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Selecting the Church-Seasoned Architect

Selecting the Church-Seasoned Architect

Selecting the Church-Seasoned Architect

Committing to a long-term relationship is generally something that happens organically, but there are a few components that simply must be present for anything to grow. The decision to commit to a building project is no different, and it's one that pastors and other church leaders study and pray over. Likewise, selecting the architect that will transform a vision into brick and mortar should be handled with the greatest care and scrutiny.

When homework has been done, the professional chosen will hopefully be a church-seasoned architect. That is, someone who identifies with ministry and has the experience designing churches to go along with it. These abilities will permit the architect to connect with your church's DNA, defined by Bruce Mitchell, associate principal of Tuscaloosa, Ala.'s Marcum Architects, as the core values that shape a church's vision and mission.

"It is important for an architect to understand these attributes and translate them correctly into a design that accurately portrays the image of the church," adds Trung Doan, partner with Studio Red Architects in Houston.

Therefore, an architect must be able to tap into the DNA long before pencil hits paper, otherwise the end product may not be what the church needs in support of its mission. Worship Facilities spoke with architects and pastors nationwide to find out what to look for in the professional you choose to design the walls of your mission.

Finding Veteran Candidates
At the beginning of the architect search, many churches simply turn to architects they already know. Others, like Calvary Way Church in Kilgore, Texas, go on referrals. "I talked to pastors within the community that I knew had completed projects. They were able to point me in the right direction," says Glenn Barton, pastor of Calvary Way.

According to Jim Dykes, pastor of North Asheville Baptist Church in Asheville, N.C., having a network of contacts to support your decision is definitely a luxury. Dykes and his team were able to build their list by attending conferences and seminars.

"If the church [doesn't] have these options, they can research to identify three or four firms to consider," suggests Dick Shiffer, principal with the Denver office of RNL, an architectural and interior design company. "Then a simple letter or phone call to each architect can be the next step in assessing their interest in working with your church."

Following initial contact, churches may send out a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) to design firms they are interested in. This can be a complex process involving detailed proposals and selective interviews, but it is also the most thorough, especially if your church does not already have a relationship with the professionals in question. It's worth noting that the American Institute of Architects (AIA) is always willing to suggest firms in your area that specialize in religious facility design, as well. Regardless of the selection process chosen, interviews are the ground floor for building the relationship, and chemistry should be measured right away.

Since knowledge of ministry is a key factor in most successful project experiences, many churches do rely on the architectural services of church members. According to David Evans, president of Mantel Teter Architects in Kansas City, Mo., this can be positive since the church member will already be familiar with vision and needs. However, experience should weigh heavily in the decision. "If [a church member who's an architect] does not have experience working with churches, it would be best to seek experienced outside help and ask the church member to serve on the building committee," says Robert Foreman, principal of Foreman Seeley Fountain Architecture in Atlanta.

Once you have one or several candidates in mind, there are a few things to look for to determine the best fit for your project. When asked for the single most important trait churches should look for in an architect, our professionals gave similar answers, mainly experience and compatibilityor the potential for relationship.

Evaluate Experience
Just as an architect with only home-design experience wouldn't be hired to design a multi-million-dollar hospital, an architect with no religious design experience should not be carrying out your church's project. "The complexities of working with committees, dealing with difficult code issues and designing to satisfy a complex program are no place for on-the-job training," Foreman says.

"The church building is no longer a rectangular box filled with pews and supported by classrooms and a fellowship hall," says Mitchell. "Only an architect well versed in the design of religious facilities will be able to lead the church through a meaningful process."

It's not unwise to look at an architect's experience in other design areas, though. Educational, commercial, recreational and performing arts facilities are all influencing church design. In addition, the value of third places is leading many churches to add a café or other commercial venue. According to Shiffer, if specialized or government-regulated programming, such as a daycare, is a part of your program, selecting an architect with that specific experience will likely be beneficial. And, while you're looking at an architect's experience, be sure to check references, as volume doesn't necessarily equal quality.

The architect's experience as it pertains to the scope of your project should also be measured. North Asheville Baptist Church, for example, has more than 100 acres master planned for a 1,600-seat worship center and 500-student school. "Complete relocation is different from remodeling or adding on. We wanted [an architect] with that experience," Dykes says.

Similarly, Barton and his church of 60 chose their architect based on his experience with smaller churches like theirs. "We were looking to add to our existing building to better accommodate our school," he says. "His knowledge of and experience with smaller churches made us comfortable."

Aside from actual design, a varied portfolio proves an architect's administrative abilities, too. Several architects mentioned that a past in educational or civic design demonstrates the candidate has worked with committees such as a school board.

Consider Relationship Potential
Equal with experience is compatibility. Even the simplest church projects can take many months to a few years, and larger master plans can last a decade or more. Changing architects at any point during the execution of a project means basically starting all over, adding expense and stress. "A church project is a long one," says Evans. "Thus, the relationship the church is creating is long term."

From the very beginning, there should be a comfort level between a potential architect and the church representatives. He or she should also have a clear insight into what ministry is, specifically what your ministry is. "In conversation I didn't have to educate him on the way we think," says Dykes of the architect his church ultimately chose. "He understood right away."

Beyond getting along for the duration of the project, chemistry between the church and the architect will play a role in the design outcome. The architect is the person coming up with ideas and making many decisions and recommendations on behalf of your church, and as mentioned before, he or she must be able to connect with your church's DNA. "As an architect working for a church client, I should put myself into the shoes of the people I am serving," Foreman says.

One more important point on compatibility is that it breeds trust. Calvary Way's project was ultimately called off due to a fluctuation in the size of the congregation. "Our architect was always fair," Barton recalls. "When our situation changed, he was very straightforward with us."

"If you can't trust each other, small problems will become big problems," says Shiffer. "Choose the architect that your spirit connects with and that you can trust."

What the Church Contributes
Whether the church hires from within or outside, the burden of vision for the project does fall on the church leaders, and clear communication of needs is vital. Evans recommends having town hall-type meetings with church members to compile ministry needs and congregational expectations. Also, having a clear financial picture to share with the architect is crucial for budgeting purposes. "It is very important for the church to provide to the architect the church's long- and short-term goals, historical data, and programming needs and expectations," agrees Doan.

Conversely, if the architect is not bringing certain things to the table, the components for a relationship may not be there. "If the architect clearly doesn't understand ministry, has a lack of process in assessing needs, evaluating growth projections, or creating a balanced facility, those are red flags," says Evans.

One decision-making method everyone involved should bring to the process is prayer. Pastors and architects together agreed that prayer should be ongoing long before an architect is even approached. "We prayed for God to lead at every stage of our endeavor," says Barton.

Shiffer sums it up, "Our team is humbled, honored and even more enthused when we know that the church is praying for us throughout the entire design and construction process, and that our work is being divinely guided."

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