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Controlling Church Construction Costs
By: H. Joseph Miller

It is very common for construction projects to have extensive cost overruns, especially church building projects. Sometimes the cost overruns are so excessive that the church’s funding capacity is exceeded and the building, or a portion of the building, cannot be occupied due to the incomplete construction. In some cases, members of the congregation have lost confidence in the leadership, reacted to the constant pressure to meet the budget and left the church, further exacerbating the financial dilemma.

Cost overruns in church building projects do not have to be inevitable. If you are contemplating a building program, or are already involved in a project, you will find the following list of 10 safeguards helpful.

1. Control the Building Committee
Don’t rely solely on the church building committee to detail the program of space needs for the architect. The committee typically produces a wish list without a full comprehension of the cost ramifications.

Often, building committee members will request inclusion of church building features they have seen in another church facility. Sometimes the committee is comprised more of builders and people with commercial financial expertise rather than church members who are actively involved in the church’s ministries. They may not understand the philosophical ramifications of church building features so that they can produce a building that reflects the ministry philosophy espoused by the church, especially with regard to church education and church music.

Consequently, the committee may compile a list of functional spaces, capacities and building features without any definition of square footage in each area or concept of the costs for what they are requesting.

2. Control the Architect
Don’t rely solely on the architect to take the committee’s wish list and provide a building plan that is affordable and functional from your ministry perspective, adding his space allocations to the concept requests of the building committee.

Most church architectural training is in liturgical church design rather than in functional spaces for age-graded church education and other ministries. The architect must rely upon you to provide an adequate definition of the program for space development.

Perhaps the architect provides worksheets for you to complete that will detail the program for space development. If so, the building committee and church staff must have the expertise and experience to complete the worksheets with specific information that is more than the common “wish list.”

3. Call a Church Development Consultant
Engage a church ministry, facility and funding consultant to prepare the space needs analysis. A qualified church development consultant has developed the capability to analyze your church’s ministry philosophy, financial potential and other relevant factors so that he can assist the church with feasible and functional space needs analysis. The resulting program to be submitted to the architect will be specific in defining (a) the amount of space for each room, (b) the functional relationship of spaces, (c) an accurate estimate of the total number of square feet for the building and (d) the recommended project cost (based on church financial analysis).

4. Seek Assistance with Architect Selection

Seek the church consultant’s assistance in selecting a church architect for the design that will provide the functional space to facilitate the church program with balance of space for worship, education, administration, activity and participation in ministry. Visit his completed church building projects and learn the total cost per square foot for his type of designs.

You may visit a church building that you like and contact the architect with view to using this building plan. But the architect must review your site and development code issues so that he can adapt this building to your local requirements. He should also review your functional needs and preferences so that the facility is functional as the foremost criteria for the building.

The visited church’s building may provide a guiding concept, but you should seek a custom building design. Rely on the church consultant to interview architects and recommend one who will follow his typical design pattern that is within your functional preferences and financial capacity.

5. Design Layouts for Multiple Functioning
Accept a design with large open rooms that can serve multiple functions for every age group insofar as each function is not hindered in fulfilling its purpose. This can drastically reduce the amount of required space and dramatically reduce the cost of the building project.

The phase one building for the smaller church may provide a worship area that will also be used for other functions. This worship area could serve as an adult small group area by utilizing movable seating and freestanding partitions. Or it might also serve fellowship functions and become the future fellowship hall.

Classroom space for children and youth should be planned as large open rooms where multiple table groups or other small groups could be convened, along with children’s church or other group functions for the same age group. With this strategy, the amount of space required for age group functions can be reduced by as much as 50 percent when compared to assembly rooms and separate cubicle rooms for individual classes. This open-room concept is also the most compatible for housing a Christian day school in the same facility.

6. Research Applicable Codes Prior to Design and Construction Start
The development consultant should investigate all applicable building and site development requirements in your code jurisdiction to avoid costly surprise requirements. My experience is that many architects do not do this detailed research when preparing the preliminary conceptual drawings for the building. A cost estimate without full site and building code research is not reliable.

A qualified church consultant will include code research as part of the initial research. Most active communities now have stringent zoning regulations for churches as a conditional or special use within the zoning that allows church use. Stringent parking, landscaping and storm water control regulations may require costly development.

For many years, church facilities have been classified in building codes as public-occupancy facilities and must, in most cases, meet the regulations for life safety and accessibility. There are major cost ramifications especially related to life safety, sprinkler systems and accessibility features. Your architect should use fire separations and other solutions that limit these costly requirements; your church consultant should be an informed representative on your behalf for these cost factors related to codes.

7. Avoid Costly Custom Features
Avoid custom features that dramatically increase the cost of the building with custom-made materials and intensive labor requirements. Be certain that standard materials that are readily available are specified by the architect. Get the basic building first and then add other features as funding is available. Don’t allow designated giving to control the building architecture. Donors can suggest how they would like to have their contribution used, but the church must control the funds.

8. Choose Church Construction Management
Select a church construction manager rather than a general contractor to construct the project, making certain that you review a detailed and complete construction cost breakdown with total cost (including a contingency) before beginning construction. Adjust the total cost through negotiation and plan changes before the construction begins, endeavoring to minimize costly change orders.

A general contractor typically provides a dollar figure to complete the project, listing the components without a cost breakdown included. Often his bid compilation process is less competitive, as he uses his preferred subcontractors. The church construction manager seeks competitive bids on as many building components as possible and then submits the detailed construction cost breakdown for the church’s cost control. The manager’s church experience should safeguard the completeness of the project cost within the budget.

9. Involve the Congregation in Sacrificial Offerings
Raise as much cash as possible through stewardship development and Biblically based capital gifts efforts. Minimize borrowing and the related costs for fees and interest.

10. Begin Construction as Soon as Feasible
Time is money. Construct the project as soon as possible, based on the evidence of funding capacity for the entire project through cash gifts, sale of capital assets and borrowed funds (based primarily on cash-flow capacity). Then, prepay the building loan as rapidly as possible.

The utilization of these 10 safeguards will provide a quality building for your church that enhances the functions of your ministry. This process should be a joyous experience without financial surprises at the lowest possible cost, while your church leadership gains even greater trust from the congregation.

Joseph Miller is a church development consultant with Discovering Life Ministries, www.BuildMyChurch.com.

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