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Project Focus: Religious Building

This month we continue our focus on certain project – in this case, religious buildings, some of which may be modest in scope, and others, truly monumental. The remarkable scope of a Kentuckian’s project was understandably the key challenge, but he had more than one to deal with, so read on.

“We built the second largest worship facility in the country around 1980 – a million square feet over four buildings. The logistics of scheduling all the crews to hit all the jobs at the right time and with the proper amount of manpower on each building was a challenge, especially as we were dealing with two or three different electrical contractors, two or three different HVAC contractors, and so on, in the different buildings. The job was monstrous in terms of
quantities of materials, too: 2 million
square feet of drywall, something like 50
miles of stud framing. Our suppliers
were not used to such quantities and the
logistics of bringing it all in and storing
it was a problem in itself. There were so
many materials that we ended up buying
heavy equipment just to move it
around on site. In all, we were on site
about 20 months on a contract that was
worth a little over $6 million at the time.

“Acoustics was a big issue, too. The sanctuary
was like a basketball arena, seating
10,000 people. It was highly sensitive to
sound reverberation, so the architect, a
Californian, brought in his own acoustical
engineer who stayed on site six
months. He made sure everything was
designed and built so as to create the
best angles and surfaces for sound
absorbing—from the way the steel was
laid on up. In some spots we had to use
four layers of drywall. Everything had to
be sound caulked, and we had to use
heavy, dense, soundproof materials. I’ve
never seen a sound engineer live on site
for half a year, but sound transmission is
probably more important in sanctuaries
than any other job.”

In California, it was not dollar signs that
made a contractor want to work on the
Cathedral of Our Lady of Angels in Los
Angeles. “The key was using high-quality
products, because the building has to
last centuries rather than decades. We
worked on the project, which involved
several buildings, for four years, completing it in 2001. One of the structures
was a bell tower that was higher than the
cathedral itself. The city of Los Angeles
required fireproofing on all structural
steel on the project, so the difficulty in
fireproofing that bell tower was that it
had a skeleton frame all the way up the
inside, an area of 30-by-30, with no
decking. So we went to the highest level
and came down a level, set a platform,
a scaffold, on the structure inside, fire-proofed
that area and then continued
down six levels total, one at a time. You
certainly needed a head for heights on
that job.

“Naturally, access with the materials and
coordination were a big challenge for the
entire project as we were dealing with
downtown Los Angeles and the property
abutted a freeway.

“It was a challenge, also, because there
has been very little building of cathedrals
in this country, so we lacked specific
knowledge and expertise to draw upon.
But it helped being a Catholic and having
a goal to contribute to building this
very important cathedral. I learned so
much and while we may not have seen
much profit, I was happy to be involved
in it. The payback also came from the
business that came our way as a result
of our involvement in such a high-profile

A Louisianan experienced similar access
issues: “With bigger buildings, you typically
have large sanctuaries that present
an installation problem because of their
height, often 60 to 80 feet. The sanctuary
is the focal point of a church, so that
is where the intricate work is, and where
the most time-consuming work is
found. So we end up with all the trades
trying to coordinate with each other to
complete the work with tight time and
space constraints. Trinity Baptist
Church in Russell is an example. We
handled that by the general contractor
and subs joint-venturing the scaffolding
so all the subs in the ceiling and the walls
had a working platform.
“It not only worked much better than
everyone trying to crowd into the area
and work on their own with booms and
lifts, but also saved on costs. It takes a
good GC and team to coordinate and
figure out how to complete these projects
on time and make them look

A Tennessee contractor agrees on the
access issue: “We’ve done remodels on
some churches. The auditorium or sanctuary
are usually the biggest challenge
because they tend to have high ceilings.

These used to be large and flat but now
that churches are into large, high-tech
productions with dramatic lighting and
sounds, it’s a question of scaffolding for
access and coordination between the different
trades, such as electricians and
sound system people. Once scaffolding
is up in that high ceiling, it eliminates
work around it, so we’re pushing to
complete and allow the normal work
around the walls to proceed.”

In Florida, a large religious building with
an unusual issue to overcome is currently
under construction. “We have
been working on a project in which we
had to match a 350,000 square foot new
building with the facade of a historic,
10-story stucco hotel dating back to the
1920s that it was joined to by a flying

“A traditional stucco building today
requires expansion joints off the corner
of every window and at the joint for
every slab. Both the hotel and the new
building had plenty of windows, but
because they didn’t have expansion
joints in the 1920s, the hotel had a
smooth-looking facade that the new
building, with its mandatory expansions
joints, would not be able to emulate. We
tried straight stucco over S-inch block
and it did not give us the smooth finish
we were looking for, so we looked for a
system that would reduce the amount of
expansion joints needed and found the
answer in EIFS over block.”

A Missourian had to meet a similar challenge
in matching old construction:
“We remodeled a cathedral that had
been built 120 years ago and in which
there wasn’t a square, level dimension to
be found anywhere. So I combined my
mathematical skills with those of a 68-
year old master carpenter who had the
arts and crafts mentality of the original
builders, and essentially we winged it. A
particular challenge was accommodating
the architect’s archway leading to a
row of original columns on either side
of the sanctuary, when the columns were
off by half a foot. It was so badly offset
that when we went in to frame it initially,
everybody thought we had made
a mistake. So we took the greatest measurement
we had and designed all of our
new columns to the greatest measurement,
leaving an error gap to deal with
the smaller ones.”

