March 23, 2011 by: Ben Heimsath

Building Committee at workCongratulations!  You've been asked to serve on the building committee of your church or non-profit organization.  This could be the experience of a lifetime.  But watch out.  There are many risks.  The sensational and catastrophic failures are the one's you've probably heard about.  The church that couldn't finish when the money ran out.  The community building that sparked protests instead of celebration. 

Fortunately, these catastrophes are actually quite rare.  Most of these well-publicized failures have been years in the making.  And most often, we see a trail of missteps before the final explosion.  For most church or non-profit building projects, its the common problems that really cause havoc.  Here are some of the more typical mistakes you should work hard to avoid.

Building Committee memberIn decades of architectural practice, I've seen lots of evidence of these common failures.  Working with churches and community groups, we hear many stories from our clients about frustrations with previous building projects.  These failures don't make the evening news, but they can have a dramatic impact.  As much as a successful building program can unify and bring a congregation or community together, a failure can leave years of hardships and hurt.

Here are just some of the issues that we find lingering years after a marginal building program is completed or, sometimes, abandoned.  But take heart.  With thoughtful planning and good communications, nearly all of these can be avoided.

Build Big Enough:

Though this isn't the worst problem, it's hard to believe the number of times we've heard that the previous program didn't build enough.  A fellowship hall gets cut down in size.  Classrooms are too small.  Not enough parking.  These small frustrations can't always be addressed by building more.  Budget realities will ultimately dictate how much to build. 

But good planning helps a community make good decisions in the face of constraints.  We've helped many groups come up with innovative ways to make do with less.  One community laid out parking, but used a gravel surface until they could raise the funds for paving.  That same community is now building an outdoor pavilion the full size of their future fellowship hall.  The plan calls for enclosing it at a later date.  This was a better option than building a space too small for their growing needs.

Unity Church Completed HallCompleted Hall for Unity Church of the Hills

Avoid Piece-Meal - Think Long-Term:

Some of the biggest problems we deal with are the result of short-sighted building projects.  A classroom wing blocks access to the kitchen.  The memorial trees are planted in the prime spot for a new building.  The new bathrooms are great, but no one can find them. 

This failure comes from a narrow mindset.  Committees feel they should concentrate entirely on one issue, and ignore anything else.  While many well-meaning committees think they are making things easier, what they ignore can cause disaster.  When building for a vibrant and dynamic community, a broad vision is essential. 

We recommend a community or congregation have a master plan for a building program of any significance.  When a plan is out of date, or there are new elements to consider, it should be updated or started again.  We often will conduct an update program for the master plan even after a successful phase one building program.  This builds momentum for the next phase of the project, and can incorporate ideas from new members into a larger vision for the future. 


Too many public buildings, churches and community centers are like rabbit warrens.  You practically need a tour guide to get from one place to another.  Compounding this problem, people tend to visit and congregate in those narrow corridors.  First-time visitors are not only disoriented, they are often put off by choked hallways and entries. Clogged hallway 

One imperative in our firm is to consider how people move from one space to another.  We think of the first-time visitors and regular members.  How do they arrive?  What will happen when two-hundred people leave a meeting?  Can people find the bathroom?  Can they stop and visit comfortably on the way to another activity?  Is there a clear path to the kitchen?  The nursery?  The parking lot?

Confusing SignWhen circulation works, it is intuitive.  The architecture invites people to go in the right direction.  When it doesn't work, people put up all kinds of signs to get things sorted out. Circulation is so critical, we strive to fix bad circulation any time we do a renovation or addition.  We've planned additions for buildings where visitors are frequently lost.  Even when we've doubled or tripled size, the visitors' orientation is always improved.

Get Something Done:

A few years ago, we began planning with a congregation that had attempted several previous times to build.  People recalled a ground breaking decades earlier, and still nothing happened!  No one could believe in the program because of past failures.  Fortunately, the building committee persevered.  There was a lot of celebrating at the dedication of the new worship space!

There will always be critics who cast doubt on a building program.  Hopefully, you won't have to face as much doubt as the congregation we just mentioned.  The only way to overcome this challenge is to build something!  If a committee is formed, and needs are identified, something good should come from the effort.  Setting realistic expectations is a key factor.

A building committee facing an unexpected difficulty should communicate clearly with its constituency.  One congregation couldn't afford the major sanctuary improvements they anticipated, so they re-focused the congregation's energy on an upgrade for the day school.  At the re-dedication of the school, they then announced the phase-two sanctuary program.  It was completed two years later.  Had they stopped the program and made no improvements, it is doubtful anything would have been completed in that timeframe.

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Church Design & Construction/ Design Process/ Building Committee