Designing for the Body and Soul

7 min read

Architect Victor Body-Lawson’s Newest Plans for Churches and Residences

Victor Body-Lawson’s designs go beyond the basics of putting a roof over people’s heads. The New York City architect plans housing to enhance a community’s health and financial strength as well. And he often thinks about how to house residents’ souls.

Body-Lawson has had several recent projects that consider the overlap between the physical and the spiritual. New ground-floor churches paired with apartments above them feature at both Iglesia de Dios Senda de Bendicion in the Bronx borough of New York City and the Fort George Hill development in Manhattan. And when a third church/apartments possibility fell through, he used building materials from the congregation’s demolished church as a way to carry some of that spiritual energy forward.

He is also designing two housing projects in Manhattan’s Harlem neighborhood being developed by the Harlem Congregations for Community Improvement, The West 139th Street Cluster (73 units) and Marcus Garvey Village (169 units).

Three of the projects are still in development, while Marcus Garvey Village is under construction. All of the projects, except West 139th Street Cluster, are using Low Income Housing Tax Credit financing.

Body-Lawson, principal at New York-based Body Lawson Associates, has been thinking about churches since at least 1998, when he was invited to work on a master plan for Manhattan’s famed Riverside Church. That project didn’t involve any housing, and wasn’t fully implemented, but he was able to install economical LED lamps, which allowed the church to light its tower year-round, not just at Christmastime.

At Iglesia de Dios Senda Bendicion, (this project and Fort George Hill are both being developed by nonprofit SoBro, the South Bronx Overall Economic Development Corp.), a nondescript storefront church in two tenement buildings is being turned into a 6,745 square-foot church topped by 43 low-income residential units. At Fort George Hill, the Movimiento Mundial Church will have 10,000 square feet of space on the lower floors of a development of 12 stories and 146 units.

Body-Lawson has thought about places of worship pretty thoroughly, including how they should be oriented, their acoustic properties and the border between the sacred space and the living spaces.

A Changing Landscape
“The market, though that’s not the best word to use for churches, has changed, particularly in urban areas,” he says. “The membership, the demographic has changed. They have somewhat reduced and atrophied, making the churches very difficult to maintain by the existing members,” he says.

So, a lot of churches are being forced to do development projects. “It’s been to their advantage when they take a site that only has a one-, two- or three-story church and convert it to a building that has hundreds of units and a church in it. That works for the community and for the church,” he says.

The end result is “mixed-use buildings that lower their maintenance costs,” he says, as well as providing a way to bring congregants back to their churches.

“There’s a need for housing, so you’re filling that, and also filling a spiritual need that communities typically have,” according to Body-Lawson. The resulting new paradigm for inner city church and residential mixed-use buildings is a win-win, he says.

“There’s a symbiotic relationship between places of worship and places where people live.”

The way the architect does these projects is to design the place of worship first. “I think about the church first, then the housing,” he says. “You design the church first, and then you design the housing to work with the church. I look at the historical connection between the church and the street that it’s on.”

While the new church may look nothing like the old one, Body-Lawson keeps the orientation of the entrance in the same space, a historical linkage to the church as it was in the past. Going on to the housing, he then designs it from the top down. Then he designs the base of the building.

Separate Buildings
By this time, he has thought about the relationship between the church and the housing, which he considers to be separate buildings.

“The acoustical relationship between the two buildings needs to be thought through very carefully and very sensitively,” he says, both the sounds made by the congregation and the music that is played at services. That results in separating the ceiling of the church from the floor of the residential building.

That separation may also bring a long-term financial benefit to the congregation, he says, since the new church will not need a new roof, meaning the cost to maintain the church is reduced considerably.

Pandemic considerations may also now factor into the equation, such as upgrading disease-preventing air filtration systems using MERV 13 filters, the kind used in hospitals.

At Senda de Bendicion, the idea was “to design a new church for them, with the main sanctuary on the ground level and a fellowship hall on the lower level.” Above it is the affordable housing. The church has its own entrance.

The Fort George Hill project is next to a subway station (convenient for residents but requiring vibration dampers for noise abatement). The church owns the site, but they never had a church there, says Body-Lawson. “We made sure the entrance of the church is on the main street, it’s accessible,” he says. Other facilities at the church include day care, offices and a radio station.

Sometimes the mixed-use possibilities get shuffled. At the Home Street Residences development in the Bronx (see Tax Credit Advisor, November 2020), the mixed use turned out to be a teen support and video gaming center. But that was plan B.

A Change of Plans
Originally, working with a congregation, the architect’s plan was to have a religious space that various denominations could rent out, a kind of co-working church space. But when that fell through, Body-Lawson used material from the group’s demolished church, such as the cornerstone, the church pews and some of the wainscoting, to establish continuity with the old house of worship.

The architect works on secular projects, as well. Looking ahead, Body-Lawson has recently answered a New York City Request for Proposals for a project in the city’s Bedford-

Stuyvesant neighborhood that he hopes will be a building that is an extension of its community, “a building that would promote health and wellness in communities that in the past had been systematically redlined or downgraded.”

His submission includes concepts like how to empower people economically, how to deal with wellness and health issues, how to deal with food and the quality of the food, even how to deal with things like light and air.

If he gets the commission, the project will have an urban farm in the back yard, as well as a market that would sell produce from the garden. It would have a wellness center, a yoga studio and a health center. His plan envisions two buildings, one for affordable family housing, the other for affordable senior housing.

“The city wants to eliminate the social inequities that have existed for a long time,” he notes. His proposal plans a mechanical system that lowers utility costs for tenants, a running track and an herb garden on the roof, heavily insulated windows to mitigate heating/cooling transfers and other design items.

This should help the environment, as well. “If you can get services in the building, you don’t have to go out as much. Thus, you’re not using as much energy and reducing the carbon footprint of cities.”

The end result, hopefully, will be “a community asset rather than a standalone building.”

Story contact:
Victor Body-Lawson, Principal, Body Lawson Associates, New York

Mark Fogarty has covered housing and mortgages for more than 30 years. A former editor at National Mortgage News, he has written extensively about tax credits.