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How to Choose an Architect or Design Build Firm

How to Choose an Architect or Design Build Firm

A conversation with industry leaders about hiring architects and designers that will set you on a direct path to finding your perfect match.

When a design project needs to be done in a worship facility, it's vital that you get the best team involved for a smooth process with everyone happy in the end.

How can a church hire the best architect or design build firm to fit their needs? To find you the answers we reached out to industry leaders who regularly or solely serve the worship market. Taking part in our roundtable discussion are Stephen C. Pickard AIA NCARB, Good Fulton & Farrell Architects and principal, Church Works Studio, Dallas, Texas; Scott A. Nelson AIA, LEED AP BD+C, principal of HH Architects, Dallas, Texas; Billy Goff, CEO, the Goff Companies, Dallas, Texas; Rodney C. James, director of business and finance, Daniels & Daniels Construction, Broken Arrow, Ok.; and Aubrey Garrison III, principal for the LIVE Design Group, Birmingham, Ala.

WF: Can you name three qualifications a church should seek in an architect or design build firm? Pickard: Recent experience on similar types of projects, specifically: Church campus master plans; state of the art worship environments, often with emphasis on relatively sophisticated audio, video, lighting systems and special acoustic requirements. Second, strong references from current and past clients, making sure those references include commentary not only on firm performance but on the design team members that will be working on your project. Third, strong portfolio examples that represent both completed projects and assignments that are on the boards' or in progress.

Nelson: It's important to look for an architect that has experience in your specific project type and is well versed in these design requirements. Architects think they are great designers,' however, true experience is found in taking this design from concept to construction. Be certain that the architect's experience is not merely in the design' of this project type but actual completed construction of this project type. Second, ministry mindset is also important. Is the architect more concerned about a design award or your ministry's success? Ministry mindset is often revealed by how the architect begins the conversation. What' questions typically focus on the building: what should it look like, what functions should it include, and how many seats/classrooms/parking spaces do you need? Why' questions seek to understand how this building will impact your ministries. Third would be personality/chemistry. A typical design and construction process for most churches will require a 24-36 month partnership with your architect.

Jones: Have they designed churches before? Church design is not just building design, but design that meets vision and ministry. Second, do they have a building partner that they are willing to work with to control costs during design? Too many churches that do not involve a builder during design will over design a project. Far too often, churches dreams and desires are communicated, but the cost is not determined or controlled during design, therefore the end result is a costly set of plans that the church cannot afford to build. Third, are they willing to listen and understand your ministry and vision, then design what you need and desire? Churches do not need architects that want to design a great looking building, they need a design that meets their needs, falls within their budget, and allows the church to fulfill its vision.

Goff: The things we look for are, first, how budget minded is the design firm? Spending God's money is something we take close to heart so we want to make sure we work with a design firm that has the ability and same ideals we have on building cost-effectively. A second is to find an architect who takes a team approach. Thirdly, church experience is extremely important.

Garrison: I would recommend focusing on a firm that features church projects on their website and has similar projects to the building vision of the church. Second, the project team is important.  Many times the team that performs the work is not the team that interviewed for the project.  Experience with church projects might be the marketer's expertise, but is it the design and production team's experience. Third, hire someone you like and feel a like a connection has been made. A church will spend two to four years with an architect. The relationship is important.

WF: What are the most important questions to ask in an interview of a potential partner?
Pickard: Why would your team be a good fit for this project? Who will be the primary point of contact for the design team? Who will be in charge of the project and who will be responsible for the day-to-day project activities? How will you help guide the committees through the decision making process, for example, what strategies are utilized for helping a committee reach consensus on important decisions? What strategies will be used to stay on budget and on schedule?

Jones: How will you determine what my ultimate design will look like? The answer to this must begin with the churches purposes, ministries, and needs. If a church is not asked about how' they do ministry, you won't get a design that helps them accomplish their mission. How will you determine and control the costs of my design decisions? Churches must design to their budget. They need to start with the budget, not just the dreams. You need a partner that can accurately budget their design as they go so you don't over design.

Goff: Is the architect a good listener? Do they have the capacity to lead when they need to lead and follow when they need to follow? Who are their team members and what is their experience with working on worship projects?

Garrison: Who will be our primary contact and who will make up the design and production team? What is the design process and how much involvement will the church have during the design of the project? How will the unique vision and DNA of the church be expressed in the design of the project? 

WF: How should a church evaluate the references or completed projects of a potential partner?

Pickard: Seek strong references from current and past clients. Make sure that references include commentary not only on firm performance, but on the design team members that will be working on your project. Ask the references how successful they feel the design was. A pretty picture doesn't always equate to a successful, functional design. Clarify what the design team's role (or individual design team members) in the referenced project and how they performed in both typical and challenging circumstances.

