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Buildings or Testaments

The December 2003 issue’s article on religious building projects proved sufficiently popular that we decided a follow-up was called for. While several voiced the same concern about the people element being a challenge:

“Working for a committee is the number-one challenge on the list. You have to please 10 people, and it’s not the nine that like it, but the one who doesn’t,” said a contractor in Kansas.

“It’s a question of having the religious organization assign one person as the liaison between the congregation and us. They keep arguing about what they want, which leaves us hanging. All we can do is smile and wait,” said a Georgia contractor.

“As with some schools, you’re always dealing with a committee in churches and that committee is normally comprised of one or two people who have some construction savvy and the majority who have none. Obtaining decisions where the church congregation is having some say on design issues can draw the process out sometimes. We try to sell ourselves as experts in our field so they’ll listen to us. We then do our best not to suggest changes and also pull out the schedule and impress on them that if they want to complete the project, decisions have to be made in a timely fashion. As soon as somebody has made a decision, we stick with it and move ahead,” said a contractor in Illinois.

One contractor from Florida felt that “In most instances, you have all the parishioners looking over your shoulder and some comments can be made there. But that’s not really a big deal.”


Perhaps what best characterized the work done on religious buildings was a common thread that ties the artisans of old with the contractors of our time, believing they were involved in building more than a building, and more often than not, providing their work and materials for free.

Consider the story told by Frank Margaron, founder of Atlas Construction Services in Joliet, Ill. “When my wife and I moved here and joined the church, they found out my background and asked me to serve on their building committee. They were meeting in a high school with a congregation of 400 and had decided they needed a proper building. So we decided to construction manage it ourselves with some other old guys: I have been in the trade for the last 56 years; another had been a superintendent for a major construction company, and third member of the congregation had been a custom homebuilder for many years. We all did a heck of a job. In 14 months flat, we built a 25,000-square-foot church. We moved in last November and are already building an addition because our numbers have doubled since then.

“We were not particularly pleased with the architect’s details—over-designing in preference to more efficient designs—which is a common problem; but the advantage of being construction management and the owner is that you can make changes on your own without waiting forever for the architect to respond to the paperwork. Our architect was exceptionally good, having worked for a church building consultant group, and we worked out those problems with him on an immediate basis.

“Total cost would have been $4 million had we gone to a design-builder or general contractor. But because much of the material—concrete, cabinetry, acoustical ceilings, carpets, etc.—was donated, as well as the labor to install it, we saved about a million dollars. Even the land was donated, and the same people just gave us another 5 acres for a new parking lot and an addition for classrooms and storage.

“The biggest challenge was coordinating the trades. For instance, we were promised our steel in November and we received it in January. But that is not a challenge peculiar to churches. Every church has a different challenge. Another church here is using the same architect as us, for their construction management. They started building their church before we started ours and are at a standstill with litigation over design problems. Churches anticipate their needs before they cut the money to do it and run into financial problems. That is a church issue. A congregation has to support the building plan.

“I would not recommend doing your own construction management unless you have the same kind of expertise in your church. Some of the plusses we had were being able to call in a lot of markers from a lot of people to help us. We had our own sources, we had our buying power through my company’s buying power. There’s a lot more to it than saying, ‘Well, we can save some money by building this church ourselves.’”


Peter Costello of KHS&S in Orlando, Fla., has a similar story: “The last church we built was for our division manager here in Orlando, and it’s his church. The church before that was Annunciation Catholic Church, which was my church in Altamont Springs, north of Orlando. So, you tend to do your own, which means you’re a little hypercritical of your own work. On religious projects, you just want them to be right, a little extra-special, a scared place.

“We were asked to look at preliminary drawings and, of course, it came in over budget like most projects. It was a themed project, and we like to become involved early on with theme projects because we can help nudge the budget back in line by looking at some alternative products that will still create the same look. We were able to do that with Annunciation and so reduced the budget by 30 percent.

“The pastor had initially wanted to remodel the existing church, but after discussing the preliminary data with the engineers and the architect, we told him that for an extra 20 percent we could tear down the old church and create exactly what he wanted with a new church instead of accepting compromises in redoing the old church. We kept the cost down so it wasn’t significantly more expensive to do exactly what we wanted and, within 10 months of starting construction, had created a 28,500-square-foot, 1,500-seat sanctuary.

“There was a lot of cornice work, detailing, on the interior and the exterior. We constructed all the lower sections out of pre-cast, and Polyguard or EIFS for the higher sections.

“It’s a great church and the sound is great; we’re very proud of it. But it’s like any themed project—you’re always proud of it because people invariably like the themed work we do at Universal, Disney, casinos and churches. With a regular building people say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s a nice building.’ But when you do something unique, people remember it. And churches are generally unique.”


