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  • The interior of the sanctuary at Holy Archangels Greek Orthodox Monastery, Kendalia.

Contemporary Church Building Sees Resurgence

Texas Construction News from Virtual Builders Exchange

by Adolfo Pesquera

Innovation, patience and multi-use are the watchwords of church construction.

Over the centuries it has held true that congregations will use any kind of shelter for church. It has also held true that congregations would prefer to go big, if they can afford it.

Parishioners want everything, but often settle for less. What they want most in a structure, however, is something that conveys a spiritually uplifting experience, while at the same time giving the impression if not the promise of having transcended generations.

Connecting Point, a church located in a College Station shopping center. It's become commonplace for many congregations to lease space in commercial strip centers.

Connecting Point Church, a church located in a College Station shopping center. It’s become commonplace for many congregations to lease space in commercial strip centers.

In today’s America, churches come in more shapes, styles and sizes than any building designed for any other function. There are traditional stick frame and masonry buildings, metal buildings, energy efficient insulated concrete form structures that will stand for centuries, and renovated retail buildings in strip centers that will be houses of worship until the members get out of their lease.

Still, church construction isn’t what it used to be. A December 2014 Wall Street Journal report conclude construction peaked in 2002. In 2014, religious groups in the United States built 10.3 million square feet or 80 percent less than 2002. Spending totaled $3.15 billion, half of what was spent a decade earlier.

For lack of profit motive as a primary driving force, church organizations have lagged behind other types of construction since the Great Recession. There are signs that church building is finally coming out of its doldrums.

However, American denominations have been changing their priorities. According to the same WSJ report, more resources will be going into ministries and less into infrastructure, at least as far as the Southern Baptist Convention is concerned. That is the largest Protestant denomination.

The recession adversely affected financial support to some extent, said Chad Vanderpipe, head of business development at Churches by Daniels Construction in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. But company founder Charlie Daniels (no relation to the country singer) has stayed very busy, Vanderpipe said.

“We’re in 12 states and we have 22 projects going right now,” Vanderpipe added.

Talking about church building design, he noted how many builders are general purpose contractors. There is, however, enough church construction that it has generated a sub-industry of companies that specialize in church building.

Among them are Goff Companies LLC in Dallas; Building God’s Way in Ogden, Utah; Aspen Group in Chicago; PAR Church Builders in Macon Georgia; and Church Design & Construction in Irvine, Calif.

Vanderpipe’s advice to congregations shopping for a builder would be to realize that churches have unique needs that non-specialty contractors can miss, often at considerable cost.

“Most churches are majorly overdesigned in the area of HVAC,” he said. “In an office building, for example, you’ve got employees there Monday through Friday at full capacity, so HVAC requirements for that building are much higher. A church auditorium is used twice a week.”

The arena of Skybreak Church, a metal structure building in College Station.

The arena of Skybreak Church, a metal structure building in College Station.

Multi-use Building

Since the opening of the West, one of the first structures built in a new town was the church, Vanderpipe noted. The church was at the center of the community and used for multiple functions.

Churches provided schooling and recreation. There were classrooms, gymnasiums, even bowling alleys. As the cultural divide has grown in recent decades, more faith-based communities have insulated themselves by getting back to that model.

“Churches are doing a lot of things to connect with the community. We’re building a lot of gyms now. There is day care now in a lot of churches that are open to the public,” Vanderpipe said.

Charlie Daniels was the son of a North Carolina preacher and carpenter that went around building churches for congregations he pastored.

“He would pastor for a few years, move to another town, build another church,” Vanderpipe said.

When the son came of age, he started a general construction company, but for the past 30 years he has specialized in conventional church building. In that time, he has seen many innovations turn into trends.

In the 1990s, the trend was for a church to expand in place into a mega-church with auditoriums of 10,000 to 15,000 seats. These days, a mother church builds out to around 600 to 1,000 seats, he said.

If the church grows more, the leadership opts for a multi-site approach and opens small churches in the suburbs or even other cities.

LifeChurch.TV is one of the most aggressive users of the multi-site concept, Vanderpipe said. Based in Edmund, Okla., the church has branched out with congregations in seven states.

Children’s ministry is another innovation that has evolved. Daniels has built two churches with indoor playgrounds.

“Security for children is another very important aspect of what we do. The church is designed with check-in points to monitor accessibility by adults to the children,” he said.