Nelson: Any references provided will most likely speak positively about the architect otherwise they would not be listed. As such, in addition to asking what went well on the project, ask what challenges/problems arose and how did the architect respond. Good architects are more than designers, they are problem solvers. When checking references, speak with the church and seek the contractor who built the project. They can provide valuable insight into strengths and weaknesses of an architect. Lastly, and most importantly, allow an architect to respond to any feedback received, whether good or bad, during your reference check.

Jones: Use your network to find out what churches these partners have designed. Don't just use their references they provide. Speak with the person involved in the project, not a new pastor ten years later. Ask how they designed to their budget and did the project go over?  Compare like projects. Don't look at $12 million projects if you are building a $3 million facility.

Goff: People are always going to put themselves in the best light, so a church has to talk with past clients and find out who they were talking to on a day-to-day basis because many times, it's not the pastor who they are working with. You should also visit the projects because walking through the doors will tell you a lot about the architect.

Garrison: I would suggest they contact several references the architect submits and several of the projects they did not submit. Does anyone ever include a reference that will not be a good one? It's difficult for another church to evaluate a completed project because they do not know details provided to the architect. It's much better to ask representatives of a project how an architect responded to their unique program requirements.

WF: What advice can you offer to churches for establishing their internal building project team?

Pickard: Select a strong, well-organized leader who will guide your committee through the process, facilitate consensus-decision making, and be the primary liaison to the design team. If possible, this individual should have comprehensive knowledge of both design and construction process. They also need large amounts of time to devote—from project inception through completion. In some cases, this can be successfully accomplished with a third party Owner's Representative or Construction Manager.' It's also beneficial to have representatives from each major ministry involved even if they are not actual members of a church's building team. Ensure key decision makers within the church are involved, particularly in early stages of the design process when fundamental concepts and budget parameters are being established.

Nelson: Church building teams seem to operate best when they consist of a small group (3-5 people) with a vision for the future and ability to make decisions that are tasked with providing direction and correspondence with the architect. Consistency in the group from early master planning through the end of construction is crucial; otherwise there is a continual effort to reeducate new team members and greater possibility of miscommunication between the Church and the architect. When larger committees are required, identify a single point-of-contact from the church building team that will be responsible for communicating between the church and architect.

Jones: Put qualified people on the team. You need people who can help you through the process. Keep the number small 3-5 people works best, seven max. Keep it an odd number so you can vote and make a decision. Put people on who are available. If you put people on who are never able to attend meetings, your process will take much longer than anticipated.

Goff: Limit the number of participants. Small groups are better. One of the things we try to encourage our clients to think about is that it's great to have input but having 20 people at the table and trying to come up with a common goal of wants and needs is virtually impossible.

Garrison: Every church is organized and governed differently, from staff lead churches to more traditional governance of trustees, elders and deacons. We have found that the church's staff knows more about the day-to-today specific needs of the church. Also, unless the church is a multi-site church, the staff has not designed and constructed many projects.  Expertise in areas of construction, engineering and financing can be a great addition to the churches staff on a building committee. Additionally, our most successful project occurs when the senior pastor is actively involvedthey are the vision caster for a church and as such should lead the vision casting for the project.

WF: When is a master plan not appropriate or needed?

Pickard: A master plan is typically a strategic planning initiative that is designed to anticipate and address growth, expansion and the related long-term facility needs of the church. Although a master plan is not always needed when a church is contemplating renovations to their existing facility or a new building project, they should always consider their plans in the context of the master plan. If a master plan does not exist, then they probably need to develop one.

Nelson: A Master Plan is always appropriate and needed; the only question should be at what level of detail. Church budgets often dictate a need to develop campuses in a phased approach that ideally allow new buildings to provide 3-5 years of growth. Beyond this time frame, additional buildings and/or programmatic changes will be needed to continue to grow ministries. If there is any possibility for the need of future buildings, beyond the current building project, then the Church would be wise to develop/update the master plan. 

Jones: Most churches love to master plan and very, very seldom is the master plan ever completed. It's always wise to consider where future buildings will be located on the site plan—but do not spend time or money on details of any future projects. People come and go; ministries change, neighborhoods change and therefore a master plan will likely not be utilized after 10-15 years. 

Garrison: A master plan is needed when the church's property can support more than the proposed building project. A master plan should be developed to fully utilize the church's property and become a guide to future expansion. Too many times we have seen the first building constructed in the middle of the property but it is typically not the best location as the campus is expanded.


TAGS: Design
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