Church building projects: Selecting the architect and contractor
By Robert C. Foreman

Share this article:  

The is the third part of a four-part series about church building projects: Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV

Selection of the architect and contractor impact a church facility expansion almost as much as the appointment of the steering committee. The church building team is made up of the steering committee, the architect and the contractor. The steering committee's earliest decisions will vitally affect the success of the project.

The architect and the contractor should both be selected by the steering committee or the program and design subcommittee because the individuals involved on the committee will be working closely with both architect and contractor over a period of several years. Both should be selected based on criteria established in advance of the selection process.

Why is an architect necessary?

Everyone understands why a contractor is required, but why is an architect needed? The services of a qualified, experienced architect are essential for many reasons:
  1. The services of a licensed architect are required by law in every state for the design of church buildings.

  2. The architect is by training and experience qualified to lead the programming, planning and design process that is necessary in order to properly plan and design any building. The architect is trained in the kinds of skills that will result in a building that is both functional and aesthetically pleasing.

  3. The architect is creative and will bring in fresh ideas and explore alternatives that a committee may never consider. An architect who has helped other churches with their planning will have experience with many different kinds of building solutions and will see many possibilities.

  4. The architect who has served churches understands the importance of good stewardship. Most churches have limited funds and want to make the best and most efficient use of available resources. Using the right architect will be a wise use of resources.

  5. The architect will be very familiar with the building codes and local laws and ordinances that govern the construction of public buildings. Building codes are the laws that set minimum safety standards to protect everyone utilizing public buildings. These laws govern the design of everything from the building's structural integrity to its air conditioning, heating and electrical requirements. Architects know the codes governing access by handicapped and disabled persons. Church buildings may handle large numbers of people, and must be designed in conformance to laws designed to protect people in the event of a fire or other emergency.
When should the architect be hired?

The architect is vitally important to the success of the building project. Some experts recommend the architect only be employed after much committee work is completed. However, I feel the architect should begin to help early in the process with the decision-making that must go on before a building can be designed.

Of course, it must be the right architect for your church. The architect must understand the programming and predesign process that a church must go through before actual design can begin. My advice is this: do not wait. Bring the architect in early so he or she can advise the steering committee and begin to guide them in the right direction.

What criteria should be used to select the architect?
  1. Qualifications and experience of the individuals assigned to the project should be the prime criteria used for selection of an architectural firm. Select an architect who has experience designing church facilities. The more churches they have served, the better. Select an architect who has worked with other churches similar to yours. Talk to other churches and find out who they employed as their architect. Get referrals from churches who have recently constructed buildings.

  2. Hire a registered architect. This is someone who is licensed by the state because he or she has met strict educational requirements, has passed a licensing exam and maintains that license in good standing. It is against the law for anyone who is not a licensed architect to use the title "architect" or imply that they are qualified to provide architectural services.

  3. Professional liability insurance protects your church from the negligent errors of your architect. Insurance is not required but it is to your advantage to hire an insured firm. Find out if the firms you are considering have "errors and omissions" insurance.

  4. Do not base selection on fee. The fees quoted by different firms may include different levels of service. A firm with an apparent low fee may charge extra for some services that other firms include in their base fee. Sometimes a low fee only indicates that the firm needs work. Fees should never be the only basis for selection. It is often difficult for the architect to quote a fee when he or she has limited information about what the church wants to build.

  5. Consider a financially stable firm of the appropriate size for your project. The size of the firm should not in itself be a deciding factor. It is probably not a good idea to assign a 5,000-seat worship center to a one- or two-person office. Even with today's technology, one person cannot do everything. Likewise, a large firm with dozens of employees may not be the best choice for a small addition or renovation. Many firms work in teams of specialists. In the typical architectural firm, even large scale projects may require only a few people. Learn about the past experience of the team of individuals that will actually work on the design of your facility because this will matter much more than the firm size.

  6. Select an architect whose office is close enough to provide a reasonable level of service. Expect many meetings with the architect during design and many site visits during construction. Travel time and expenses must be considered. While a few church architects work all over the country and charge accordingly, most work within a travel distance that permits them to provide the best service to their church clients.

  7. It is better if you select an architect who understands your faith and who indicates he or she is "called" into working with churches. Look for an architect who is active and involved in his or her own church. An active church member, even part of another denomination, will better understand your church's needs than someone who is not involved at all in church. Look for an architect who puts the program, budget and design needs of the church ahead of his or her own ego and desire for recognition. Look for an architect whose purpose is to serve God and the church community.

