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Ask the Right Questions to Make an Informed Seating Decision
By: John Chastain

Blast from the Past:
As you begin your search for seating options, you need to consider what your church is really trying to accomplish? Who are you? Understanding your worship style (a) permanent, (b) flexible or (c) transitional will in turn help you easily identify exactly what type of seating is needed to enhance the effectiveness of your church's ministry.
--"Defining Your Worship Style With Seating," June 2012

Whether your church is renovating or building a new space, the purchase of worship seating is a major investment for your congregation. There many choices in type, style and options; therefore, asking the right questions of a potential seating supplier can eliminate confusion, help to narrow your search, and save time.

The following guidelines on two of the most popular types of congregational seating will help you gather the appropriate knowledge to make an informed decision about one of the largest expenditures in your church's building or remodeling project.

10 Questions to Ask About Pews
While worship seating options have greatly increased in recent years, pews continue to be a popular choice for churches of every denomination, but it can be challenging to determine the difference between a poor quality and good quality supplier and product. Listed below are some questions to ask before a final decision is made, so that your church can be confident they are practicing good stewardship.

1. Company Stability: What information can the company provide in regard to corporate health? A Dun and Bradstreet financial rating is a good place to start. Stable companies have been in continuous operation in the same location under the same ownership for a period longer than their warranty. Ask an architect with significant church project experience which pew companies he trusts.

2. Project Management: How is the project handled from pre-order to post-installation? Insist on:
 A local representative to answer many of the 10 questions, and provide product samples and timely on-site service, including as-built field measurements
 A dedicated factory project coordinator to shepherd the order through production and delivery
 A CAD operator responsible for the scale seating plan drawing, based on field measurements
 On-time installation: Check with architects and church references regarding which companies have consistent lead times and install as promised.
 Terms: A deposit will be required, but the balance should not be due until after the pews are installed.

3. Reference Locations: Can several project references within reasonable driving distance be provided? Visiting actual installations that are not new is a proven way to evaluate how well products perform in actual use over an extended period of time. 

4. Product Range: Is a wide variety of worship products and options available? If your straight or radius pews, choir chairs, pulpit, and custom furniture can be provided by the same source, you will save time and limit risks. 

5. Material Quality: What assurances of material quality can be provided?
 Wood: An on-site factory pre-dryer and kiln-dryer ensures that the wood will be milled at the optimum moisture level. Note that "solid wood" alone does not guarantee quality. Answers to #8 below are more reliable indicators.
 Fabric: Fabrics should be independently rated as heavy duty and include stain resistance. COM's (customer's own material) should be an option, but only if the pew company pre-tests the fabric. 
 Finish: Combination of hand and mechanical application works well; topcoat of catalyzed varnish is more resilient than lacquer finishes.

6. Material Selection: Are several choices of wood species and fabric patterns available?
 Wood: Quality companies offer several species and more than one type of cut.
 Fabric: Selection is easier when you have a wide variety of pattern choices; not just a few.

7. Comfort: Are several seat and back choices available to suit your unique needs? 
 An ergonomically contoured seat base under the seat cushion is more comfortable than a flat seat base.
 Seat options: High-density (HD) or high resiliency (HR) seat foam, spring seats, divided seats, wood seat options.
 Foam thickness: Too much foam (4" or more) on a flat seat can trap heat and tend to cause the fabric to stretch more than it should, which can lead to wrinkling.
 Multiple seat back options for lumbar support
 Kneelers: Cold-molded foam that wraps over the edges of the substrate provides better comfort and holds its shape well.

