Building without stress

A primer for pastors and congregations building churches

John Davidson is president of Church facility Consultants in Florida.

So your church wants to construct a new facility, or perhaps build an extension. That's good news. That shows your congregation is growing. It's time to rejoice. God is blessing your congregation. But one thing pastors don't realize is that ahead of them is one of the most stressful and trying undertakings of their ministerial career.

Surveys reveal that a majority of pastors leave their parishes shortly after major building efforts. "I'm burned out"; "The pressure from all sides became unbearable"; "I thought we were a unified church when we started, but we didn't end up that way"; "I almost worked myself to death trying to finish the church"; "Nothing stayed on budget, everything cost more than we had planned."

These are some comments pastors ex press after completing "successful" building programs. Yet it need not be that way. Here are some ways to build without stress.

Plan your finances well

Before launching a project, build a realistic budget and hold to it. Anticipate every possible expense. Check from more than one source that cost projections are realistic and plan for them. Don't leave things unplanned. One pastor expressed his great surprise and dismay that the budget the church had initially agreed upon with the contractor didn't include the parking lot and landscaping. Because of this, they had to raise an additional $50,000 before they could move into the new church. In addition, the volunteer labor that they had expected would save them at least 30 percent ended up saving them less than 5 percent. "That really hurt us financially," confided the pastor. "It was extremely embarrassing going back to our lending institution twice to ask for more money to finish the church." And what's more, no congregation likes to hear every three months that more money is needed.

The point cannot be overemphasized. Adequate space/financial planning at the earliest stages of the process coupled with sufficient financial control and management during the design phases of the project are absolutely essential for a smooth stress-free construction operation.

Be familiar with construction phases

It is possible that at least one person on the church building committee may be a builder or an architect. We generally assume that construction industry professionals on the church building committee will guarantee a "successful" building program. That is not always so.

It is important, therefore, for you and your building committee to become familiar with the design and construction industry standards and methods that are used for proper and cost-efficient planning, accurate design, cost control, and the construction process itself.

A building program has four major phases: feasibility studies, program, formal design, and construction. Each phase is a foundation and stepping-stone for the next phase. If the first phase is not properly prepared, the second phase will not have clear direction and will be doomed to cost-control failure. Likewise, if the third phase has no foundation and no proper cost control, the fourth will be primed for unanticipated construction cost overruns.

Each phase, in and of itself, is an important element of the building program. However, to ensure a stress-free project, the first two phases are the most important. The proper implementation of these phases will ultimately determine overall project success.

But before going into detail over these construction phases, let us look at the construction costs.

Understand construction costs

Three separate costs are involved in a building program: bid cost, construction cost, and capital cost. Each cost builds upon the previous until the capital cost is reached. Capital costs are the total moneys that your congregation will spend to finish the project. This is an extremely important point to re member. The total amount of money that you and your congregation will spend on the overall turnkey project is found in the capital cost.

Let's briefly examine what is included in each cost.

Bid cost. The bid cost is the "bid" amount a general contractor gives to construct the fixed building and prepare the surrounding site. Typically the following are included: excavations; foundations; structure; exterior skin; vertical movement; interior finishes; fittings and fixtures; plumbing; heating and air conditioning; fire protection; electrical; sitework and parking; landscaping; and the general contractor's general conditions, overhead, and profit.

If you are receiving budget numbers from a construction industry professional, generally these are bid cost numbers. This is where you can utilize the building and construction industry professionals in your congregation. Bid cost numbers are their specialty. These are the numbers they deal with on a daily basis. These professionals can render a real and much-needed service for identifying bid costs.

Construction cost. The construction cost incorporates the bid cost plus the following typical items: escalation (inflation) costs; professional design and consultant fees; and construction change-order contingencies.

Capital cost. The capital cost includes all the money that will be spent on the building project. It includes the bid cost, the construction cost, and the following items: land costs; impact fees; sanctuary seating; sound systems; special sanctuary lighting; surveys; testing and inspections; signs and graphics; musical instruments; classroom and office furniture; kitchen equipment; computers; telephone equipment; models and renderings; start-up costs; fund-raising costs; and building loan financing fees.

The key to a stress- and problem-free project is identifying and accurately budgeting all costs for the complete project.

Let us now examine the four major phases of a building program.

Undertake feasibility study

Feasibility studies are important for ac curate financial planning and cost control. Most capital cost savings are realized in this phase. This phase enables your congregation to receive adequate information and insight into its needs and capabilities with the least amount of money expended. With out properly completing this phase, your building plans will be like a ship without a rudder.

The feasibility study is the vehicle your congregation will use to make timely, costeffective decisions about its future plans. This study brings into clear focus the growth needs of the church as well as financial stability and the congregation's capabilities.

Solid overall information is needed to make the decisions of how or whether to proceed further into a building program. Five categories of information make up a proper feasibility study: future membership growth; financial resource capabilities; growth potential within the surrounding community; preliminary space programming and capital cost budgeting; and site or existing facility growth potential.

Determine the program

The program phase is most important and yet it is the least understood and utilized. This is the phase that determines the "space" for your new facility.

