Is a strip mall a good place for your church? What about an abandoned big box retail store? When it comes to recycled real estate, most of us can immediately imagine some benefits and drawbacks of setting up church there. But which ones are the potential deal makers or deal breakers for a church?
Worship Facilities Magazine asked a panel of seasoned professionals who’ve helped or who are currently helping church leadership pick out existing commercial space, design it for build out, and renovate it for church use. These pros will touch on topics ranging from philosophy of the modern church to simple dos and don’ts and even making sure you have enough bathroom space.
Before you pick out existing commercial space or decide against it for your ministry-and even before you announce your initial interest in this kind of space within your community-it will pay to consider the advice that follows.
Look before you leap
WFM: What are the most common issues that church leaders need to keep in mind when they’re considering building out existing commercial space to use as church space?
Miles: Really qualify whether it’s a good opportunity, cost-wise, or not. We’ve seen churches approached by a developer or holding company that’s wanting to shed a 100,000-square-foot Walmart at one price when it could be sold at a considerably lower price. We must teach churches how to negotiate to get warehouse [or big box retail] spaces a lot cheaper. If the owner or developer takes a hit on a property they can possibly write if off on their taxes-they can bend more than you’d think.
Seek someone in your church with experience, or Cogun can help you with this behind-the-scenes work. Also, if the church and congregation start publicly saying they want to buy an old Walmart, the developer will likely jack up the price if they get wind of that. We encourage church leaders to go quietly about their search and not make it public. Otherwise, a realtor will drive up the price because a church has their heart set on it.
Fifty percent of the phone calls we get today are from churches asking us to help them assess whether a building is right for them to buy or not…. We ask, ‘Does this building make sense for the execution of your ministry?’ No architect ever thought, ‘One day this Kroger is going to be a church.’ They didn’t design with the second use in mind.
Boyd: Renovating an existing [building] is typically quicker and less expensive to construct than a new facility because the exterior of the building and many site amenities already exist….
There are, however, a number of issues that churches should be aware of when considering converting an existing commercial retail building. [Here are just a few….]
1.) Structural Issues - Existing floor slabs in retail buildings are typically flat. Elevated or tiered seating may be required if sightlines between the rear seats and the worship space platform are poor. It is important to consider the height between raised seating and platform areas and the underside of exposed roof structure or ceiling. Audio-visual and lighting (A/V/L) items such as theatrical light fixtures, suspended speakers, projectors, and screens are typically located below the level of the exposed roof or ceiling. The A/V/L items must not interfere with sightlines between seating in raised areas and the platform.
Existing structural columns are usually spaced at the most efficient distances apart for retail use. Their spacing may not be as effective for worship. Columns may interrupt sightlines, [and] adding new structure to permit the removal of unsightly columns can be costly. Existing roof trusses, [too,] are spaced and sized for efficiency. A structural engineer will need to determine whether the existing roof structure can support new speakers, projection screens, and theatrical lighting associated with worship.
2.) Plumbing/Fire Protection/Mechanical/Electrical Issues - Worship spaces require more toilets and [sinks] in restrooms than do retail spaces. Existing floor slabs would need to be cut to allow for new plumbing lines.
Fire alarms, strobes and smoke detectors will need to be added to accommodate the new building occupancy. A sprinkler system might need to be added or rated wall assemblies introduced depending upon the new occupant load and uses within the building.
The sizing of mechanical (air conditioning/heating) units is based upon the number of people using a particular room or area within the building. Worship spaces are considered by code to have a higher occupancy than retail spaces. As a result, existing mechanical systems would need to be modified or replaced to meet the increase in air conditioning and heating loads. If roof-top mechanical units are added, the existing structure will need to be evaluated to make sure it can support the additional weight.
3.) Acoustical Issues - Worship spaces have significantly greater acoustical needs than retail spaces. An acoustician should work hand-in-hand with the A/V/L designer, [contractor] and architect during the process of design.
4.) Building Code - Code requirements for buildings with assembly spaces are different from those for retail spaces…. Depending upon the scale of a renovation project, a large percentage of the renovated space may have to be brought up to the current code; it is certain that building codes and zoning requirements would have increased between the time the original building was constructed and the time a church decides to [retrofit] it for a new use.
Evans: Do your due diligence. Evaluate the physical facilities and assess the condition of all major systems, structure and building envelope. Determine costs to address any repairs or fixes.
Consider parking. Most larger big box retail spaces have lots of parking, but smaller ones may not have adequate parking to meet the city ordinance, let alone practical needs.
Verify the church is an allowed use in the zoning district [and review] the retail deed covenants or restrictions. The church may not even be permitted.
Involve real estate-savvy people to help negotiate deals and explore creative deal structures that limit the cash need for the church.
Pickard: Probably the most significant limitation of typical retail space for church use is the ability to accommodate worship spaces in a column-free environment, especially in large worship capacities. These buildings work well for education or administrative spaces, but not as well for worship-again, this is more of a factor in larger seating capacities, say, above 500 persons.
When it’s right ... go forth and multiply
WFM: What unique opportunities for community connection might churches realize from choosing a building that wasn’t originally a church?
Tomberlin: Utilizing existing commercial facilities puts the ‘local’ back in local church by taking church to the community, with venues in schools, theaters, warehouses, pubs, commercial buildings, coffeehouses, jails, hotels, community centers, YMCAs, and retail centers, among other innovative locations.
Often these locations are in the mainstream of the marketplace with high visibility and easy connection points to the community. This allows churches to go where the people are instead of asking them to come to us.
Churches can bring value to the community and revitalize a neighborhood by ‘redeeming’ facilities that have lost their original purpose. This is very congruent with the missional mindset of taking the Church to the people. Jesus left heaven and ‘moved into the neighborhood’ (John 1:14, The Message). So should we.
Pickard: I think [building out existing space for church purposes] represents a great opportunity for churches, particularly with satellite facilities. Any time you can diminish or eliminate barriers from the church and the community it is serving, it is a plus.
Traditionally, churches have been isolated, mysterious and inwardly focused. The modern church is transparent, open, accessible and inviting. The ‘retail connection’ would position church facilities in an environment that promotes and accommodates these qualities…. An entire facility that has lost its usefulness can be reborn into an entire church campus.
Evans: Being located within a dense-traffic and high-visibility area exposes the church to lots of people each day. The church is in a unique position to provide ministry services very easily to begin to build relationships and connect with peoples’ needs.
Boyd: The configuration of a building not originally designed as a church might have more flexibility to incorporate spaces that are shared with the community, such as meeting or activity rooms…. A church can become an easily accessible point of connection with neighboring communities that already exist around it.
Miles: From an opportunity standpoint, renovating an existing commercial space is a spiritual opportunity, because you can go in and take a building and restore it. It’s like what Jesus does in a person’s life. There’s a spiritual excitement that presents itself when you go into an existing building that parallels with the spiritual journey.
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Learn how one church did it ...
Elevation Church of Charlotte, N.C., chose a former Ashley Furniture warehouse building as the home for its Matthews, N.C.-based video satellite location. Learn about Elevation’s triumphs and hurdles in retrofitting retail space in an exclusive report at:
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An old department store-turned-church gets a facelift ...
When the congregation of Montpelier, Ohio-based House of Prayer outgrew its church building, they decided to renovate and set up shop in an old department store. Renovation included decorative millwork enhancements to make the building look and feel like a church. Find the full story at: