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Building for Ministry
By: Thomas K. Smith

What design trends are successful churches adopting?
We are seeing a design trend that isn't defined by a single new building type or space.  Instead, it is best described by a design objective: it is a church building designed to serve the local community. This goal may sound simple, but it is finding expression in many different forms. The solutions are as diverse as the communities in which these churches exist. Churches, which are re-thinking ministry in this way, are looking for connecting points to their neighbors. They're asking themselves, "What is needed in our community?"

For example, First Baptist Church in Peachtree City, Georgia, even posed this question to their city officials and the community at large before deciding to build The Bridge Community Center. The now ubiquitous "third space," a description coined by the Starbucks brand, is one expression of this desire to provide a place for connecting. 

However, for the truly successful stories we see, it is a more deliberate effort and takes time to understand the needs of the community and seeking ways to connect with people. Some churches are adding spaces not traditionally found on a church campus. An inner city church might even include an art gallery as part of their campus. What is fundamentally different is that some churches are not simply looking at another church's solution and becoming a "me too" church by just adopting the latest new idea.

How can a church design reflect the DNA of a particular fellowship?
It must begin with a thorough understanding of the church, its unique traits, ministries, location and setting. For designers, it is important to not come with preconceived ideas of what a church should build.

Instead, it is essential to listen to what is important to a fellowship and understand the church vision, culture, and ministry priorities. A good deal of information can also be gleaned through a review of the church's website and attending one or more worship services. This experience affords the observation of several ministries in action. These details, combined with the statistical data about the church and community, will begin to reveal important factors that will help direct the design.

When done well, the design team captures the essence of a church and expresses this through the design of the building while addressing the current and future needs.

What ways can churches make better use of their physical resources in a tough economy?
We hear this question often: "How do we do more with less?" It is a challenging time for churches since the ministry needs didn't take a downturn with the slowing economy; if anything, these increased.  Just like any household that requires adjustments with a loss of income, churches have been forced to do the same. The implied question is, "How do we become the best stewards of our current resources?"

Maintaining your current assets to make them last as long as possible is a simple but pragmatic suggestion. One way to do this is to make sure that all of the HVAC systems, fire protection, AV systems, and other infrastructure are serviced according to the recommendations of the manufacturer.

By examining the age of some of the systems, you may see that your church is nearing the end of the life-cycle for a particular system. A large investment may be required.  Energy consumption is a costly line item in any church budget, but with more efficient systems today than when the existing equipment was installed, you may be surprised at the number of months in which a new system can pay for itself. Every dollar saved in energy costs can be redirected for ministry use. 

Take the time to evaluate each ministry and where it currently operates to determine what is working well and what is not working effectively because of the size or functionality space issues. We find often that repurposing space with little or minor renovations can lengthen the amount of time a church can use an existing building. An interior renovation is much more affordable for most churches than developing a new building.

Who can best benefit from master planning?
Every church can benefit from a master plan. One of the greatest inefficiencies of churches in the past is a failure to plan. No longer can churches afford that luxury. When you can no longer accommodate the current ministries, it becomes inevitable that you must do something. By being proactive and having a ready master plan, you can move ahead confidently and avoid building where a later phase of development should be located. 

As planners, we begin our role in assisting a church through the development of a strategic master plan or reviewing the existing one. This plan can be isolated and done as a first step before beginning an actual building project. We have also seen churches take it in incremental steps by master planning, next commissioning the design, and delaying construction for a few months until the church has enough financial resources on hand to begin. One word of caution here: If too much time elapses between the plans being drawn and construction beginning, you may be required to make changes in the plans due to a change in the projected construction cost. 

For churches currently in the building mode, the slow economy has a silver lining.  Construction costs in most areas are at a 10-year low, and when the economy rebounds, the cost per square foot for construction will surely go up.

Thomas K. Smith, AIA serves as a principal at CDH Partners with a primary focus on the design of church facilities, www.cdhpartners.com.

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