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Lowering the Cost of Church Building Design

Church construction is an expensive proposition, as is any commercial development project. One of the significant costs in church building is that of architectural design. In many areas of the USA, architectural fees commonly range from 7% to 11% of the estimated church building budget. In major metropolitan areas, and in areas such as Florida and California, the costs will be in the upper part of this scale and sometimes even higher. While a quote for architectural services will often include more than only creating your construction plans, the costs for floor plans, building plans and/or site plans are a majority of the cost.

This cost is even more significant as it is often paid, in large part, up-front - that is, before a construction loan is secured. What this means is that a large part of the design cost must be paid out of cash reserves. For this reason and because it is a large line item on the budget, it is an important area in which to strive to be diligent in your spending. Experience shows that there are very significant ways to minimize the cost of church design. One of these ways will also help in reducing conflict and improving the church's overall satisfaction with the building program, and it is this strategy that we will first investigate.

One of the best ways to minimize the cost of church design is for the church to do its own homework prior to hiring considering a design professional. The first strategy to employ will reduce the time and effort that an architect needs to invest in order to create a custom church design. By reducing their time, effort and risk, the church is in a position to negotiate the best price for these services. Before the church begins to seek the services of a church architect, they should have qualified and proven answers to the following questions:

Strategy #1 - Understanding Needs and Ability

Many churches can attest to the reports of churches that have had to throw away architectural church plans because the church cannot afford to build what the architect drew. Each year millions of dollars of church plans are thrown away or tossed into a closet because the church cannot build the plans they were provided.

What can the church afford to build?
First and foremost your church needs to understand what it can afford to build and how it will pay for the project. Jesus Himself used this very issue as an example when He talked about counting the cost of discipleship. A beginning point for determining a church building budget is a pretty simple formula. It is the money the church has on hand, plus the money it can borrow, plus any money it can raise from the sale of assets, plus the money it can raise between now and start of construction, minus any current long term debt. The biggest variable in this equation is how much the church can borrow. Typically, churches can only get loan approved for a maximum total debt of 3.5 times their current annual giving. However, based on income and expenses, this number can be substantially lower.

What does the church need to build?
This should be answered in terms of building style, total square footage, breakdown of space by use, and target occupancy for each type of space. The first thing an architect is going to ask your church is some variation of 'what do you want/need to build?' If the church does not have a reasonable answer, the architect may try to lead the church through a process called programming in order to determine what it needs to build. The shortcomings of this are that the architect may not really understand church needs, (even if they've designed several!) and they certainly are not going to help the church with financial analysis. The church is much better off going to the architect with the results of a needs and feasibility study that define what the church needs and can afford. This will give the architect the qualified information they require to design a building that will meet both the church's needs and its budget.

A recent study by the Rainer Group of over 300 churches that recently completed building programs showed an interesting correlation. Churches that invested in a needs and feasibility study were much more likely to not only be more pleased with the outcome of the building program, but experienced much less conflict during the process. This is interesting to note, as the investment in a needs and feasibility study by the church is often more than offset by the savings in the design phase.

Said another way, in your building program, you can increase your overall satisfaction and reduce the conflict at no additional cost to the church! Unfortunately, the one negative that the study showed was that only about 1/3 of the churches invested in a feasibility study.

In summary, the strategy of knowing what you need and can afford before you get to the design phase will save time and money by allowing you to negotiate for a reduced set of services and will prevent wasted time and effort developing plans that do not meet the needs, vision or budget of the church.

Strategy #2 - Use Pre-developed Church Plans

Depending on where the church is located, it can probably save 50% of more on the cost of its church building plans by using pre-developed, or off-the-shelf plans. These are typically plans from another church building program that have the advantage of having already been built. Using this approach, the church can use the results of a needs and feasibility study to look for a specific size and style of church plans, selecting a floor plan that meets their needs from a catalog of church building plans. This will allow the church to get its church plans for less cost and to get them faster than starting from scratch.

Most likely, the church will not find a church plan that is exactly perfect, however, these plans can be easily modified to rearrange, within reason, the internal structure of the building. Typically changes are going to be constrained to non-load bearing walls, however changes such as resizing rooms, adding restrooms and even moving rooms can typically be done with minimal time and cost.

Using this strategy will typically cut many weeks off the design process while reducing the cost of church design. A catalog of church building plans, such as the one that can be found at can also be a catalyst for church building committee’s planning process. A word of caution, however: Picking a plan out of a catalog without the objective understanding of what you need and can afford is just as much a recipe for failure as doing custom plans with the same lack of understanding.

In summary, while each of these two strategies can save the church money, the synergy of proper planning and using (where feasible) pre-developed plans can save the church tens of thousands of dollars while improving satisfaction and reducing conflict.

About the Author: Steve Anderson is a church building consultant, seminar speaker, past contributing editor for Church & Worship Technology Magazine and author of the eBook, "Preparing to Build". For more information on church needs & feasibility studies or church building plans, visit

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