Churches Cost Money

Steven Ferry

December 2006

This article on religious building projects is similar to ones we’ve done in past years that basically reinforce high, intricate ceilings and angled floors as the main technical challenges with this type of job, and budgets as a common administrative stumbling block to overcome.

"The height of the sanctuary from a sloped floor is the challenge,” confirms a Floridian. "Once you are in the sanctuary, it’s like being in a museum or library—just all bulkheads or ceilings. It’s really no different from a library but with a lot of detail work in the ceiling.”

A wall and ceiling contractor from Arizona talked of one solution to the angled floors: "We’ve done a few churches and usually the challenging part is the ceiling with its radiuses, and how to access the height from raked or a stair-stepped floors. But they’re not anything you can’t do as long as you can work with an architect. One church we did had big, high angles, but they left the dirt until we had completed the ceiling, painting, lights in, and then they poured the concrete slabs and all the rest.”

"When it comes to the actual construction,” agrees a Coloradoan, "I’d say the platforms and choir lofts are always pretty challenging, and then the lighting systems tend to create interesting designs and needs.”

A contractor from Idaho feels the same way: "We’ve done a lot of churches over the years but not recently. The main challenge is the height of the basic worship area with intricate detail work, but that isn’t anything a whole bunch of scaffolding can’t handle. Each church usually has some type of suspended baffle or vaults to try and trap the sound above them, sometimes a bunch of different angled walls to break up the sound waves.”

A Colorado contractor has the following to say: "Religious buildings have kind of fallen off in our market in the last couple of years. We were doing a lot before that. We still work with a lot of contractors that do religious facilities, and they tend to work with contractors that do banks. That’s what we’ve seen—the contractors that specialize in churches also seem to do a lot of banks. Now banks have been on the big swing here; we’ve done a lot of those. But churches seem to have fallen off about 35 percent. I don’t really know what’s driving that. We’ve done 13 churches this year, a couple of them being pretty small, remodels and additions. Two of them were fairly large-size community churches.

"As an acoustical ceiling contractor, it’s usually the sanctuaries with their complicated, high-vaulted ceilings, often with angles and curves and other features that make them technically challenging. Many now have acoustical treatments for sound and baffles to try and mitigate sound in a sanctuary and provide a nice environment for the congregation. Because churches have become aware of sound issues, they have a lot more acoustical design in them than they used to. The architects usually do a fairly good design on these buildings. We advise and try to give them our input based on our experience with what maybe works and what doesn’t. For most of the new buildings that are coming out, the architects have hired an acoustical engineer or an analyst, and they have helped in the design. They’ve got good systems and very nice acoustical designs. It just ends up being a more technical install for us; it’s not like an office building or a retail ‘white box’ where you’re just putting in flat ceilings.”

A Delaware contractor says, "It’s been years since we worked on any religious facilities, but some projects are starting to come online again. Apart from getting paid, the challenge is…because they always want them to be lofty in their design, you have all this work 40 feet up in the air. A lot of them go for a bowl shape with theater seating. Lifts have a safety device built in and are limited on the angles they’ll operate on. So the usual solution is literally scaffolding the whole area to do the higher work. We say to the builder, ‘Look, it’s cheaper for you to bring in a scaffold company and have them build the scaffold so everybody can use it, instead of having three different sets of scaffolds being built. But I think GCs are becoming so lazy that they don’t want to be bothered even with that. Unless you bring it up to them in front of the owner—that might be interesting! But otherwise they’ll just say, ‘You just get up there, we don’t care how you do it. Put it in your bid.’ It’s all about dollar signs, and the GCs are so busy, they don’t want to take the time to do that kind of stuff, so they just pass the cost on to the owner as an extra cost. It’s only when they get into a budget problem, then they might think about what you said.”

Scrip ‘n Scripture
Religious buildings are non-profits that rely on donations from parishioners to survive. "Honor the Lord with your wealth, with the first fruits of all your crops; then your barns will be filled to overflowing, and your vats will brim over with new wine.” So says Proverbs 3:9, and that is one understanding that drives churches to ask and parishioners to donate their time and materials. But contractors not affiliated with a parish have their eye on where the rubber meets the financial road, and so the work remains just a business transaction—which all goes to say that budgets are often an issue when working on religious buildings.

A Hawaiian reports, "The most challenging thing about doing religious buildings is getting paid! They appear to have trouble with their budgets. We’ve only done a few churches, but it always seems like they build them, and then they figure out how they’re going to pay for them.”

"We have built mostly Christian churches,” says a Coloradoan, "Five in the last five years, although we’ve bid a few of the other types and not been awarded the jobs. Churches always present unique scenarios as they are so individual. This makes them interesting to build, but the key challenge is building within the limited budget they have to work with. This holds true for most projects, but it seems to be more of an issue with churches. It’s the usual problem that everybody wants as much as they can get for as little as they need to pay. But churches try to cram a lot in to a limited budget and they don’t seem to have the ability, when they decide they want more, to finance more.

