting grandMA Light Console
3 MA Lighting MA Network System Processors
Installed in Scenery:
52 Altman Micro Strip MR11 Striplight
112 Color Kinetics ColorCast® 14
200' Neon
2 8'×24' Fluorescent Light Boxes
Audience Lighting Equipment
(Partial List)
ETC Unison® System with 288 20A dimmers  
372 ETC Source Four PAR
76 Color Kinetics ColorBlast®12