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Restoring that Downtown Charm

Restoring that Downtown Charm

Demographic changes require older city-centered churches to update. Here are some tips for early planning

Everyone loves an old church. The history, the character, the sentimentality it's all so endearing. But then they try to use it. As loveable as some of those 100-plus-year-old buildings can be, they just don't meet today's comfort, technology, and accessibility standards.

At the 2013 WFX event in Dallas, a brain trust gathered to look at the challenges faced by old downtown churches and come up with a game plan for addressing them. The panel was made up of HH Architects principal Scott Nelson, his HH colleague Bruce Woody, and Bobby Hart, operations manager and executive pastor at Tulsa, OK-based First Baptist Church.
HH Architects had recently led First Baptist through its own significant downtown church overhaul, and the trio ventured to share what it learned through the process.

Downtown Church Challenges
The classic vision of an idyllic downtown church might be one smack-dab in the heart of a community, with stone foundations, and handsome front-door stairways. Those characteristics, though, can be quite challenging, as they raise issues of parking space, handicap accessibility, and ongoing cost of maintenance.

"For the first time in a century, America’s biggest cities are growing more rapidly than their surrounding suburbs," Nelson reports. "This creates unique challenges for older city churches."
Among some of the more common issues associated with older city-centered, downtown churches include:

  • Oddly located or cumbersome entrances.
  • Limited parking.
  • Narrow walkways and hallways.
  • Cramped worship spaces.
  • Poor air quality and circulation.
  • Heating and cooling problems.
  • Obsolete technology and/or telecommunications infrastructures.
  • Dated interior designs
  • Renovation Considerations

Executive pastor Hart adds, "While defining and accepting critical limiting factors, pastors can find it overwhelming to initiate a redesign or renovation." It helps, he suggsts, to focus broad topics first.

For example, pastors and leaders should consider:

People
What are the current and changing demographics of the church? How do these demographics affect current and future needs? For example, young couples may soon require child accommodations or classrooms. They may also expect to engage with modern technology.

Space
What are the current and potential uses of the space? Considering growth and flexibility, what are the square footage and storage requirements?

Time
How soon will the space be needed? How long will the project take?

Money
What are the projected costs? What is the funding model? Are there areas in which money could be saved?

The Bottom Line
When it comes to planning, the bottom line is critical. HH Architects' Nelson offers a few rules of thumb for church leaders and members as they think about renovation projects.
"Each project is unique," Nelson says, "and regional costs vary." With that said, he explains renovation costs generally fall into these cost ranges:

Maintenance
"Smaller" projects (such as moving a wall or two, adding or moving a door, installing new carpet, or painting a space) often runs $25 to $30 per square foot.

Structural Change
Modifications that alter the footprint (additions or bump-outs) can range from $50 to $150 per square foot.

GEOFFREY OLDMIXON is a Massachusetts-based freelance writer and editor (www.Oldmixon.net).

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