NC Church Contractors Fulfill Multiple Missions

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North Carolina has long been known for its large faith community, and thousands of churches practice their ministries in large cities and small towns across the state.  As a result, it’s difficult to find a Tar Heel contractor who has not worked on church related-projects.

But the contractors that regularly build religious facilities realize that these kinds of projects require a particular set of skills and a unique approach that they have carefully cultivated.  And in a community where trust is highly valued, and relationships play an even greater role than in other sectors, that cultivation has paid off – not only in terms of the amount of work won, but in terms of self-satisfaction and serving a higher calling.

“These projects are very rewarding – to see how excited the congregation is and to know that we have helped them fulfill their mission,” says Mark Dunnagan, vice president, preconstruction services, for Winston-Salem- based Frank L. Blum Construction Company.  “More than any other kind of project, it is truly a team effort.”

Since 1954, Blum has built 105 religious facilities, generally accounting for about 20-25% of its revenues. Earlier this year the company started construction on a multi-use building for worship and youth/community programs for St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in High Point.

At Edifice, Inc. in Charlotte, there is an informal group of employees called the Cornerstone Group, who “have a shared passion to help churches be good stewards of the resources they have,” explains senior vice president Bryan Knupp. “It’s not just about sticks and bricks, but how those sticks and bricks can best help fulfill the vision of ministry leaders.”

Church-related work accounts for about 20-30% of Edifice’s revenues, and it has completed 75 of those projects in the last 20 years across theCarolinas.  A recent project is Hopewell BaptistChurch in Monroe, completed last July and which was honored with an Award of Merit from the ABC of the Carolinas Excellence in Construction Awards.   Other recent projects include Elevation Baptist Church in Knightdale and St. Mark’s Catholic Church in Charlotte. Both projects won ABC of the Carolina Eagle Awards.

“When you work with churches, you need to be more emotionally and passionately engaged,” says Tom Booth, vice president of Hardin Construction Company in Raleigh. “You need to focus on the real work — which is Christ’s.” About 20% of the company’s revenues in the Carolinas is church-related work; projects generally range in size from $6-$30 million.

There are also business and practical differences in how religious facilities get built. They begin even before a contractor is chosen. Although budget and fees are an important focus of the selection process, “that’s when the relationship is really started – they want to be comfortable with who is doing their project,” says Dunnagan.

The ultimate contract is rarely a pure Construction Management at-Risk or a Design-Build agreement. Knupp calls it “a negotiated team approach – where we all ultimately work for the church. It provides healthy checks and balances.”

The contractor also knows that the pre-construction process will be lengthy — perhaps as long as 12-18 months. It’s not unusual for it to take longer to plan a project than to actually construct it. For example, Edifice spent four years in preconstruction with Christ Lutheran Church in Charlotte.  Now under construction, it’ll take about 14 months to construct.

“You have to be patient,” Dunnagan comments. “The industry used to pass many preconstruction issues to the designers, but not any more. It is better for the entire team to address things sooner and be advocates for the owner.”

Edifice takes the same approach. “The church brings its wish list, and we bring a reality check. We provide valuable tools to help match their vision to reality,” Knupp says. “We respect the architects and work in concert with them, giving them good information in terms of constructability and pricing.”

Another reason preconstruction takes so long is that the contractor is typically working with a 6-12-member building committee. It is generally made up of volunteers (and sometimes staff) who may or may not have construction knowledge.  The contractor must be prepared for lots of night meetings.

“We are usually about efficiency and how to drive down prices,” Dunnagan observes. “ But when you are dealing with people with many different points of view who all have a vested interest, the process may not be that cut and dry.  So we always build in extra time for preconstruction so we can help them make thoughtful decisions.”

Adds Booth, “You have to ask the right questions to get the most insightful answers so you can understand their needs. How many services do they have? How many people attend? What is their past and projected growth?  Parking is always an issue. You have to be collaborative.”

Although the contractor deals day in and day out with the committee chair and regularly with the full committee, the entire congregation may also get involved.  That could mean the contractor makes presentations to the general membership or is available for questions from them.  Blum Construction takes a pro-active approach and usually produces a regular newsletter to keep members updated.  Hardin schedules hard hat tours for members after construction has begun. Edifice supplies links via their Facebook page to live on-site construction cameras. These cameras communicate, document and share real time construction progress with anyone who wishes to access it. Pastors may also choose to communicate regularly with their congregations though emails or newsletters.

There are lots of decisions to make in the preconstruction stage.  Owners of every kind of building have to balance what they want with what they can afford, but it is often more complicated with a religious facility.  “This is about their spiritual lives,” says Blum marketing manager Donna Emmary. “They care deeply about how a building will function and look.”

“This is the time when critical decisions are made and when budget expectations and scope expectations need to match,” Dunnagan notes.

Funding is more complicated, too.  A church may begin with an initial fundraising goal, but may not be able to meet it in time or, on the other hand, feel they can raise more or receive an unexpected large donation.  Lending institutions’ policies vary and have different requirements for how much of the goal the church must have received pledges for or have in hand before monies are freed up for construction.

Contractors don’t help the churches raise funds, but they do often help them find financial institutions that are church-friendly and may help them put together their loan application.

Church facilities are often complex structures.  Knupp says they are more complex than commercial, retail, office, warehouses or even school buildings.

“Though services are mostly held on Sunday, churches are very active all week long.  They use space for lots of different purposes,” Booth observes. “They are sophisticated multi-purpose buildings. A fellowship hall may be used for worship and for youth programs, like a gym. It may also need a kitchen.  You have to work around that schedule and plan for pedestrian and vehicular traffic flow.”   Access for disabled church members may also be an issue.

Sanctuaries are no longer simple buildings either. “They have intricate architectural features and complex acoustical and sight-line requirements.  It takes a skilled team,” Knupp says.

Sanctuaries are also increasingly high-tech with sophisticated projection, imagery and lighting equipment that include large screens and video cameras.  Some are set up to create streaming video for the web.

Such structures require experienced subcontractors in highly specialized fields, such as building steeples.  Sanctuaries require high-finish and highly detailed work, “so not everyone can come in and do it,” Dunnagan says.

Booth says it is not unusual for the committee to want to work with particular subcontractors because they have a personal relationship and past experience with the church.  “But you have to make sure the church’s choices have the necessary experience and skills, or else find ways to engage them in a positive and productive manner.”

At the end of the day, the contractors who pursue church-related projects find that the final project is more than worth the hard work to build it.

“Building religious facilities is not for everyone – it’s a definite niche,” Dunnagan says. “It requires a unique skill set, and you have to like it. And we do.”

Notes Knupp, “Commercial work is easier and more profitable, but this is more than a job for us. We get to use our skills to help see God honored at the local ministry level. It’s a privilege to use our gifts to build quality facilities that meet their mission needs.”     Read More.

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