The Biggest Mistake in Church Design

By • on January 27, 2008 • Filed under: 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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  1. Jon says:

    SteveA: Thank you for your post. I appreciate you pointing out the importance of church leaders and architects discussing budget considerations before embarking on a design. However, I think your post oversimplifies the issue to some degree. I am getting the impression that a church can determine their maximum construction budget (based on the formula in your book, which is unknown from this post), and then simply communicate that number to the architect, who will be able design a building to that number. In actuality, I believe the process is much more complicated. First of all, while “rules of thumb” and “formulas” are good starting points, there are often so many complexities in a church’s building construction budget that getting any sort of real number at the outset of the process is at best a guessing game. Real estate values & giving projections are two variables which can be very unknown. Nonetheless, this is not an excuse for not even discussing the budget at the outset.

    Second, construction cost escalation is an unknown, and a huge variable in determining the final cost of the project. With the timing of the project often dependent on raising funds, it can be difficult to factor in an escalation projection of any real significance.

    I work for an architecture firm that specializes in designing churches. It seems to me that the best approach for a church to use an experienced architect to lead them through the master planning process to create a ‘scalable design’. This allows the church to build what they can afford, and build the rest later, without extensive design modification and exhorbitant architectural/ engineering fees. A construction manager brought on board early in the process will help determine real costs.

    So, while I would be interested in seeing your formula, and would agree that the discussion of budget from the very outset of the project is critical, I believe that the issue is ultimately more complex then your post would seem to imply.

    I look forward to reading more of your blogs.

  2. SteveA says:

    Thanks for pointing out a possible miscommunication. It is important not to confuse the church’s maximum project budget with the construction budget (how that money is allocated to various aspects of the building program). The point that this post is attempting to make is that the church MUST have a reasonable and fact based maximum budget for the project before they get into the design process.

    While the financial process is a somewhat detailed (that’s why I devoted a chapter to it in the book), it is simple once you understand the process. As a consultant, when I help a church with a needs and feasibility analysis a maximum project budget is one of the deliverables.

    The basic MAXIMUM project budget is the sum of:

    – The money you now have that can apply to the building program, plus
    – The money you can borrow, plus
    – The money you can realize from the sale of assets, plus
    -The money you can raise from a capital stewardship campaign before you begin construction.

    While the formula is basically simple, determining the lending and fundraising amounts takes some effort and experience.

  3. Don Lovell says:

    I was a senior project manager for company that focuses on churches. I come from a design build back ground and have found that the strategy works best for owner builders and not so great for churches. Not because it is a bad system, it just has some very pronounced weaknesses. When ever a single entity whose bottom line is affected by the design there is a tendency toward greed.

    I struggled watching this occur, thus I am no longer involved, so I came up with a different method.

    It is not really my idea – as I discovered after researching it. It is called ” The Design-Build Process Utilizing Competitive Selection “ Essentially it starts with an experienced church consultant that does a ministry needs assessment MNA. The results of the MNA converts to preliminary plans with specifications. As part of this process a close examination of the other parts of the equation such as entitlements, development fees, off site work , utilities and so forth are running concurrent with the MNA. This real is a feasibility phase with a solid amount of project knowledge complete at the end of it.
    What I propose is that you use this information to put together an “Request for Proposal” and send them out to design build companies.
    You then have competition working in the churches favor. The upfront work is of value to the project even if after it is complete the conclusion is “we must wait” or “lets not do anything”. I can’t tell you how many stories I have heard of churches spending hundreds of thousands of dollars and in the end have nothing to show for it. What went wrong BAD FEASIBILITY STUDY.

  4. SteveA says:

    Don makes a couple really good points:

    I come from a design build back ground and have found that the strategy works best for owner builders and not so great for churches.


    … it starts with an experienced church consultant that does a ministry needs assessment …

    As a church building consultant, I could not agree more with the church’s need to perform a feasibility study. In fact, I wrote a white paper on this very fact entitled Insights Into Creating a Positive Church Building Experience that is available on my church consulting web site.

    While design-build is generally better than design-bid-build, as Don points out it has some drawbacks, the worse (in my opinion) is that since the architect and the builder have a joint financial goal (maximize profits), they can make design and construction decisions that achieve that goal, to the detriment of the church. It is very unlikely that cost savings achieved in construction will pass along to the church, especially in fixed-price or guaranteed maximum price contracts.

    I remain a proponent of the open book method of contracting, preferably with a construction manager working in concert with a church architect.