Blessed are the church builders

A construction market that offers long lead times and limited profits might not sound attractive. But for designers and builders of churches, synagogues and other religious structures, it’s not about the money.

“My partner and I came to a point in our lives where we wanted to do projects that make a difference, projects that touch our hearts,” explains David Robison, a principal of Strategic Construction Management in Santa Cruz, Calif. The firm provides owner’s representation for religious, nonprofit, and educational institutions.

Similarly, president Dale Reiser of Professional Buildings Services in Crete, Ill., says, “We have a passion for church construction because it’s a way we can give something back to the communities we serve. Our staff was at a point in life where we didn’t just want to chase after dollars but wanted to do something more important.”

Dwayne Borkholder, president of Borkholder Buildings in Nappannee, Ind., taken his vision for church construction beyond the United States.

“We’re showing congregations in Ukraine and the former Soviet bloc — where post-frame building hasn’t even been introduced — the potential and the cost-effectiveness for this type of construction,” he explains. “Working with people who’ve kept the faith for so long is a real blessing for me.”

Closer to home, president John Rodda of Rodda Construction in Lakeland, Fla., points out that in small towns and rural regions even a modest local church can be an important center of community life. Though he acknowledges that working with church building committees can present challenges, he believes that “it’s a misconception that it’s difficult. We find the people in these local ministries to be warm, welcoming and excited about the impact they have. They just need a builder’s guidance to turn their vision into reality.”

Architects also find satisfaction in the religious construction market. Michael Landau, an architect in Princeton, N.J., is a past chair of the American Institute of Architects Interfaith Forum on Religion, Art and Architecture (IFRAA). The designer of many synagogues as well as churches, he says these projects “are really good for architects because their aesthetics have a very special quality and character.”

According to the Chicago-based Center for Religious Architecture, “Ritual is given form by religious architecture” so that most religious buildings are centered on “a space designated as sacred” while color and light “lead the eyes and the heart to elevated thoughts and emotions.” Yet Landau has also seen a “trend toward churches and synagogues being more active in their communities, so that their campuses are designed to accommodate everything from Alcoholics Anonymous to Weight Watchers.”

Given the many purposes for which religious buildings are used — public worship, offices, media production, adult classrooms, religious schools, day care, gymnasia, kitchens, coffee houses, social functions, meeting spaces, conference rooms — religious campuses often grow over time. Helping congregations focus not just on their physical plants, but on master planning that takes into account their future ministries and an evolving community outside their doors, is often where building professionals can help the most.

At the Smidt Companies in Beloit, Wis., owner Ken Smidt says,  while “it’s important that the contractor understand the vision of the congregation and what they want, you must also help the congregation and building committee understand the fine line between the looks and functionality, and to take maintenance costs and future expansion into consideration.”

Robison agrees that, when he and partner David Tanza launched Strategic Construction Management seven years ago, “We saw a real need for religious organizations to get help early in the planning and building process, so they can understand the costs of their vision and not, say, buy a property they can’t develop. The Bible teaches us to ‘count the cost’ before we start something, to make sure we can finish it, and so our company went to churches and simply offered to help them.”

Decisions by committee

Helping congregations is complicated by the fact that church building decisions are usually made by committee.

“You may deal with a lot of different people who have different ideas, perceptions, and agendas that can be in conflict with other people on the same committee,” admits Borkholder. “As a builder, we must gain the trust and confidence of the majority. Listen to the conversation early on and find out their preconceptions or objections.”

Ignoring these early signs, Borkholder continues, “just doesn’t work. If you can’t get past these preconceptions then it doesn’t matter what else you do. For example, committees often have a perception that post-frame construction is primarily for agricultural buildings. You’ve got to address such concerns. If you don’t, that ‘annoying’ person you ignore might turn out to become one of the key influences on the committee’s decisions.”

At Klobucar Construction of Beloit, Wis., vice president Jerry Klobucar tells rural builders to “sit back and listen, especially during the design phase. If you’re dealing with 12 people on the committee, not everyone will agree and it’s impossible to make everyone happy. Instead, our goal is to understand the collective expectations.”

To eventually achieve consensus on the building committee, Klobucar believes the key is “working through the conceptual designs as diligently and patiently as you need. As a builder I know how to visualize, but a lot people can’t do that without help.” Throughout the committee process, Klobucar continually gauges the group’s evolving expectations “and then I convey back to them what I think their expectations are, in order to get their confirmation.”

In the religious construction market, Rodda notes, “Your customers are volunteers. They’re doing this part-time and have lots of evening and weekend meetings. So the builder must adapt to their schedule. At the same time, everyone has high expectations. The challenge is to get them focused on the budget and what you can provide for that budget.”

In achieving that focus, he advises congregations to keep building committees to a manageable number of people. “The smaller the committee the better,” he says. “And the group should appoint one individual to be the lead person and the contact that we deal with.”

