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Putting Financial Controls on All Aspects of Building Process
By: Lee Walker

Under the best of circumstances, a church construction project is one of the most stressful endeavors leaders and a congregation can undertake. One of the major stress points is caused by the fact that elders, pastors, and committee members are, for the most part, unfamiliar with issues related to construction.

And, perhaps, the most contentious part of the project is the bidding process, whereby general contractors and architects are competing for the job. Building committees and church leaders should understand that this initial phase is inherently faulty and frequently results in bidders "low-balling" prices in an effort to simply land the contract. As the process moves forward, prices inevitably rise with frequent "change orders" and upgrades, resulting in a building that goes way over budget.

But, the damages to the congregation are much more significant than just financial. Pastors and elders are accused of not being good stewards of funds when forced to go back to the congregation for more money. Projects can be put on indefinite hold. What started out as a way to build a ministry has become a project that has destroyed a healthy church because of lost confidence in leadership, anger, and divisiveness.

So, what is this bidding process and what should church leadership and building committees be aware of when embarking on a construction project?

First, it is important to realize that the bidding process among general contractors and architects can be based on a desire for them to get in the door with artificially low prices. This is done by submitting plans that are only 70-80 percent complete. In other words, many important details are left out, resulting in expensive additions and change orders down the road.

The following are some examples of details that are traditionally left out of the initial plans:

1. Plans could simply indicate light bulbs, and not actual fixtures.
2. Flooring could be linoleum and not more expensive tiling or carpeting.
3. Doors could initially be made of particle board as opposed to solid.
4. Stairways could be made of steel in the plans, when wood was expected.

These are just some of the details that can result in a low bid and the awarding of a job. This strategy is accepted in many sectors of the construction business and is used simply because the average person isn't familiar with analyzing plans. In short, it seems like the contractor that makes the biggest mistake has the best chance of getting the job.

So, rule No. 1 is to make sure that plans are complete down to every light fixture, faucet and tree. And, remember that there's a reason why a particular bid is significantly lower than others competing for the project.

Church building committees should also analyze the cost of operating and maintaining a structure after it is completed. This is known as life-cycle costing. Frequently, these products are more expensive to include at the outset, but, as the building ages, there will be significant savings. These products can drive up the initial pricing, but will pay for themselves in several years.

The following are several examples:

1. Flooring: Using low-gloss linoleum that requires virtually no maintenance. Money will be saved on labor.

2. Air conditioning: Electricity will be saved by using high-performance, energy-saving units.

3. Hurricane shutters vs. impact glass windows: Impact glass windows are more expensive to install. Again, there will be labor savings since people won't have to be hired to install them as a storm approaches. Many churches could assume that deacons will install the shutters, but as a storm approaches, they have other priorities to protect their homes and families.

4. Toilets: Waterless urinals will save on water consumption.

Scriptures clearly tell us, as part of our responsibilities as stewards, to understand what costs are involved with building a ministry. Costs can also be contained by having the church directly purchase materials air conditioners, toilets, fixtures, etc. This will save on mark-ups of middlemen, which is also typical in the construction industry.

In many cases, it is also appropriate to implement a "gift in kind" program, which involves the general contractor managing sub-contractors (electricians, carpenters, etc.) who are either directly or indirectly within the church's network. In many cases, these folks support the church's vision and are more willing donate time or provide services at discounted hourly rates.

These are all steps to take as safeguards against having this process become too expensive, which ultimately results in divisiveness within a congregation. And, once that happens, the church and probably the pastor becomes the referee between the builder and architect. This role must be avoided at all costs and is best done through a non-traditional covenantal relationship among the builder, the architect, and the church.

This is best accomplished by a "Trinitarian" relationship among these entities from the outset of the project. By insisting on this relationship, churches will better understand the process and put financial controls on every aspect of the building process.

It will also avoid projects going over budget because God's truth is a foundation of building a church and a stronger ministry. Honesty and integrity will be part of the process, as we are taught.

Lee Walker is president of Walker Design & Construction, Boca Raton, Florida, which has a strategic alliance with Building God's Way, www.bgwservices.com.

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