Church specialist contractors are also much more involved in the financing and pre-construction design. At Aspen Group, it is a standard procedure to conduct a feasibility study. Building God’s Way in Ogden offers a fundraising program called Momentum.

Vanderpipe said Daniels helps a church package its financials.

“Some churches, their accounting is stellar. Others have a lot of room for improvement. Our role, if they allow us, is to help them make their finances look as good as possible. We also have relationships with lenders that want to lend to churches. And we also encourage them to go talk to more than one bank, get them competing against each other,” Vanderpipe said.

Churches by Daniels uses design build. They work with Daman-Lechtenberger Architects on the majority of their projects.

“I don’t know if it’s the preferred method, but design build is definitely the best. We were seeing so many churches get hurt by the traditional hiring of an architect and then putting it out for bid,” he said.

A common mistake is paying an architect for a design the congregation can’t afford to build.

“We work from the budget backward. We design to the budget and we control that from start to finish,” Vanderpipe said.

The Arena

Donnie Haulk, CEO of AE Global Media.

Donnie Haulk, CEO of AE Global Media.

The main event in church is the service. And a major element of service is the music program. Auditoriums are typically between 500 and 1,500 seat. Churches by Daniels works with AE Global Media of Charlotte, North Carolina, a specialist in “worship technologies,” otherwise known as audio visual and lighting, or AVL. AE Global has done projects in 20 countries, said president and chief executive officer Donnie Haulk.

“Anybody that’s doing a worship facility today is going to put in some type of AVL technology. A worship space is about communicating with the people,” Haulk said.

AE Global has a package for any size facility, but they generally break down into congregations where attendance is less than 500, 500 to 1,000 and over 1,000.

“Preachers became known for their shouting because the communications technology was not there. The goal of a church today is to achieve intimacy in communication—being able to speak to everyone in the building in a normal voice,” Haulk said.

AVL packages start with the audio, but Haulk has opinions about lighting. In the 19th century, builders were only concerned about having enough light to read a bible, but Haulk said, “I like light for what it feels like; a lot of churches built in the 1800s are too dark.”

That matters because church design today is just as much about renovating old buildings as it is finishing out modern buildings.

Haulk describes range of cost in terms of four classes, with the first being the spoken word. The second class is musical quality—being able to enhance the music of a choir, organ or a band. Then there is concert quality.

“The definition of concert quality is everyone can hear all octaves of music to 102 decibels at each seat,” he said. The highest class of AVL production is what Haulk calls “tour level/rider ready.”

“It’s like if Madonna goes on tour and a contract is written that says what she’ll have on stage.  Many churches are choosing to go that route because that allows the minister to communicate at a professional level,” he said.

It also allows churches to bring in professional Christian bands in a setting that rivals any concert venue. But it comes at a high cost. Haulk said a level one system will be about 4 to 6 percent of the building cost; a level two is 6 to 8 percent of the project; and level three is 8 to 12 percent. Getting to level four can be as much as 20 percent of total project cost.

“The bulk of churches today that call themselves contemporary, meaning they use the electric instruments of today—guitars, drums, keyboards—fit in that 8 to 12 percent range,” Haulk said.

Haulk has a broader national perspective on construction than Daniels and his thoughts are more in line with current statistics. He said church construction is just now coming back to the pace it was at before the recession.

“I don’t think we’re by any means back on the track where we were in 2005-2006. The last four years have been heavier on remodel than new construction,” he said.

College Station, home of Texas A&M University’s Reveille, the Gig ‘em hand sign and Skybreak Church, one of the contemporary structures that AE Global wired.

The church started 28 years ago out of a small traditional wood-frame chapel and just kept growing. There is a 750-seat auditorium in a metal building that up until last year was the main sanctuary; it’s now used for used for the youth ministry.

Pastor Steve Livingston, Skybreak Church.

Pastor Steve Livingston, Skybreak Church.

Pastor Steve Livingston is one of three pastors leading the congregation. He was also the general contractor for a metal building that opened for its first service Sept. 7. A self-taught builder, Livingston designed the 1,500-seat arena himself rather than buy a pre-fabricated kit.

Ready-made metal buildings are common, but as Charlie Daniels warns on his blog, they may not be suited to handle masonry facades: “You put the brick on it and the walls start falling off because the wall loads were not sufficient. We see this all the time.”

Livingston just left it at, “kits are not what they’re cracked up to be.”