Smidt likewise believes “It’s vital for the church to appoint one individual who can act as a lead for the congregation and the committee. That person needs to have the authority to make decisions on minor changes or complications that arise. Having to wait on a committee to handle each decision makes staying on schedule virtually impossible.”

As churches and synagogues reach out to younger adults and families, Reiser sees religious buildings often put to multiple uses. Professional Buildings Services is active in the National Association of Church Design Builders (NACDB) and its Certified Church Consultant program in order to keep up with the advancing state of the art.

“We aren’t talking about simple structures,” he says, “so our approach with church clients is to listen to their vision, but also to get specific with translating their goals into actual planning items.”

Landau acknowledges that congregations can be focused on the up front capital costs of construction since projects are funded out of member donations. “It’s rare that donations come up to the level of a congregation’s entire wish list,” he points out, “and they generally don’t want to cut out a classroom just so the building can be more aesthetic or sophisticated. As the architect I’ve got to work with them on making priorities and plans.”

Dealing with complexity

Pursuing design and construction contracts for religious buildings requires forethought and dedication. “Once you get involved with the religious market, you want to stay with it,” Robison advises. “But religious and institutional work is the most time-consuming and least profitable, which is why our company has stayed diversified and also does commercial and industrial projects.”

This other work, Robison says, “gives us outside experience that we can take back to the religious market. But we also need these outside revenue streams in order to stay in the religious market.” For the same reason, Reiser agrees that “our industrial and commercial work is an important piece of our being able to do work for churches.”

Once the decision is made to pursue religious construction opportunities, Smidt continues, builders must be prepared for the fact that “committees are the challenge and, yes, the word itself almost always means a longer project.”

On the other hand, he adds, “The reality is there really isn’t another way for most churches to function. They have many opinions to consider and almost have to have a committee decide. This is something the contractor needs to understand and accept with patience.”

Borkholder finds church projects “require a lot more time at the front end, perhaps three times longer than other projects. We might end up working on aspects of the job for three or more years — and we might end up with three times more changes than on other projects.”

Longer lead times and more design changes, Borkholder relates, stem from the fact that “building committees represent the different interests in the congregation. So they must talk to a lot of other people in the church. A change requested by the youth director might affect five other church departments.” But on the positive side, he adds, even if planning takes longer “once people sign off and the construction starts, churches have limited budgets and typically avoid further changes.”

Like other church builders, Klobucar Construction “doesn’t want to limit ourselves,” reports Klobucar, and so the company performs many kinds of commercial, industrial, and institutional projects “including a lot of schools, colleges, banks, and retail.” Similarly, Rodda Construction “doesn’t specialize in religious construction but performs all types of projects,” says its president.

Nevertheless, Rodda’s experience with many kinds of construction has shown him that churches can be complex structures. “For example, the multi-purpose areas may constitute separate electrical and mechanical zones,” he observes, “and if you build a multi-purpose gym with wood floors, you’ve got to find ways to keep out the moisture — even though the gym is as likely to be used for banquets as for basketball games.”

Smidt agrees that builders must “understand the time commitment to working with a church, both in the planning and building stages.” Builders should gauge “whether you have the manpower to complete the job without detracting from other projects, since church projects are usually complex and drawn out.”

Thou shalt be green

Scott Kriner, president of Green Metal Consulting in Macungie, Pa., a company that focuses on green building practices for the metal building industry, says religious construction “is a small portion of the market. But when you look at that segment, churches are complicated buildings. The sanctuary might be huge but used just once a week for a couple hours, which makes it difficult to heat and cool.”

An office wing may be occupied during weekday business hours. Educational and multi-purpose space might be used either day or night. Figuring out the right combination of electrical, mechanical and HVAC requirements can be daunting, Kriner says, “without even taking things a step further and thinking about making the church complex more energy-efficient and environmentally responsible.”

As much as congregations may want to reduce maintenance and energy costs, limited budgets may cause building committees to think green technologies are beyond their reach. “But at the same time,” Kriner says, “the complexity of church buildings also means there’s huge potential for savings. The more you can get committee members to relate these savings to green technologies now being used in their own homes, the more they can make the connection. Make it personal, rather than a nebulous concept.”

The complexity of religious construction is also driven by the diversity of religious life in America. A baptismal font would be offensive at a Baptist church, where doctrine calls for only full immersion of professing believers. A baptistry tank would be equally out of place at mainline Protestant churches that sprinkle infants. The two practices stem from profoundly different views of spiritual regeneration and initiation of members.

“Every church is different and people think of a place of worship differently than any other building,” reports Klobucar. “It’s the people that make it a church, a place that’s really important to them and reflects their belief system. So every congregation has different ideas about their space. Some religions want things extremely plain and others want a lot of ornate detail — and you can’t use a budget on one church that’s very plain and then tell another congregation you can build them an ornate church for the same price.”

