What is the architectural process, from start to finish, for planning a new  church building? Below is insight and wisdom from John Jackson, an architect experienced in helping churches build, on the process of designing a church structure.

The whole process is broken up into phases of service. The percentage of each phase is shown below for the Architect’s Basic Services. I have written about the services as if these questions may come up in a meeting.

1. Programming and Master Planning (not a basic service, but rather a special service)

What is programming and why do I need a master plan?

Most churches need help with these special services. Knowing how the church grows over a period of time, which ministry functions will come on-line as a result of that growth and how much space and parking will be needed requires special skill and knowledge. Occasionally, the owner has specific enough information for the architect to work from and can proceed to Basic Services. Programming captures the DNA of the church in written form, identifies the space and functions anticipated, and considers key concepts for design to respond to. Master Planning should be a direct response to the church’s Ministry Planning and establishes the extent of development on the site by placing the footprints of future building, paving and parking in the most advantageous places, taking advantage of the site’s attributes and the church’s anticipated phasing. It sometimes will involve Civil Engineering services in order to determine the parameters within which to design. A site plan permit can be acquired at this stage or in the following SD phase.

How do we get the site plan permit?

The civil engineer creates documents specific to the site that address the legal and regulatory issues such as zoning, roadway and compatibility setbacks, easements (drainage, water and wastewater, electrical), critical environmental features, and sizing of water quality and detention basins all based upon the desired Master Plan. The city will review these documents and issue the site development permit.

How long would it take to do the site planning and receive a permit?

Each city is different; in the Austin area, this is a 6-8 month process from the time drawings are submitted to the city. Check your city’s website for the development process.

2. Schematic Design (SD’s are 10-15% of the effort)

What is the schematic design?

Schematic design establishes the general scope, conceptual design, and relationships of the different components of the first phase of the project. Diagrammatic plans, sometimes computer models, and illustrations are created to help visually express the design ideas. It answers the questions, “What will our buildings look like and how will they function?”

Acoustical consultants may be needed at this point for preliminary services, depending on the building type.

What would be the outcome from the schematic design?

The schematic design will be used to provide fundraising visuals for the next phase under consideration. If a contractor is already on board, he will create a “Conceptual Estimate” of the construction costs. Using this information, the architect will help develop a comprehensive picture of all the costs including construction, FEE (furniture, fixtures, and equipment) and soft costs. We normally don’t include interim financing by banks at this time because it can be done so many different ways. The church’s finance committee may be able to estimate a number to work with.

How long would it take to do the schematic design?

We typically need about six weeks for the schematic design phase. The church sometimes needs more time due to internal schedules. The church often fundraises after this period. We sometimes proceed into the next phase immediately upon approval of the SD. Sometimes we wait and see how the fundraising goes before taking the next step. I encourage you to think about the time value of money while pausing projects. The safe estimate for escalation in prices in the Austin area is about 1% of construction costs per month. So, for a 6M project, it costs about $60,000 for each month you hesitate. Check your geographic area’s rate of inflation and consider the cost of time.

NOTE:  I firmly believe that the best fundraising effort will be achieved when both of the above services have been accomplished and communicated thoroughly to the congregation. Master Planning answers the analytical, left-brain question, “Are we thinking far enough into the future” and, “Will this next building be in the right place?” Schematic Design answers the aesthetic, right-brain question, “Will it be beautiful for my daughter’s wedding,” or “Will it appeal to the people I want to invite?” The church has both types of folks and they are usually married to each other!

3. Design Development (DDs are 10-15% of the effort)

What are the design development drawings?

During design development, the architect expands upon the schematic design, developing more detailed and specific studies of the proposed elements, fixing all design scope before documenting for construction begins. These elements include the shape and location of features, materials and room finishes, and structural, mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems. The Structural, Mechanical, Electrical, and Plumbing Engineers (MEP) are involved at this point. Outline specifications are prepared and the architect verifies that the design complies with applicable building codes. Project costs are updated. The more design can be finalized at this stage, the less likely there will be scope creep, schedule slide, and change orders on the project. Work hard to do this as a team!

How long would it take to do the design development drawings? 

Six weeks for the design development phase for a mid-size project. The church sometimes needs more time due to internal schedules.

4.  Construction Documents (CDs are 40-45% of the effort)

What are the construction documents?

During the construction documents phase, the architect creates detailed working drawings and specifications, which become part of the construction contract. He coordinates all the efforts of the other consultants such as Structural, MEP and other special consultants. The contractor will use these documents to establish a construction cost and build the project. These will be the drawings we get a building permit with.

How long would it take to do the construction drawings?

This can range, depending on the size of the project and staffing. We allow about twelve to eighteen weeks for the construction documents phase for mid-size projects. This schedule dare not slide due to the number of consultants involved.

5. Bidding and Negotiating (BN is usually 5% of the effort)

Do you have a recommended way to bid our project?

Which “project delivery system” the church uses is determined at this time. The type we recommend most often for the church is “Construction Manager at Risk with a Guaranteed Maximum Price.” The contractor is chosen after an RFQ and Interview where a fee is proposed for managing and constructing the project. The advantages are that the owner still gets competitive pricing among subcontractors, the contractor is chosen based on qualifications, cultural fit, proposed fee basis, the ability to provide pre-construction services such as estimating and constructability review. This BN process produces the “Cost of the Work” that gives the most assurance of a final number with the exception of any change orders. Our experience is that project driven change orders amount to about 2-2.5% of the construction cost, which is pretty good. The goal is zero, of course. We usually encourage the owner to include about a 3-5% construction contingency to cover the unknown. The better job that we do in the above phases, with no further changes by the owner, contractor or architect, the less change orders cost everyone.

How long does this process take?

While the contractor prices for 4-6 weeks, our firm processes the building permit with the city. After we finalize and approve the budget numbers, make adjustments and have the site permit and building permit, then it’s time to build.

6. Construction Administration (CA is 20-25% of the effort)

Why can’t we do this ourselves?

It is very complicated work. We will work with the contractor to answer all questions about our Construction Documents, “observe” (not inspect) the construction, make bi-weekly or monthly job meetings, approve shop drawings, process submittals, and “punch out” the building (final details everywhere). We assist with interior colors and finishes, etc. The owner will hire an independent testing agency for making sure portions of the structure, etc. perform correctly. City inspections occur at this time. This process will likely take 12-14 months for a mid-size project, depending on the complexity of the project.

The above phases should total 100% of the “Basic Services of the Architect.” A range has been shown to give the architect flexibility of placing fee where it is most needed, depending on the nature of the project.