The new sanctuary started out as an oversized gymnasium with a metal shell, knowing that someday it would become a church. Aesthetically, it was designed to complement the existing structure, with shows metal on three sides and masonry up front.

Livingston purchased the steel beams from a Houston supplier. Except for AE Global, all the subcontractors were local, as was the architect—Patterson Architects.

The design required expanding the foundation 25 feet toward the front. The HVAC system appears impressive.

“There are 10 total units. Six are 25 tons and then I have several 5 tons,” Livingston said of the AC.

The structure is just outside the city limits, but Livingston built to city codes. He also noted that since the Arena seats more than 1,000 people, the church had to abide by state fire marshal regulations.

A common issue with church building, as Vanderpipe noted, was the lengthy design process. Most churches work by committee and everyone wants their input heard. Skybreak did things a bit differently.

“Our church is staff led. We do have people that we get wisdom from and we have a team that we meet with quarterly and we let them see the books. But we find it’s a lot easier, less bureaucratic, if we just go ahead; we’re in the trenches, so we know what we need. Instead of us going out and trying to get a vote …when you do it that way, somebody’s going to lose, and it’s just a bad feeling,” Livingston said.

Skybreak budgeted the new building at $3.2 million. Final cost was $5 million. Livingston blamed the overrun on a miscommunication that in part involved AE Global.

“There were some people that worked with him. At the time the blueprints were getting printed, things were getting changed that never got co-related back to the engineers and then all of a sudden we had a $100,000 hickey. Donnie was a good man. He made things right,” Livingston added.

The total building area is 33,000 square feet and the auditorium ceiling peaks at 37 feet.

Skybreak is a contemporary, non-denominational church—about as different as a church can be from Roman Catholics, the largest and most traditional of major denominations.

New landscaping creates a connection between the Catholic Church of Good Shepherd-Schertz and the new parish offices.

New landscaping creates a connection between the Catholic Church of Good Shepherd-Schertz and the new parish offices.

On Patience

Bob Holbrook, the director of construction for the Archdiocese of San Antonio, often sees the world from 30,000 feet. At some point, every building project within the archdiocese’s 139 parishes gets reviewed by him. It’s up to Holbrook to make sure the parish leaders understand what they need to prepare for a project.

Each parish has authority and the responsibility to maintain and expand its campus, Holbrook said. A project starts with a letter to the archbishop, from the priest or school principal, describing the project and seeking permission to proceed.

It is a combined process where parishes do the hiring of professionals and the archbishop signs the contracts—“centralized authorization and distributed execution,” he said.

The parish or school is 100 percent responsible for funding, but the archdiocese owns the finished structure. Before construction begins, the parish must have raised 50 percent of the cost and the other half can be in the form of a loan or some other financing, Holbrook said.

“We have a building board that helps the archdiocese review final plans. At the point in time we have 75 percent completion of construction documents, the parish appears before the board with its architect and presents plans and answers any questions. If it looks acceptable, then they’re authorized to proceed further with the construction award,” Holbrook said.

The parishes usually use a competitive bid where three to five contractors are invited.

“It can be negotiated with one contractor, if the parish has a special relationship,” he added, however, the archdiocese requires the contractor be qualified and fully insured.

Fundraising is no less challenging for Catholic parishes. The historic downtown German church at Rivercenter Mall, (St. Joseph Catholic Church), has been raising funds for several years to build a modest two-story, 6,500 square foot chapel with a community hall and meeting rooms.

The Catholic Church of Good Shepherd in Schertz took almost 15 years to build an administration building, according to Father Ed Pavlicek.

The interior of the sanctuary at Holy Archangels Greek Orthodox Monastery, Kendalia.

The interior of the sanctuary at Holy Archangels Greek Orthodox Monastery, Kendalia.

After hearing that, Father Ephraim, a monk at the Holy Archangels Greek Orthodox Monastery near Kendalia said, “I don’t feel so bad now.”

In 2002, the monastery broke ground on a 42,000-square-foot, three-story dormitory. Over the next two years, the monks worked alongside private contractors to complete the shell of a sturdy insulated concrete form (ICF) building that would complement the already existing church and dining hall.

Ever since then, the monks have been working on the interior finish out. It still is not complete.

Father Archimandrite Dositheos, has been the guiding hand behind the monastery’s development. In 1996, the monks bought an abandoned Muslim mosque through a third party and with the support of their bishop in Denver, Colorado.

