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The Changing Role of Master Planning

The Changing Role of Master Planning

How digital tools, real estate alternatives, and inventive thinking are altering what's possible in church design

Master planning is about optimizing a piece of land to serve the life of a church; however, changes in technology and the marketplace are expanding its function. WFM interviewed some of the leading professionals in church real estate, design and construction to find out what has changed in master planning and how churches are using it to maximize their investment in facilities.


"The shift from 2-D drawing to 3-D modeling offers benefits to clientsprimarily in that it decreases decision-making time," explains Tom Greenwood, principal of The Beck Group in Dallas. "When real estate options are on the table sometimes there are only 30 days for a go/no go decision. The tools give us better information earlier to help us make informed decisions much more quickly."

The Beck Group also utilizes proprietary softwareDProfilerthat allows for conceptual cost modeling. The client can change building parameters in the virtual model, allowing them to quickly model costs and see the impact of decisions on materials, site selection, seat count and other variables.

Graham Adams, president of Adams Group Architects in Charlotte, N.C., also leverages the power of the digital world to shape the process. "Technology has made it much easier to visualize and develop alternatives. We now provide simulations and walk-through experiences for our clients. This aspect has allowed revisions and excitement to build as the process moves along. In turn, this results in easier fundraising and approval rates," he reports.


"We've seen many changes in zoning," points out Principal Matt Messier of CNL Specialty Real Estate Services in Orlando, Fla. "A church used to be allowed in any zoning. But today, the restrictions are more intense. Church as a permitted use is dwindling. Church is becoming less of a permitted use and more of a conditional use in many areas, which means there is a lot of input by the neighbors. It is more important than ever to have strong relationships with the community."

Messier adds, "Churches often have to give up certain rights for the future in order to use the property. The zoning will allow them to build, but depending on the negotiation may prevent them from having a school or having events after a certain time at night. We counsel churches to be careful on what they give away up front, because that zoning stays in place when they get ready to sell the building. If you have a building that would be perfect for educational use, but the zoning prevents a school, then you've lost that buyer."

In addition, "For green field construction, the basic components of master planning are about the same," Greenwood says. "However, with churches moving into existing buildings in urban areas, the thinking becomes more complex. We have to evaluate shared parking agreements, zoning issues for buildings that were not previously used as churchesthere are lots of variables that impact the use for a given purpose sometimes outside of the building itself."

David Strickland, design principal and religious studio director for Marietta, Ga.-based CDH Partners Inc., says that what has changed, without doubt, is the approach to executing and financing projects with minimal long term financial obligations. "In many cases [churches] are considering major renovations with more regularity than new ground-up facilities," he says. "This effort of getting their facilities updated and renovated lets everyone that comes through the doors know that they are serious about what they do at church. A much more deliberate effort to find hidden opportunities within the existing walls is obvious when talking with churches. "


"With existing buildings, it often comes down to the boring' stuff," says Greenwood. "If the space wasn't used for public assembly before, then it will likely need additional exiting and changes made for fire codes. Whatever we do, we want to design for future expansion. The church needs to think through what they might ultimately build in that envelope so that it can be planned for ahead of time. "

Messier reports that while many shopping centers once avoided renting to churches, with a tighter economy they are now seeing it as advantageous. Not only will churches pay their rent, but they also bring traffic into the shopping center. "Retail spaces offer built in pad ready' sites with good access, and a lot of parking. Whenever you change the use of something you have to bring it to code for new use. That cost is usually pushed to the tenant. Make sure you know cost to occupy the building."

James Rosenlieb, principal architect with JDR Architects based in Riverside, Calif., counsels churches through zoning issues when looking at properties for adaptive reuse. "There are two important factors to consider. The first is parkingwhich is typically more of an issue for churches looking at warehouse complexes where the parking requirement is far less than the requirements for a church. The second is allowable uses. A Conditional Use Permit (CUP) can add months to the project schedule and cost."

Rosenlieb also finds that there are special master planning needs for churches with childcare centers and schools. "When adding a daycare, the code and state licensing for the operator have requirements, including separation from other uses," he says. "This could include separate entrances, separation of outdoor areas, and restricted areas for vehicular access."

Greenwood adds that it is important for churches to keep in mind that, even with an existing facility, they don't need it all on day one. "You can strategically grow into an envelope over time," he advises.


"We see many groups getting away from owning real estate. When you look at the cost of a mortgage, upkeep, etc., it is a tremendous cost," Messier reports. "The advantage to renting is that when the roof leaks, someone else takes care of it. However, the flip side is that there is a volunteer cost to mobilization. It is good for people to get involved, but over an extended period we see burn out."

Greenwood notes that the changing culture of retail is freeing up already constructed facilities. "Consider how many stores in malls and big box stores are vacant. One of our church clients (Christ Fellowship West Palm Beach) is transforming a former mall anchor store into a new campus," he says. "Now they are mall tenants, which puts a whole new spin on master planning for churches. The church has to consider building use strategies and retail functions they can offer that are in harmony with the mallthings like a bookstore and a coffee shop to create the transition from the church to the spaces where the general public is."

Adams notes this: "[Church leaders] today seem more involved in branding their church. Churches feel the need to set themselves apart from other groups. There is a great deal of effort put into impressive websites, logos, [taglines], church colors, t-shirts and other elementswhat was once considered corporate marketing. The church colors [that] appear on everything from the website and logo now carry over into the interior and sometimes exterior of the facility. This is often revamped or started when a church embarks on a new master plan. Churches have embraced this type of brandingand tie it into their identity and what they represent."

Strickland sees that technology for multisite has changed the game. "We have worked with churches that have postponed additions that were to include larger worship centers. As an alternative to accommodate growth they have planned for simulcast venues on the campus so more seating is available without the expense of a new facility."

"There is no build it and they will come,'" concludes Messier. "If you aren’t doing it now, you aren’t going to do it when you have a new building. Be careful that you don’t allow your real estate to become a driving factor. Real estate is a tool to facilitate ministry. It isn't the ministry itself."

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