  8. Compatibility should be considered as well. You will be working closely with your architect for an extended period of time. The committee should feel comfortable with the team of people with whom they will be working. Will this group communicate well with one another? You need to have confidence that the project architect will listen to and get along with the committee.
Contractor selection

The selection of the right contractor is an equally important decision. Selecting the best contractor for your church must be undertaken with an eye for experience, financial soundness, compatibility and "calling."

A contractor who undertakes a church project for the first time will be in for some big surprises. The first-time church contractor may not be aware of how many eyes are watching his or her every move. The normal construction project is subject to occasional visits by the owner and building inspectors. But, with a church, many people will be looking at the project every day.

The contractor who is new to church work may also not be aware that decisions will take longer, even when the architect is doing everything in his power to keep the decision-making process running smoothly. With a church, the entire process of design and construction does not always go as easily and as quickly as other kinds of projects. For this reason, the steering committee should think twice about hiring a contractor who has never built a church building.

Construction delivery method

Construction delivery method affects the selection process. The design-bid-build method of delivery involves obtaining competitive bid prices from several contractors. The selection process will be aimed at narrowing down a list of qualified contractors who will be invited to bid. An invited group of no less than three and no more than five bidders is about the right size. This will make for more work in the selection-screening process because every bidder should meet all of the selection criteria. Interviews may be eliminated because of time constraints.

In partnering delivery or using construction management, only one construction firm should be selected. In design-build delivery, contractor and architect act as a single entity, are selected as a team, and in some cases, the architect may be an employee of the contractor. Your steering committee should research the pros and cons of each delivery method and decide which one works best in your situation.

Criteria for contractor selection

Investigate contractors who have church building experience. Try to get a complete picture of each company's church construction experience and be sure to request references. Contact as many church references as possible. Be sure to obtain complete financial statements and review them carefully. The financial condition of the contractor is very important, and you may want to find out if the contractors you are considering are able to provide a bond for the cost range of the project you are considering.

I recommend that contractors be considered who have a "heart" for the church and who are sympathetic to the purposes of the church. When interviewing contractors, be sure to ask, "Why do you choose to build church buildings?" Listen carefully to how they answer. Contractors who provide a satisfactory answer should be considered, provided they are experienced with church building, have good references and are financially sound. In other words, look for both qualifications and heart.

Select a contractor who will be compatible with the committee, who will listen to your concerns, who you feel you can trust, and with whom you can work. Consider it a plus if they have had some previous experience working with your architect. If these criteria are carefully followed, your final selection will most likely be the correct one.

Interview process

I recommend planning separate formal interviews for both selection of the architect and the contractor. Complete the architect selection first (unless a design-build delivery is planned), and ask your architect to participate in contractor screening and interviews. Screen firms by asking them to send in their marketing materials with detailed information about their company, financial report, references and photographs of previous projects. Consider asking each design firm to provide a written statement of their design philosophy or project approach.

After a detailed screening process, select the top three, most qualified firms and interview only those firms, allowing at least an hour for each interview. Make it clear to each that their qualifications have already been thoroughly reviewed and found acceptable. The purpose of the face-to-face interview is to help determine compatibility and provide an opportunity to get to know the individuals that will be in charge and managing the project.

Ask each firm to bring the individuals to the interview who will actually work on your project. You can expect senior principals will come to the interview, but that may be the last you will see of them until the dedication service. Make sure to interview the people with whom you will actually be working.

Both architects and contractors like to show Powerpoint slides of their previous work. Allow no more than 10 minutes for that part of the interview. You already know they are qualified. Use most of the interview time to ask questions, get to know the people involved and see if these are the people you want to work closely with for the next several years.

Conclusion

The church building team includes the steering committee, the architect and the contractor. The selection of the architect and the contractor may be the steering committee's most critical decisions because their choices will have a significant effect on the church for many years to come. Just as the pastor will impact how people will perceive the church, so will the architect and contractor have an impact on the image that the church building will convey to all who see it.

The church is people, not a building. But the church building itself conveys a message to everyone who sees it or uses it. It speaks much about who the church is and about the God they worship. Buildings do convey a message. What will your church building say? The architect and contractor will have a major role in determining how that message is presented.

Bob Foreman is senior principal at Foreman Seeley Fountain Architecture, an Atlanta firm specializing in the design of church and school facilities. Bob is a member of the American Institute of Architects and is a LEED Accredited Professional.