The 21st Century has presented again it's challenge to humanity:  How do we balance our fast paced needs in adapting to the material aspects of our lives with the opportunities for renew found in the spiritual aspects of our lives.

How does a congregation, and building committee, balance the typically unseen but necessary NEEDS of their facility with the WANTS of Spiritual renewal of a community?

To this challenge we have written this paper.  Based on our observations while working with congregations and facility planning teams. We have recorded our core experiences, to offer others new to the process, of church renovations and  remodeling, our experience in avoiding the stumbling blocks that are encountered during a project.


Specialists and Services

In working with church committees we have found that an integrated process, combining visioning within the congregation, professional services by feasibility specialists, licensed architects and construction managers from a construction firm chosen to build the project, create projects that address the importance of the SPIRITUAL wants of a congregation with the typically unseen PHYSICAL needs of their facility, balanced in real costs.

Professional services at the earliest stage of a project can seem overwhelming to a facilities team. Though without them, the team will waste valuable time, resources, along with frustrated feelings in circling around the issues, not knowing where to start and how to organize information that is needed in determining a churches true options and costs.

Typically, a church’s wish list will include so many wishes, that they begin to point to the need for a new facility. Or as is so too often the other extreme, a church will be consumed in its needs to maintain and upgrade existing facilities that any sense of visual and spiritual renewal of the church is lost.

As professionals we have found that before a committee sits down with an architect, to begin a design, a value engineering analysis be implemented, by the architect together with a builder to give a true picture of the buildings infrastructure based on an analysis of the physical NEEDS of the project, balanced with the heart felt wishes of projects WANTS.

The goal of this initial predesign stage of the project is to reach that point where before drawings are begun there is a sense of reality between the WANTS, and NEEDS of the project expressed in a financial understanding of the project.


From our Experience

We have seen that the NEED for maintaining and fixing the existing, can become a huge consumption of resources and time.   Getting one’s head and hands around the extent of the internal and external upgrades needed for a proper functioning of the facility into the future, is a priority that if not addressed early in the project can derail many beautify designed remodels, with budgets completely used up with infrastructure expenses.

The understanding of a facilities limitations, and attaching a preliminary cost to their upgrading or replacement, is critical to a successful project.

A review of an existing facility should begin with an analysis of the following 10 most common needs.


Top 10 NEEDS:

  1. Evaluation of the life safety standards of egress, and fire prevention.
  2. Evaluation of the ADA accessibility standards.
  3. Evaluation of the seismic quality of the structure.
  4. Evaluation of the water proof integrity of the roof and structure.
  5. Evaluation of the energy code compliance of doors, windows.
  6. Evaluation of the plumbing systems.
  7. Evaluation of the electrical systems.
  8. Evaluation of the Asbestos content of materials.
  9. Evaluation of the heating and cooling systems.
  10. Evaluation of the general zoning and building code permitting agency requirements.

These ten items alone can consume the largest portion of any budget for an older church, so it is critical to evaluate their potential impact on the budget early in the process.

For a congregation spending money on infrastructure that will never be seen, but needed, is not ideally what a congregation, of many wishes, wants to have their donations dissolve into.  It does not make anyone any more excited and interested in giving or going to a remodeled church where nothing new and enlivening is seen after an expensive remodel.

Inevitably a facilities committee will be confronted with prioritizing these issues.  Hopefully it is before large expenses are incurred on design fees for beautiful remodels that have to be slashed back to meet the budget.  When this humbling analysis is confronted, the question arises, “What can be done architecturally to accommodate, within the remaining design budget, qualities that enhance more than just the physical needs of the facility”.

We know that no matter what the physical needs are of a remodel there are also spiritual needs necessary for the nourishment of a community beyond the brick and mortar needs of necessity.



To begin an evaluation of the balancing of the duality of NEEDS and WANTS, there is a simple truth that serves as the core of this analysis.

That truth is; Design affects one’s nervous system.  In its simplest form, one can directly experience it when one enters any space for the first time. Entering any space, a person experiences either empathy with it and likes it, or they feel apathy, which at worst instills a dislike for it and a need to leave it.

This can be summed up in the key phrase “Spiritual First Impressions”.

In an critical evaluation of what are the most important features to enhance and nourish a project, we start by evaluating the WANTS of the project using the following top 10 spiritual first impressions.


Top 10 Spiritual First Impressions defining a projects WANTS:

  1. What is the impression of a congregant entering through the doors of a church “for the first time”, what is the quality of the progression up to the church door? The simple touch and feel of the door handle, the quality of lighting inside and outside the entry, the cleanliness of the area, and for those with any disability; the ability to move around comfortably and through the entry.
  2. What is the impression of the Narthex, Sanctuary and Chancel, and other public spaces? Are they handicap accessible?
  3. What is the impression of the restrooms?  Is there a family restroom with dipper changing station?  Are they easy to find? Are they big enough for the facility with different sized activities?
  4. What is the impression of openness to the community?  Can selective doors be replaced with glass filled doors to nourish a sense of outward shining instead of inward protectiveness?
  5. What is the impression of natural light in the church? Are there opportunities of opening the interior space up with skylights?  If a new roof is needed, skylights can be a beautiful accommodation for a healthy environment.
  6. What is the impression of the pew spacing? Is there the opportunity to increase pew spacing to accommodate more leg and turning room? Are there accommodations for wheel chairs and people with disabilities?
  7. What is the impression of the Sound system and lighting systems to create dimmable lighting and integrated sound systems?
  8. What is the impression of inclusion and accommodation of the congregations passed away loved ones?  Columbarium’s integrated into exterior and interior remodel designs are becoming a way to connect the church and congregation over generations.
  9. What is the impression of the church office area?  Is it inviting or excluding.
  10. Also, what needs to be found and articulated; is, that unique feature and characteristic of the church, that one experiences as a first impression, that can manifest into a symbol of the facilities renewal and used as a design motif.

In addressing these 10 basic “Spiritual First Impression” a balancing of priorities for the upgraded building’s  renewal can be realized, that fundamentally will change the way a church feels about itself.

We know that there are many more specific items that can be addressed in a church renovation, and with funding, they can all be accommodated.  But from experience the most cost effective and visually rewarding renovations begin with some combination of these 10 basic WANTS with the 10 basic NEEDS.

As design professionals we have found that an initial focus on balancing  these 20 items together creates a very worthwhile start in defining the boundaries of a project, before any drawings are begun.

A project that brings together the architectural experience of a licensed architect, a contractor experienced in pre-construction management services, the planning committee’s list of NEEDS and WANTS, a professional third party fundraising specialist, together, creates the firm ground that a successful project can grow from.

The value of this approach is that a BEAUTIFUL middle ground can be found between one’s WANTS & NEEDS  and  SPIRITUAL RENEWAL, for both the congregation and the church facility, nourishing community life into future, (typically 50 years, if done correctly), then giving a new group of people the gift of working together, building off the firm ground and foundations of previous generations.