"Notice of Violation," the words in bold at the head of the letter, the pastor on the other end of the phone asking what does this mean, what did we do wrong? Me sighing, again hearing a common refrain from a church that entered into a lease agreement and occupied a space with excitement and joy about how their church is going to grow in the new facility only to have that joy flee. It all comes to a quick halt as I explain they have moved into a new space they legally cannot occupy. Another story of wasted resources and energy as well intentioned leaders try to grow the kingdom. It saddens me how many times I have received this call and how many churches have wasted scarce resources on the dream to serve their communities.
As an architect who is committed to grow the kingdom and serve churches through the thoughtful creation of impassioned tools for God’s people to reach their world for Christ, I plead with all church leaders who are contemplating leasing, buying or renovating an existing facility to consult a design professional prior to signing any legally binding agreements.
There is a glut of empty or under-utilized buildings that could be re-purposed to create exciting and inviting places where lives can be transformed. However, there is a deliberate and important process that will ensure the occupancy of those spaces is both effective and economically viable.
Church No. 1
In the past several months I have had several opportunities to help churches [that] were expanding and relocating. One church had the dreaded letter requiring them to meet current building and life safety codes in their new space. They contracted with ChurchWrights to answer the letter's request for additional information regarding their occupancy of the space. Another contracted ChurchWrights to explore a handful of vacant commercial spaces and evaluate their existing facility and its potential expansion. Both churches spent a similar amount of money and timewith very different results.
The first church has been confronted with an insurmountable list of improvements they are now required to make to continue the use of their new facility. New HVAC systems, lighting systems, exiting and alarm systems, stairways, egress doors and restroom facilities are required to bring the existing building in line with current building and life safety codes. All this work due to what is called a change of use. A change of use is the process any existing building must go through when a differing use is proposed from the current building’s use. This is true even with buildings that are vacant.
The cost for the work is beyond this church's ability. They are faced with a landlord who is unwilling to assist with the improvements. Their only apparent option is to break the lease and find a new space that they can occupy with little or no renovations. This has been a crippling blow to this group’s ability to reach their community. The sad part of the story is that if they had known the implications of leasing space not approved for an assembly use, which all churches require, they would have consulted a design professional to evaluate the proposed location. This evaluation is typically a site visit and written report listing any possible improvements that will be needed for the use of the space. An investment of a small amount of money and time would have saved this church what may become a crippling setback.
Church No. 2
Church two is a much happier story. Its [leadership decided] to hire a consultant familiar with church design and construction to explore the options before they acted. They invested time and money before moving forward with any commitment to lease, purchase or renovate. Through a simple and informative process they explored all their options, and with the information garnered through this evaluation process the church made a well-informed decision to move forward with the purchase of property and design and construct a new facility for their quickly growing church. A result of time and resources invested in gaining knowledge and insight has saved them from making commitments that would have weakened their potential impact in the community.
No matter how appealing an existing facility may look, no matter how eager a landlord is to lease, no matter how tempting the desire to grow becomesstep back and engage with a design professional who knows what it takes for an existing space to become a church. The potential for pain and costs are everywhere. Investing a small amount of resources upfront will serve you well in the long run.