Ryan Coffey of Performance Contracting in Lenexa, Kan., has his own story, another rooted in ancient history: “We completed the Church of the Immaculate Conception last year, a real challenge restoring a building that was built from the ground up without accurate measurements, and now we are handling the murals. The big urban renewal means tax credits for artwork and restoration. An unexpected result was starving artists needing to be bonded and insured to work on sites, and not having the wherewithal to pay for these prerequisites. So we as subs have found over the last couple of years that we have absorbed a number of different artists—ornamental plasterers, sculptors and fine-art painters—into our company. Working with an artist who thinks about the past or future and has no idea of time or money, when you as a sub are focused on time, money and the present, has its challenges. I keep them all in a studio so I only have to visit them once a week, otherwise they’d drive me crazy.”

What does this have to do with ancient history? Did you ever wonder why each floor of a building is called a “story”? What does the floor of a building have to do with the plot of a book or movie? The word “story” comes from Ancient Roman times when artists used to paint murals on each level of a house, and each level/story of the house told a different story.


Back to present time, we find the heights that characterize many churches a point of inevitable concern or challenge for several contractors. An Illinois contractor sums it up: “Most heights in sanctuaries and naves require solid scaffold, with a perimeter scaffold for access to sidewalls, and a large deck or dance floor set-up for the upper, vaulted ceiling, with secondary scaffold off that. We’re rarely able to use lift equipment.”

George Kealoha of Kealoha Construction in Hawaii has a somewhat ingenious solution: “The greatest challenge with religious buildings is the height factor and how to mobilize materials onto the scaffold—not only building the scaffold, but bringing materials to the top of the scaffold. The walls and ceiling are often continuous, so it’s very hard to access the perimeter, to transport your material up there. The scaffold may be 4-high, and with a steep ceiling right to the walls, your scaffolding is stuck against the ceiling! So we have designed scaffolding with a tunnel so we can move a man-lift through it, and create an elevator-shaft opening so we can raise men and materials to the top. We make the plywood platform at the top of the shaft removable and cover the hole again when the materials or men are up.”


Jason Price of Sides Drywall in Auburn, Ala., points out another predictable challenge with restoration: “The hardest part of working on the century-old Church of Opelika in Alabama was patching and repairing the plaster, because a lot of it was still on the old wood-strip lathes instead of metal lathes. We chipped off the old plaster down to the wood lathe and put on new plaster. The outside was stucco on brick that we had to patch where it had cracked. Between the beating from the sun and roof leaks over the years that sent rainwater down between the brick and the stucco, it was pretty much a mess.

“We had a few plasterers of our own and found some more from Atlanta. It’s not very easy to find people who can work with the old plaster and make the molds for the different trims. There needs to be a work force. They can almost name their wages nowadays!”

Likewise, Scott Fournier, president of Builder Sales & Service in Moline, Ill., has “worked on many religious facilities over the years. Restorations can be somewhat complicated,” he agrees, “as far as maintaining existing plaster systems, ornamental casting.”

Price has another challenge peculiar to his trade: estimating. “We have worked on several churches over the years, most of them design-built, and it seems we generally start before the plans and specs are fully complete. That is a challenge at the estimating stage, guessing what extra work you might have to do and what change-orders you may be able to secure … it leads to unforeseeable costs. Half the time we are paid for the changes, and half the time, the contractors say, ‘You should have known that something needed to happen there.’

“The problem is improving, in that they tell you up-front during the bidding process to expect some difficulties at certain points. But that still makes it tough to estimate, because we don’t know whether our competition is looking at it the same way we are. It takes a lot of field experience to look at these drawings and build the job in your mind. When I see details missing, I rely on my experience in handling it when I’m out in the field. I put together good bids, I know that, but am only awarded 50 percent of them. If a competitor comes in at 15 percent or more lower than my bid, then either I overcompensated or he under-compensated.


There’s one more thing to be aware of when working on a church, as two contractors pointed out:

“My concern is to make sure our foremen are more soft-spoken. We are construction workers and are not known generally for our soft-peddling or language.” (Kansas)

“You tend to make sure your guys watch their language, because you don’t know who might be walking through.” (Florida)

“The churches we have worked on,” says Kealoha, “have not been as challenging as the ones in [last December’s] AWCI’s Construction Dimensions magazine. But I sure wouldn’t mind doing one! They’re more interesting, more challenging—the more difficult, the better, they keep you awake and on your toes.”
And closer to God in more ways than one.

About the Author
Steven Ferry is a free-lance writer based in Clearwater, Fla.

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