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Best Practices and Protocol for Building and Property Documentation

Maintaining a good system for storing property and building information is important for the design and construction of future building additions and for building maintenance.

A pastor friend recently told me a story about a church member who discovered a set of his church’s original blueprints in his parents’ attic. Apparently, the blueprints, which were in near perfect condition, were placed in the attic in a cardboard tube shortly after the church was built in 1924.

The story reminded me of the first Dead Sea scrolls, which were found in a cave by an unsuspecting shepherd boy looking for a lost sheep. While finding the blueprints was certainly not of the magnitude of the discovery of the scrolls, the story did help me realize the importance of keeping valuable information in a safe, clearly marked spot for future generations. After all, what good is information if no one knows it exists?

Maintaining a good system for storing property and building information is important for the design and construction of future building additions and for building maintenance. Learning what information should be kept, and how it can be stored in an easily accessible manner is time well spent.

Property and building information from new and previous building projects comes in many forms. Existing information can be gathered from staff and church members who are involved with property and building maintenance, church storage rooms, and professionals who were involved in the original design and construction of your current facility. Church staff and building committee members involved in a new building project are often flooded with new information from architects, general contractors and consultants.

Existing Site and Building Surveys

Surveys typically show property identification information, property lines, utilities, right of ways, zoning information, easements, sidewalks, parking areas and existing buildings. They may also show other existing items, such as topography, fences, trees, locations of wetland areas and streams. Depending on when a survey was made, some of the information may or may not be current. Older surveys provide historical information about a site and its development.

Surveys done after the year 2000 were most likely drawn using a CAD (computer aided design) drawing program. More recently, files generated in the program “AutoCAD” are the most commonly used. Keeping a printed copy and a digital copy of the computer file of the survey is very beneficial. When your church hires an architect to prepare a master plan to help identify initial and future locations of buildings, a computer file of the survey will be a handy starting point. An updated survey should be requested by your architect if your church is ready to start designing a new building. It is important to have the architect establish the scope of a new survey before investing the money in having one completed.

Geo-Technical Test Reports

Geo-technical test reports typically include a site plan indicating test locations, soil testing information and its analysis. Soil testing is important in establishing soil classifications, seismic characteristics of soils, bearing capacities and below-grade water conditions. This information is of particular interest to a structural engineer when designing foundations and steel connections. As with the survey, your architect should help establish the scope of geo-technical testing before the beginning of building design.

Wetland Reports

Local and federal municipalities are becoming more sensitive to environmental damage that might result from construction projects. If wetlands exist on a parcel of land that is planned to be developed, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and local and/or county planners will become involved in the project. Wetland reports are required to help identify areas of concern and their impact on the site.

Shared Parking Agreements

Zoning departments require adding parking spaces when a church increases square footage. Depending upon the municipality, a church might be able to enter into an agreement with a neighboring property owner to share parking spaces. For example, a church in Hickory, N.C., shares parking with a cluster of civic buildings, including a children’s science center and an art museum. These neighboring facilities are typically not open on Sunday mornings and are closed during the evening. There are fewer activities held at the church on Saturdays and during office hours on weekdays. These are the same hours that the science center and art museum are busiest. Some legal documentation is required, however, to have such a parking agreement.

Existing Building Drawings

Existing building drawings are usually reproductions of the original architect’s drawings. Older reproductions, blueprints, were transferred from the original drawing onto paper with a light-sensitive coating. It is very important to keep blueprints protected from sunlight. More recent reproductions are typically printed on bond paper and are similar to large format photocopies. They are not as light-sensitive. Reproductions can also be made on Mylar, a translucent plastic film that is more durable than paper.

If your church has had a number of additions already constructed, it is still a good idea to keep a copy of drawings from each building project. If you have multiple copies of the same set of drawings, keep copies that are identified as “for bidding,” “for permit or pricing,” or “as-built.” If the drawings are not identified, keep the most recent copy by date, unless special information is shown on other copies. Before discarding any existing drawings, consult with your architect or someone on staff familiar with the previous building projects.

Information on Historic Neighborhoods or Districts

Historic neighborhoods or districts may have requirements on the shape, size and materials used for the exterior of a building. Any documentation on the historicity of a building or the requirements of a historic neighborhood or district will be helpful for the design of a new building. If an existing building is deemed to have historic value, moving or demolishing it can result in an array of meetings with historic commissions and neighborhood groups. This will ultimately increase the time needed to complete the process of designing the building.

Material Testing and Special Inspection

During construction, materials may be required by the architect or his engineer to be tested to verify strength or suitability. Such materials often include soil and cast-in-place concrete. Some municipalities require the special inspection of the installation of structural components to ensure that they are constructed properly.

Commissioning Reports

At the end of construction, a testing company can be hired to confirm that all of the systems within the building meet specifications and are operating at a specific level of efficiency. These systems typically include plumbing, mechanical and electrical systems. A commissioning report would be provided to the church describing deficiencies and recommendations for improvements.


