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The Importance of a Well-Designed Construction Budget
By: Ravi Waldon

Having been involved in the design of more than 65 church projects, I have often said, “I could write a book!” The reason I began my firm is first to serve the Lord through the design of facilities for the Christian community.

Preparing to write this article on mistakes churches often make early in the building project process, I soon learned there is no shortage of articles on the subject. Everyone has a perspective, and there are many commonalities, to be sure.

The one clear similarity is that designing and constructing a church facility is an imprecise process. Each building is as unique as the community that seeks to build it.

While occasionally deserved by our profession, a lot of articles discussed the need to “rein in the architect.” The underlying presupposition is that architects are off doing their own thing with little regard to the church’s personality, ministry needs, or budget constraints. If that is the attitude of the architect selected for the project, a legitimate question can be raised about why that person was selected!

A good architect who has experience in church design will be a vital part of the team, seeking to help keep the church on budget while preserving the design character of the facility. Ultimately, a successful project will depend on a solid team that will relentlessly pursue the church’s vision and ministry needs within the constraints of their budget.

Start With a Vision and Prayer
As a church considers a building project, the leadership needs to have a clearly stated vision. It should be a vision the leadership and congregation share that is arrived at through much prayer and communication. If the facility is to be a tool for ministry, an effective billboard for evangelism and a place to nurture and teach, then the architect’s goal should be to assure that the church is able to move forward in unity with a building that fits that vision. It is the vision that will lead to the prioritized architectural program and master plan, which, in turn, will drive all the design decisions and construction phases that follow. This step cannot be shortchanged.

Who Will Make Decisions?
The process of making design choices that align with the vision and budget needs to be clearly defined from the start. If the decision-making process is clearly established and followed from the beginning, you can come to the end of your project with unity and satisfaction. No project can be considered successful if at the end the congregation is left fractured and without unity.

In order to move a church forward in a unified way, good ministerial leadership is essential.  The leadership must clearly articulate the ministry goals and also establish a clear process for decision-making. How will design choices be made and communicated to the church? Who has the final word? What is the review process?  

Once into the design phase, the architect can often outpace the ability of the church to receive design recommendations, communicate those recommendations to key ministry stakeholders, and provide feedback to the design team. The design team needs to establish a schedule that respects the church’s pace of making decisions and ability to provide timely feedback. If not, the architectural team may end up backtracking, resulting in an inefficient, and potentially more costly, process.

As the design concept is being formulated, the core building committee should be composed of key ministry leaders who can speak to the vision of the church. Later, members with technical expertise will be invaluable. In addition, the design team needs to clearly understand which person has the final word on decisions for the church. I recommend that this not be the senior pastor, as it can be very time-consuming and take the senior pastor away from their primary ministry role.

Bringing a Team Together Early
A successful project will result from a trusted and competent team, proper contractual relationships, and clear expectations of all stakeholders.  A three-legged stool illustrates the relationship between the architectural design team, the builder, and the church. As long as each “leg” does its part, the process will be successful!  

The architect must fully understand the vision of the church and be willing to ask tough questions as he or she leads the design team. The builder needs to be quick to inject their cost and constructability knowledge. They will understand the realities of sequencing construction better than anyone. The church needs to offer their point of view without feeling intimidated by “professionals.”  

One time, I was walking through a church and asked the chairman of the committee why a certain architectural feature was built that way. His answer was, “The architect thought it would be cool.” Never accept that kind of answer from your architect!   

The architect should be able to tell you how every aspect of the building design, including some featured design elements, are contributing to the vision of the ministry. The team needs to trust each other’s respective roles and work together, but at the same time be willing to challenge each other when necessary. Sometimes in our Christian circles, we try so hard to be kind that we are reluctant to ask the hard questions. Just remember the biblical admonition to “speak the truth in love” and respect that each person at the table has an important role to play.

Site Acquisition
On a recent project, we assisted a church with a master plan. They had purchased a site that was an “amazing deal.” Unfortunately, as the civil engineer and the architect studied the site, it became clear they were going to spend well over a million dollars on the steep slopes and for well and septic systems—a full quarter of the anticipated project budget.  Spending a few thousand dollars on a site feasibility study using both an architect and civil engineer could have saved them hundreds of thousands.  

Another more positive example was a church that hired the architect and civil engineer for quick studies of several potential sites. They were able to quickly find a site that met the program needs and budget of the church. The congregation had a clear understanding of both the positive features and liabilities of the site prior to purchasing, and this also gave them leverage when negotiating a sale price.

Balancing Faith with Wisdom and Realistic Expectations
God can work miracles! Far be it from me to challenge that! Once I witnessed a person donate $1 million to the church in response to the Lord’s leading. But I have also heard a pastor announce to his church he was praying that the building would cost 67% less than the budget prepared by the builder, which didn’t happen.

Establishing a realistic building program that is also built on faith requires a combination of planning and prayer. It is important to develop an architectural program and master plan. The program defines the intended uses and a matrix of square footage requirements by each ministry and facility function. This establishes a benchmark by which a master plan can be developed. The master plan is the layout of the entire complex to ultimately be constructed on the property. It is the target the church is aiming toward. The master plan is important because it provides a unified approach to a building program.  

A critical part of having realistic expectations and a viable master plan is to have a good financial analysis of the church to determine what the church can afford. Any building project, whether large or small, is a large stretch of faith. There are specialized firms that help churches figure out their financial capabilities. The church needs to establish a total project budget that includes not just the building, but also acquisition costs, consultant costs, permitting costs, furniture, move-in costs, and other expenses.

Do the design aspirations and budget constraints have to be at odds?  In many of the articles I reviewed, ministry leaders commented that they built too small. Many felt they should have tried to build a larger facility. Too early a control on the financials may result in a building program that does not meet a church’s true needs. On the other hand, there is just as much risk designing without constraint and overshooting any feasible budget. The key is designing to an agreed-upon vision and proposed budget, which will drive a valid and attainable architectural program and master plan.

The building process can be fraught with pitfalls; however, it can also be a wonderful blessing. God can and will use the building project to grow the congregation during the process, as well as after the building is completed, as we remain humble and prayerful through it all.  

Ravi Waldon is principal in charge for Waldon Studio Architects and Planners, www.waldonstudio.com.









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