Another Missourian had his work cut
out achieving the standards set by the
owner. “We provided the fireproofing,
drywall, acoustical, floor covering and
ceramic tile—the complete interiors—
at the Mormon Tabernacle, about a $4
million job. That was challenging
because the Mormons are really, really
particular. We had to put a Level Five
finish on all the drywall. They did not
want any exposed fasteners or nail holes
showing, so the crown mold, the chair
rail, the base—any wood—had to be
applied mastically to the wall and then
braced until the mastic dried.

“It was a good, high visibility project for
us, and we enjoyed doing it. They are
very honest people to deal with, but they
want what they want and they’ll pay for
what they want. For example, on any
long drywall partition, they would actually
shine a spotlight down the wall with
a high-gloss paint, and if there was any
irregularity, they wouldn’t accept it.”

Committee as Owner

A Colorado man voiced what turned
out to be a common theme (64 percent)
among the handful (11) of contractors
surveyed: “The challenge is more for the
general contractor because the church
relies so much on its congregation for its
funding. I’m sure the GC would have to
be a little more cautious to make sure
the funding is in place. And again, when
it comes to dealing with the church’s
building committee, the GC has to do
that and we are buffered from any difficulties
from that quarter.”

This concern about building committees
was echoed by an Illinois contractor:
“Committees generally oversee these projects
and they don’t always have construction
knowledge. It makes answering
questions and working the project more
difficult. Sometimes the difficulty doesn’t
reach our level directly as subcontractor,
yet it affects us in the way of delays or
changes that we have no control over.”

Things seem to be no different in
Louisiana: “On smaller projects, you
have to deal with the building committee,
or the building committee becomes
involved in the building process, which
they have no expertise in.”

Expanding on this concern, the Kentucky
contractor adds: “Generally, however,
when dealing with religious building
projects, the owner is a building
committee with a limited amount of
money. You therefore have to make sure
you treat them fairly all the time, offer
backup on all expenses and do not take
advantage of them, as they scrutinize

“Another peculiarity is the owner will
often do actions you expect of a GC in an
effort to save pennies. ‘We’ll ask the
members to come out this weekend and
clean this up or get that done,’ is what
you’ll hear. The reality is that their work
force is not always reliable, and what generally
results is confusion. Either the work
never happens or it is not carried out in
the way it was supposed to be done. So
you have to go to the GC and ask him
how he wants to handle the work that still
needs to be done properly.”

A Missourian feels the same way: “Generally,
however, the main challenge with
working religious buildings is pleasing
all the building committee.”

Another Missourian had an interesting
tale to tell along this line: “In one old
country church, they wanted to relocate
the whole sanctuary as the entry to the
grand, new church building. The architect
went through the design of the
whole thing, bids were submitted and
the congregation looked at the plans. An
old lady in the back row happened to
stand up and say how she and her husband
had been married in that old
church and she couldn’t stand it being
moved. We thought she was just an old
lady and thought little of it, but it
turned out she was the biggest donor to
the new building. So, we ended up leaving
the old church where it was and
replicating it for placement on the front
of the new church. So, you never know
what’s going to happen!”

And last but not least, a Texan adds his
voice to the chorus: “The congregation
is the most challenging element in a religious
building. The church is not run by
one person but by the congregation, and
it’s pretty difficult to satisfy 500 or 1,000 No Real Challenge
members. They all have their input, and
they should have their input because
they are paying for it, but they should
have some general consensus before they
start work. The building committee
goes back to the congregation most of
the time, and it’s a very slow process.
Where the building committee and the
pastor are very strong, it’s a lot easier to

“We like to build churches, however,
because nobody else bids them. The
competition is not as tough. We did a
church where the pastor was thrown out
and we were never paid for it. Nobody
sues a church, it’s a dead-end issue! But
overall it is a good market as long as we
have faith in a general contractor’s ability
to handle the job.”

For some contractors, the style of religious
building in their area does not present
any particular challenge. Says a Colorado
man: “I can’t think of any particular
challenges in working on a church,
other than the height of some, but this
applies just as much to working on high
office or residential blocks.”

An Alabaman agrees that religious buildings
are not generally a challenge these
days: “One church we worked on was
just a square metal building that we stucco’d
some soffits onto. Without a sign,
you would have no idea it was a religious
building whatsoever. So there was no
challenge to that.”

But at a time when skilled plasterers are
sometimes hard to find, demand is beginning
to increase, according to the
Alabaman: “We are bidding a Greek
Orthodox Church, and the challenge
will be all the ornamental stucco you see
typically on these churches. We would
not put our normal people onto this if
the bid goes our way. There were three
skilled plasterers in our area: one is dead,
one has the shakes and the other is my
father-in-law, who is retired. But he came
out of retirement for a job involving
ornamental plaster on a hotel in Mobile.
He just had a wonderful time. A lot of
people think stucco and just want to
stucco a wall. All that plaster craftsman-ship
has gone at a time when people are
beginning to appreciate it again.”

And to round out the picture, here are a
couple of other ideas about the challenges
inherent in religions building projects:
From Illinois we hear that “Bidding
on a competitive basis is a challenge
because the owners have high standards
but expect us to come in at a low price.

Whichever sub wins is the luck of the draw.
Other difficulties are the different angles, arches
and radiuses that are sometimes spec’d.”
And from Tennessee: “These days, they closed
our schedules in so tight that the problem is just
that; but this applies to all types of buildings.”
While relatively few contractors have listed religious
buildings as one of their key projects in
the AWCI membership directory, those who
did were proud of the work they had done on
a building that, to the owners and perhaps also
the builders (like the cathedral artisans of old),
is more than a mere building.

About the Author

Steven Ferry is a freelance writer based in
Clearwater, Fla.

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