"The way we handle this is with value engineering, being more creative. Often, engineers don’t truly engineer, they overkill. By way of example, you can generally use a lighter stud instead of putting a 4-by-14 over a door header. The reality is a 4-by-4 will provide the needed support. So if you truly engineer it, you can value engineer it. We always try to help a client reach their objective. When bidding a job, we’re not really thinking about their main objective but just looking at all the lines and bidding it as we see it on the drawings. Then when reality hits after we tried to give them what they were originally thinking about … we then look for other ways of achieving what they would like. If that doesn’t work, then we start backing up to a point that is mutually acceptable, and staying as close to the original thought as possible.”

An Alabaman has similar experiences, although he seems less accommodating than his Westerly neighbor: "They’re more decorative than commercial buildings, for one, and then they usually don’t have enough money. They have budget restraints. That’s the honest answer right there. They want twice as much as they pay for! So we qualify everything in our bid as much as possible and then really hold to our guns, not making any changes without a change order. We just have to be hardheaded about it but in a professional manner, and let them know up front that everything costs us money, too. We’ll bid it by your plans and if something changes, we’re going to get paid for it.’”

"Poor management is the main problem,” observes a Californian. "The customer has an idea of what he wants but doesn’t know how to achieve it. They’ll talk to a GC, for instance, who is a member of the congregation, and the GC will tell them, ‘Well, it’s $400,000 for this.’ But by the time they have raised the $400,000, they’ve changed their minds—they really have no concept of the impact a change order has. One small change order can result in a bill of $100,000 or more—and you factor in inflation at 3 percent a month for construction materials, you can see that by the time a religious building is 50 to 75 percent done, they’ve run out of money. Nobody thinks of contingency planning. The GC wants to save face, he doesn’t want to screw over God; he wants to make right with his minister and so forth. As a result, the GC and the sub tend to end up eating it.

"Almost every experience I have had with a religious building has had this problem. Obviously, if the leader of the church is smart and manages the project well, then the religious building doesn’t have this kind of problem. But that leader should have some sort of understanding that, yes, it’ll cost $400,000, but he should budget for another $250,000 to cover out-of-pocket expenses, change orders and inflation. But religious congregations are always playing catch-up: They want to grow their building, but their money never grows as fast as the population of the church.”

"What we’ve been seeing a lot of when signing contracts lately,” reports another Californian, "is the church or organization asks us to give them a deductive change order as a donation or a charitable contribution to the facility, as a way of lowering their expenses. Unfortunately for us—I don’t know if this applies to everyone’s business structures—but with our corporation, there is no real tax benefit. It’s not like a personal charitable donation where you can use that as a tax-deductible item. So we haven’t done much of this but it seems to be the trend that I am seeing now with religious facilities, wanting us to help lower their bids by a donation. We haven’t really been pressured: We just did one a week or two back, and the subject came up, and I basically replied ‘Unfortunately, due to our business structure, there isn’t any tax benefit to doing it. We would simply be donating money to your organization and at this moment in time, that’s not something we’re in a position to do.’ This hasn’t caused any bad repercussions. I also don’t think they expect us to do it. I think they just offer it since maybe if you were a sole proprietor or a partnership, there’s some tax shelter there for you. But in our case, it’s not something we do. And if you don’t ask, you don’t get. I don’t think they look at it as a bad thing if you say no, but they probably get some people to take them up on their offer and it helps them save some money.”

A Couple of Other Points of View
For an Alabaman, the question was not of challenges with building types so much as with types of people doing the building: "We have a different generation of workers now. There were a lot more old school guys out there before who worked hard and were dedicated. Nowadays it’s hard to find good help, a lot of the old-school guys have gone. The few who are left and some of the young guys who still have that old-school mentality, who are moving up faster, are holding the supervisory positions.

"I would say probably at most 25 percent are old-school mentality while the rest are ‘new school’ or ‘rotten attitude.’ They’re not prompt as far as arriving at work on time, they don’t feel they have to work a full workweek. It’s more of ‘What are you going to do for me?’ instead of ‘What do I have to do to earn this money?’

"As the schedules push us to do everything faster and the attitude of the workers is the same, quality is absolutely falling. So we are always on the lookout for people with the old-school mentality.”

In Georgia, there is one other issue when it comes to religious buildings: "I don’t think religious buildings present challenges not found in other constructions, but you do have to tell your employees they are in a religious building and sanctuary and to keep that in mind when they are working in terms of language, showing respect and manners.”

That being said, there is still something special about working on religious buildings that makes them more than projects in bricks and mortar and the bottom line.

About the Author
Steven Ferry is a Clearwater, Fla.-based writer for the construction industry.