8. Construction Standards: How are issues such as design, joinery, and attachments used to enhance durability? 
 Ends: Routed to receive seats and backs
 Back attachment: Fastened to the seat with screws, not nails; screws should be driven into solid wood
 Cap rail: Tongue-and-groove construction for attachment to the back prevents loosening
 Seat construction: Contoured seat bases use the engineering principle of the arch to provide superior strength, and to prevent sagging without adding the bulkiness of additional boards
 Fasteners: Should never be exposed 
 Splices: When longer lengths are spliced, a support should be located directly under the splice and concealed turnbuckles used to tighten sections together

9. Installation and Warranty: How are the pews installed, and what does the warranty include? 
 Installation based on approved CAD drawing
 Assembled and anchored by experienced pew installers
 Supports scribed to their specific position before anchoring, to ensure permanent tight fit
 Warranties of 25 years on wood, 15 years on upholstery foam/fabric are recommended; non-prorated coverage is best

10. Price: What is the initial price and long-term cost of ownership? Many churches admit that they used price to qualify potential suppliers before asking any of the first nine questions above, only to regret it later. Higher quality pews will be more expensive, but will also be more comfortable, look better, and last longer.
 Lower quality pews: $50,000/25 years = $2,000/year = $167/month plus maintenance costs
 Better quality pews: $60,000/25 years = $2,400/year = $200/month with no maintenance costs

10 Questions to Ask About Auditorium Seating
Although potentially higher in cost than pews or chairs, auditorium or theater-style seating for worship areas has enjoyed a surge of popularity in recent years. With so many choices available, there are some important questions for every church committee to ask before making a decision.

1.  Company: How much experience does the manufacturer have with religious institutions? Most auditorium seating was originally designed for theaters and stadiums. Churches have unique needs that are not always understood by firms with little worship seating experience. There are distinct advantages to working with a company that has a reputation for professional church project management.

2. Domestic Production: Is the product produced in the USA or does the company rely on foreign parts and assembly? The latter may be subject to political issues or shipping delays. Look for companies that source at least 75% of component parts domestically and perform 100% of assembly domestically.

3.  Comfort: What materials are used in the seat and back cushions? Are they shaped to follow the body contour? Is the seat substrate also contoured? Cold molded foam designed specifically for the seats and backs allows ergonomic contouring and will hold its shape better over time than other foams. A contoured seat substrate will be more comfortable than a flat seat base. 

4.  Quiet Operation: Does the system rely on a spring lift mechanism or is it designed to let gravity retract the seat? Gravity-lift systems are quiet and will stay quiet, while mechanical methods tend to be noisier especially after years of use.

5.  Renewability: Are the cushions designed for easy removal and is there provision for replacing the seat and back covers without the cost of a professional upholsterer? Can the various seating component parts be easily replaced if needed? The cost of ownership is much less if the answer to these questions is "yes."

6.  Flexibility: Can the seating be aligned with aisles without the use of several different seat sizes, which affects overall appearance? Are wider seats available for specified areas if you want to provide for larger people? Are removable units offered? Can arms, drink holders, or other accessories be added later if needed? Many churches see their needs change over time and need seating that can grow with them.

7.  Profile: When seats are in the up position, is the profile 19" deep or less? A slim profile provides for more standing and walking space, and comfort does not have to be sacrificed if the seats and backs are contoured with good quality foam.

8.  Maintenance: How much maintenance will be needed or required? For seating systems with springs, some manufacturers require regular lubrication to maintain the warranty. This can be time-consuming if the mechanism is not easy to reach, adding cost to ownership.

9.  On-Time Delivery and Installation: Does the company have a reputation for timely performance or have there been issues from time to time? Ask an architect who works on church projects in your area for input. Insist on reference installation locations.  

10. Samples: Is the company willing to send a professional representative with product samples or will they simply ship them to you for inspection? Most churches have little or no experience with this type of seating, making it difficult to understand what they are seeing and the samples cannot speak! Take the time to schedule a meeting with an experienced professional who can provide the information you need, and to answer questions that inevitably arise. 

Making the Decision
Many times, the individuals involved in the purchasing decision of worship seating, such as pastors and building committee volunteers, will only be involved in this type of purchase once in a lifetime.

Therefore, choosing a supplier that is willing and able to provide the knowledge, support and education needed to make an informed decision is of the utmost importance. The guidelines above will help decision-makers feel confident in their choice of a seating supplier and help alleviate the pressure of choosing seating products for their congregations.

John Chastain of Chastain Associates in Maineville, Ohio, is the Territory Sales Representative for Sauder Worship Seating, www.sauderworship.com.   

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