What Does it Cost Per Square Foot to Build a…

One of the most frequently asked question is “what does it cost per square foot to build?” The answer to that question is about as easy and accurate to answer as “How far is up?” There is no real way to answer the question of cost until you clarify several underlying questions. This is a hard question to answer, even for finished projects, and here is why.

In order to determine a meaningful value that one might use for cost comparison purposes, you have to first determine what goes into the definition of cost per square foot. One person may say the building cost for a finished project was $85 a square foot and another may say $145 and they may both be right!

How can two answers so very different both be right?? As a recent president so glibly demonstrated, the answer depends on how you interpret the question. To evaluate and use cost per square foot as a meaningful measure, you have to know what went into the cost calculation. For instance, were design fees, site work, permits, construction interest, utility tap fees, and other expense items that were not part of the “building”, yet necessary to the project, calculated into the cost per square foot? In our example of two people giving diverse yet accurate costs to build, the difference is in what they factored into the building cost. Without knowing exactly what is factored into the cost, cost per square foot numbers are meaningless at best and deceiving at worse.

Design considerations and location sometimes can make huge differences in cost per square foot. A simple 15,000 square foot single story building in rural South Carolina will cost far less to build than a similar building in metro Washington, DC or Orlando, FL. A simple yet well built building may cost less than one-third that of a similarly sized cathedral with ornate design and construction. Another design issue that is often overlooked in the cost per square foot calculation is building height. A 10,000 square foot building with a low roof is much cheaper to build than the same building with a 25-foot ceiling height, such as you might find in a multi-purpose building. Even simple things such as roof pitch can make a difference. One moderate sized church project was able to save $28,000 by changing the roof pitch from 8:12 to 4:12 pitch.

These are only a few of the many variables that can affect the cost per square foot in building a church.

  • Total Square Footage – there are economies of scale in bigger building projects
  • Location – If you were to build the same building in New York City or San Francisco as you did in Augusta, GA, the price could vary by over 40% for the same building. Building in a rural area could make the spread even greater.
  • Style and Amenities – Dramatic architectural elements, features and amenities can substantially drive up costs without adding to square footage or functionality.
  • Total Volume – High walls and ceilings, and steep pitched roofs add to the cubic footage of the building without changing the amount of square feet of building.
  • Special Considerations – Site work, utilities, legal fees, land costs, soil types, single or multi-story: All these factors and more can effect the project cost and therefore the cost per square foot.

Site work is a large and extremely variable line item. One church may have $50,000 of site work and another, for a similar sized building and parcel, may have $250,000. For this reason, you should probably not include site work in the building cost. However, this brings up an interesting point. What the church needs to focus on is total project cost, not building cost.

Overly focusing on building cost per square foot can be misleading at best and dangerous at worse. The building is a certainly a large part of the project, but it is far from the whole project. Professionals familiar with church design can get into the ballpark of cost per square foot (once the church has done some preliminary needs analysis and a concept plan is developed), but the church needs to remember to focus on the total project cost, not just an arbitrary and poorly defined number assigned as the building cost.

The above was is an excerpt from Preparing to Build, Chapter 5

Good process would dictate that the church understand what it needs to build and can afford to build prior to getting into the design of the building.  Once the needs and ability of the church are determined through a needs and feasibility study, it will be possible to develop a project plan that best meets the needs within the constraints of the budget.