The program is the foundation on which all design is based. It allows your congregation the opportunity to explore thoroughly its space needs and to discuss and finalize the project cost limit (capital cost). It is in the program phase that program affordability is determined and where the majority of all potential capital cost savings opportunities are realized.

The program is the design of your building project in written narrative form. It describes the overall function of the building, the square footage requirements needed for each space, the quality of the interior and exterior finishes, and any special items that may be required to fit your particular congregation's needs.

Using a well-prepared program document can help you achieve a whole realistic and accurate costing of the building project (the capital cost). It is the program document that the architect and his/her consult ants and "the design team" use to translate, in drawing form, the needs and desires of your congregation.

Usually a facility/cost consultant prepares the program document. However, if one is not available, you will need to hire an architect for space programming and a cost consultant for the costing and budgeting of the space program.

Only after the congregation has prepared and voted to approve the program and pro gram budget, should an architect and design team be selected and hired.

As you might have concluded, the completed feasibility studies and program phases are ideal checkpoints to determine whether or not the church will proceed into the next phase. In this manner, money will not be needlessly spent.

Understand the formal design

The formal design phase typically begins when an architect and consultants are hired. At least four consultants will be working with the architect: civil, structural, mechanical, and electrical. Other areas in which consultants might be necessary be cause of the size and complexity of the project would be: lighting, landscaping, elevator, acoustics, seating, signage and graphics, handicap accessibility, and parking. Consultants are necessary to assist the architect in designing a complete and fully functional facility. As the number of consultants needed on a project increases, design fees will also increase.

I strongly recommend that after the capital cost is determined, all design and consultants fees be fixed. This dissuades the notion that the design team is pushing for a more expensive building, thereby increasing their fees.

Three subphases make up the formal design phase: schematic design, design development, and construction documents.

Schematic design. The schematic design translates the written program document into drawings by the design team. The basic layout of the overall project site, the shape of the building, and the preliminary exterior elevations and building sections are drawn.

A schematic design is sometimes modified or redrawn several times. Redrawing usually is required because of the plans not reflecting agreed-upon program areas and, in the opinion of the facility/cost consult ant, budget limits. It is the task of the consultant to work creatively with the design team to bring the design back into compliance with the program and project cost limit.

At the end of the schematic design phase, a schematic design cost plan is prepared by the cost consultant. This cost plan itemizes, for the first time, the building budget into an "elemental format." This type of format is a design system organization of costs rather than trade costs. The design team utilizes the cost plan to understand the building cost better.

Design development. The design development phase advances the development of the schematic design. Cost studies on the use of different materials and systems are continuously made to ensure the building's design remains on budget. The drawings now contain all floor plans, elevations, and sections necessary to finalize the building design. Preliminary structural, mechanical, and electrical drawings are now included along with preliminary details and specifications.

A detailed elemental design development cost check is prepared and issued by the facility/cost consultant. This cost check is re viewed by the entire design team and the congregation's building committee to establish conformation to the building project budget. Any overages to the budget are dis cussed, and cost-saving strategies are pro posed, approved, and implemented.

Once again your congregation has the opportunity to approve the design and costing work that has been completed. Proceeding to the construction documents' phase can now take place.

Construction documents. The contractor uses the construction documents (drawings, details, and specifications) first to bid and then construct the building. Taking every thing that has been decided upon in the previous phases, the design team goes about preparing the construction documents. The cost consultant monitors the progress of these drawings to ensure compliance to the project budget.

The construction documents are to include completely dimensioned floor plans, along with structural, mechanical, and electrical drawings. Complete specifications are also included.

Because the construction documents are to be used in the bidding process by the con tractors, these documents must be as complete as possible. To make changes to the drawings after the bid will increase the bid cost by 5 to 10 percent. Your congregation would be well served to delay the bid until the drawings are in a more complete form, say at least 98 percent.

A final pre-bid cost check is prepared at this time by the facility/cost consultant. This cost check performs two important functions. One, it ensures that the construction documents reflect the project budget and that there will be no surprises when the project is bid. Two, it continues to unify your congregation by allowing them to approve of the overall project one last time. This step-by-step involvement by your congregation will greatly decrease the anxiety of some members.

The formal design phase is now over. The time has come to proceed to bid the project and negotiate the necessary contracts, which proceeds into the construction phase.

Going into the construction phase

The construction phase is the culmination of countless hours of careful, detailed planning. Because the design and construction industry standards and methods were used for proper, cost-efficient planning, and because accurate design cost control was implemented, the actual construction of the building will be largely free of problems, especially financial ones.

Yet during construction there will be mi nor design changes and unanticipated construction problems that will have cost implications. It is for these items that the change-order contingency was established and included in the capital cost. The use and draw-down of contingency funds will rescue and help ensure a successful construction phase.


The advantages of following the aforementioned phases are numerous. The congregation has been informed throughout the planning and design of the building. The real needs and wishes of the congregation have been thoroughly explored, and the drawings reflect these needs and wishes.

Most significantly, the critical subject of money has been accurately addressed throughout. Proper space/financial planning at the earliest stages of the planning process coupled with financial control and management during the design phases of the project will enable pastors and their congregations to be relieved of the perpetual financial pressure and stress during the construction period.

Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

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John Davidson is president of Church facility Consultants in Florida.

December 1997

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