“When we looked at the buildings, we thought we would convert everything to dorms. After we inspected, we found the workmanship was done poorly, so we tore down all the curtain walls and we left this post tension two way system,” Dositheos said.

The mainframe and foundation of one building survived and was used to build the church.

Gilberto Lopez–a Houston-based architect specializing in Greek Orthodox structures and the godson of the real estate broker that found the property—came to live with the monks for eight months while he was designing the church.

“I kind of was looking over his shoulder when he was doing the drafting and that’s how I learned. I had a private teacher,” Dositheos said.

Dositheos went on to design the dormitory himself and then handed over his drafts to a friend from England that he had gone to school with who was an engineer. He transferred them to digital and passed them to three Houston-based engineers (structural, electrical and plumbing) who were Greek Orthodox. All the engineering work was done at no cost, which meant the monks only had to pay for the contractors.

A feature of the dormitory at the Holy Archangels Greek Orthodox Monastery is an architectural overhang supported by many beams.

A feature of the dormitory at the Holy Archangels Greek Orthodox Monastery is an architectural overhang supported by many beams.

Dositheos got the idea of using an ICF system from St. Anthony’s Greek Orthodox Monastery in Florence, Arizona, where a chapel was built with Arxx product. Dositheos not only loved the durability and energy saving features of ICF, he loved the fact that the company was based in his native Canada.

He found a nearby Hill Country company, South River Construction LLC, was building with ICF and hired them.

Father Ephraim said the monastery offered to provide labor to help erect the walls. South River agreed and put the monks through a one-day seminar in Austin to get trained on the building system, then paid them $16.50 an hour for their labor, which eventually turned into a $78,000 credit against the cost.

For the masonry exterior, Dositheos then turned to Frank Garza of Garza Masonry Stone Inc., the same outfit that did the masonry work for the dining hall.

“He has a couple of quarries in Sisterdale and he has his own crews. For us, that’s like a package deal to get stone from the same owner who would supervise the crew,” Dositheos said.

Dositheos hired outside help to do the roof in 2004, but since then the monks have been working on the interiors on their own, with occasional guidance from friendly engineers and an old friend—Kent Weber.

Weber is a master carpenter in Blanco who has acted as the foreman on all carpentry work since the monks first arrived, Ephraim explained.

The architecture of the dormitory is faithful to a style common in Greek churches and features a prominent cantilevered overhang on the third level. Teak beams imported from China were used to install knee braces for the overhang, although Dositheos added the concrete is so strong that the knee braces in this situation are more ornamental.

The monks are on track to move in to one section of the dormitory by November; they have been living in the original ranch houses—structures that have been on site nearly a century.

“We’re not in a rush. It’s not like a project with a deadline. We want it to be done right, although we are getting old and we’re wondering if we’ll ever get there,” Ephraim said.

One indicator that the end is in sight is Dositheos’ plans to start a new project. He is designing a four-story tower that would go up to the right side of the church.

“It would be about the same height as the bell tower. I would like to start this within the next two to three years,” Dositheos said.

Architectural renderings and a site plan for the Islamic Center of Frisco.

Architectural renderings and a site plan for the Islamic Center of Frisco.

A New Minority

Muslim construction projects are few compared to those of Christian denominations, however, Texas has the third largest number of mosques among the states, according to an Associated Press report. This should surprise no one considering Texas-based oil and military institutions have been interacting with Muslim communities since the 1950s.

Currently, the Islamic Center of Frisco is constructing an 18,923-square-foot, two-story mosque. In addition, their campus will include two 12,000-square-foot, two-story multi-purpose structures.

In the Houston area, the Indonesian American Muslim Community is halfway toward their goal of raising $1.2 million for a future mosque. The goal is complete fundraising by the end of this year. To date, there has been no land purchase, although the community has been searching for sites in southwest Harris County.

In Allen, the Islamic Association of Allen has partially completed a $1.65 million, 10,000-square-foot prayer hall that is being built of tilt wall design. The land was acquired in 2011 and civil and site work completed last year. Much of the structure has been constructed, but as with so many faith-based projects this community is still raising funds.



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About the Author:

Adolfo Pesquera (Reporter/Editor) is a veteran news journalist. He has worked for Hearst Corp., American Lawyer Media, News Corp and Freedom Communications. His work has been published in newspapers and magazines across the USA. He is a journalism graduate of UT-RGV. He writes, edits and creates digital pages for VBX.