Builders of religious projects “must keep an open mind about peoples’ different sets of beliefs,” Klobucar concludes, “but that’s what makes church construction interesting and fun, because you get to learn different perspectives.”

Landau echoes that advice. “You’ve got to know the needs of each religion,” he says, “and to understand the religious components of various spaces, you should go to some services.” Things that seem small to the uninitiated can make a big difference to the faithful, he notes, “and people won’t tell you because they think you should know.”

For Landau, the need to catch a congregation’s vision is illustrated by a synagogue he designed in Nashville. “It was the first synagogue built in the city in 50 years,” he recalls, “so the statement made by that building was very important. That’s what religious clients want — they want you to interpret how they see themselves and their faith experience.”

Reiser has noted an increasing number of builders entering the religious market. He cautions, “Understanding the ministries of your clients is crucial for a successful project. You need to know whether the correct term is lobby, foyer or narthex. And churches don’t just want a builder who offers a good price. They want architects and contractors who can catch their vision and translate it into reality.”

For example, Reiser says many non-denominational evangelical churches are adopting a “seeker-friendly” philosophy of ministry by designing spaces that welcome guests. “There is less emphasis on ceilings and more on open spaces,” he explains, “and a desire for a good flow and feel to the experience.”

“It’s vital to understand how churches work,” says Robison. “So we bring people into our design team — from acoustic engineers to kitchen designers — who know what makes churches unique. Young people today have lots of choices for where they can worship and they’ll go elsewhere if the experience is sub-par.”

At the end of the day, says Rodda, “Church projects incorporate something for everyone. Unlike many other types of commercial construction, a church building incorporates the needs of all age groups.”

Commitment to the vision

In the actual selection of architects and contractors, “most church committees don’t insist on someone of like faith — just someone who has integrity, experience with similar projects, and ability to see the congregation’s vision and manage the budget well,” advises Robison.   Reiser agrees that prior experience is a prime selection criterion and that “architects who want to build monuments to themselves” need not apply.

Nevertheless, when problems in team selection arise, the stickiest situations often involve contractors. “I’ve seen churches choose the elder’s brother-in-law,” admits Landau, and Klobucar concurs that “you run into churches that want us to do the shell and then have someone else do the painting or the roofing. That can affect your schedule, and it means you might be working with laypeople who aren’t accustomed to wearing hard hats or safety glasses.”

Smidt says it has taken time for his company to learn how to handle volunteer help.

“Almost every congregation wants to have volunteers assist with the project to keep cost down,” he says, “but this can disrupt the schedule of the contractors and therefore can drive up the cost rather than save money.”

As an owner’s representative, Robison and Strategic Construction Management may encounter church committees that look to personal connections. “We don’t deny that churches may use ‘friends’ as contractors,” he reports, “but we don’t encourage our clients to ‘hire from within.’ The project needs to be managed professionally, but if insiders are involved it can become messy.”

Another problem with banking on personal connections, continues Reiser, is the expectation that “a church member who does contracting should be willing to do the job at a discount.” Reiser himself, because he is an avowed Christian, can also encounter pressures to accept less money “for the sake of the ministry” than other construction professionals.

“In those cases,” Reiser responds, “we look to the biblical principle that ‘the laborer is worthy of his hire.’ We explain to the client that giving discounts weakens our ability to perform at the highest level and keep up that performance until the project is complete. And yet in religious work it’s so easy to fall into a ‘discount mentality’ without even realizing it.”

Once projects begin, architects and builders must strive to be consensus builders and help their clients through the process. “It can be difficult,” concedes Landau, “because you’re working with laypeople who are doing this for the first time. There’s lots of committees and votes. That’s why religious projects usually aren’t very profitable, because the process takes so long.”

Another complication is that churches, synagogues and mosques are not like commercial businesses. “With an office building or industrial facility,” says Reiser, “it’s just business. With religious organizations, things are tied to people’s self-identities and their views of right and wrong. As a construction professional you’re not just building a building; you’ve got to help build a consensus.”

Building consensus requires trust and, Borkholder agrees, inspiring that level of confidence may be difficult for a newcomer to church construction.

“If you’ve never built a church but want to enter the market, then not having experience is a big hurdle,” he notes. “In that case, align yourself with a building supply company that has experience with churches and can come alongside you, and perhaps put you in touch with other dealers who can give advice.”
Rodda encourages church builders to have a little faith themselves.

“All congregations want a builder who can lead them through the process,” he says. “If you join them in seeing the funds as coming from trusting donors — and ultimately from the Lord — then you and the church building committee will develop a sense of shared responsibility to deliver a quality building on time and on budget.”

Though the Smidt Companies want to “save our clients money while still providing a quality product,” Smidt advises builders to decide up front to what extent they will charge for extras or whether they will simply cover them.

“But probably the most valuable thing a contractor can do,” he concludes, “is to volunteer your time to answer questions, provide direction during the planning stages and, when starting a church project,” to pray with the congregation — and to be patient.” RB

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