When a new building addition is designed and constructed, a building committee will accumulate a large amount of correspondence between committee members, the architect, consultants, vendors, and the general contractor. Three-ring binders that are identified with their project phase are invaluable for keeping organized correspondence for future reference. Correspondence often includes proposals, contracts, letters, emails, field reports, applications for payment and change orders.

Construction Photos

Photos of original site conditions and ones taken during construction can be very valuable for planning future projects. Existing photos can help bridge the gap between what was originally drawn and what was actually built. Taking photos during a new project is important for documenting progress or problems that arise during construction. Although digital photos can easily be saved onto a disk or emailed, hard-copy print-outs should also be kept.

Sustainable Design (Green Building)

LEED, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a program established by the U.S. Green Building Council in Washington, D.C., that encourages the design of energy and environmentally sensitive buildings. If your church is interested in constructing a LEED-certified building, documentation will need to be kept throughout the process of design and construction. A new building could also be designed with the principles of sustainability in mind without requiring that it be a certified LEED building. A discussion with a LEED accredited architect would be beneficial in better understanding the benefits of certification and required documentation.

Closeout Documentation

At the end of a construction project, the general contractor will turn over a collection of information to the architect called close-out documentation. This documentation often consists of record drawings, maintenance manuals, warrantees, a release of lien, a substantial documentation form, video documentation and mechanical system maintenance agreements.

• As-Built Drawings

The architect should request that the general contractor provide a copy of construction drawings with marked-up information on items which were constructed differently than were shown on the original construction drawings. These items often include the locations of underground utilities, and how changes to details were made. Once reviewed for completeness, the architect would give the as-built drawings to the church.

• Equipment Maintenance Manuals and Warrantees

Just like an owner’s manual for your car or your home’s air conditioning unit, owner’s manuals for plumbing, mechanical, electrical and audio-visual equipment should always be kept in a safe and accessible location. Owner’s manuals give the best guidance for operating and maintaining your building’s equipment. They are also invaluable for preventative maintenance, diagnosing problems and suggesting repairs. Many churches rely on laypersons within the church body to maintain their buildings. Over the life of a building, several different people may maintain a particular part of a building, such as the mechanical system. Information could be lost or not shared when one person passes his or her responsibility onto the next person. Warrantees are usually included with equipment manuals. These provide a written description by a manufacturer describing what responsibility they assume if their product fails within a specific period of time. Churches should consider the option to enter into a written agreement with a mechanical subcontractor to provide periodic maintenance or repairs for their new mechanical equipment for a specific period of time. This ensures that the building’s mechanical equipment is being consistently maintained by someone who specializes in this type of equipment.

• Release of Lien and Substantial Completion Form

When the final payment is made to a general contractor, the contractor provides the church a “release of lien.” A lien is defined in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary as “a charge upon real or personal property for the satisfaction of some debt or duty ordinarily arising by operation of law.” In construction, a lien often takes the form of a claim on the building by a subcontractor demanding payment from the general contractor. This lien prevents the handing over of the new building from the general contractor to the church. The release of lien document states that the general contractor is responsible for paying his subcontractors. It prevents a subcontractor from placing a lien on the new building because the general contractor fails to pay him. The substantial completion form states when a new building is officially turned over to the church for its intended purpose by the general contractor.

• Video Documentation

Having someone videotape a demonstration of general operating and maintenance procedures for a building component, such as shutting off valves or changing filters to a mechanical unit, makes a handy reference for the person maintaining the building equipment. This is particularly helpful when several people might maintain a piece of equipment over time.

Documentation Storage

A church should have a reprographics company make at least two copies of “original” reproductions of building drawings. One new copy would serve as a working copy for the church staff, and the other new copy would be loaned out like a library book. In this way, the “original” reproduction does not become lost or tattered by everyday handling. A new working copy of equipment manuals and the new working and loaner sets of the building drawings should be kept together in an easily accessible location in the church or maintenance office.

Having scanned images burned onto a computer CD is also helpful if someone asks to have a reprographics company make a fresh copy of the existing building drawings. When the file format of the scanned images is close to becoming obsolete, they should be saved into a more current format. At this point in time, TIFF and PDF file formats are the most frequently used. At least one additional copy of this CD should be kept off-site.

Documentation that does not consist of rolled drawings should be kept together in a labeled, closable, plastic storage container. This protects the documentation from water and insects. All original equipment manuals and warrantee information should also be kept in this type of bin.

“Original” reproductions of building drawings should also be kept in a closeable plastic storage container that is clearly labeled. The container should be kept out of the sun to avoid damaging light-sensitive blueprints. If your church has a significant quantity of drawings to maintain, a “flat file” could be used instead. These are large metal or wood filing cabinets that can be purchased from a drafting or office supply company that are designed specifically for the storage of large drawings. And, it is best to designate a person on staff to be responsible for setting up the collection; this person could also maintain and check out information from the collection when requested.

If the size of your documentation collection makes storage difficult, off-site storage is also an option. Several companies are available to provide secure storage for both “hard copies” and digital copies of information.

To be certain, getting all of your property and building information gathered together and organized takes time and effort. However, when it comes time to find maintenance information in the event of a problem, or when your church simply decides to expand its facility, having a good system for organizing site and building information in place will prove to be invaluable.


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