The Biggest Mistake in Church Design

As I look back over the years and hundreds of church building stories I’ve heard, by far the single biggest mistake made by churches in the design process is the failure to have a firm and reasonable budget at the front-end of the design process. This is a joint failure on the part of the church and the architect. Now before I get a bunch of angry emails from architects (it wouldn’t be the first time) I want to say that the responsibility is primarily the church’s, however, this does not let the architect off the hook, as I will explain below.

A church should have a firm budget going into the design process that is based on what it can truly afford to build. It is not the architects responsibility to help the church determine what they can afford. Sadly, however, when most churches sit down with an architect, the first question asked is “what do you want to build” and not “what is your budget” or “what can you afford”. While it is the church’s responsibility to know what they can reasonably afford to build, the architect has a responsibility to ask the question. However, experience shows this rarely seems to be the case. If the church does not have a reasonable budget, or any budget at all, the architect should press them to develop one. (For an in-depth understanding of how a church determines its financial ability and the appropriate formula to calculate a maximum construction budget, see my book, Preparing to Build.)

The church’s financial ability will dictate how big of a building it can build; the needs of ministry will dictate how that building is laid out. It is a gross disservice (and that is being kind) if the architect does not ascertain one of the fundamental factors affecting the design – the client’s budget. If the design process starts with what the church wants to build, instead of what in can afford, the church’s budget must then conform to the building plans, when it should be the building plans that should conform to the budget. This is a recipe for disaster. After several months of design and, quite often, 10’s of thousands of dollars, over 8 out of 10 churches end up with building plans that far exceed their financial ability to build. In this manner, millions of dollars are spent each year by churches on building plans that they cannot afford to build.

Not too long ago a builder shared with me an experience from when he spoke at a small church building seminar. In the presentation he asked the pastors how many of them came to their current church and found a set of building plans in the closet or stuck in a drawer that they couldn’t build. An astounding 20 out of 22 (90%) raised their hands! When you consider that these plans probably cost between $30,000 and $150,000 each, those few churches probably spent between $600,000 and $3,000,000 on plans that would never get built.

The church must have a true and accurate understanding of what they can afford to build and that must be communicated up-front to the architect. The church should then hold that architect financially responsible for delivering plans that are within, or reasonably close to, its construction budget. In this manner, the church will not find itself paying an architect to draw church plans that won’t work and then paying them to fix those same plans, which will add adding considerable time and cost to the church’s design process.

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