Relational building projects: how to avoid a bumpy ride

In this blog, Kelvin Sampson, Architect and Co-Founder of Leap Architects, gives his advice for avoiding a turbulent building project.

Building projects can be notoriously challenging. You only need to watch a few Grand Designs episodes to witness ridiculously long delays, eye-watering overspends, and epic builder-versus-client-versus-architect disagreements. It’s enough to put anyone off taking on a building project of their own – especially a church project, with the added complexity of a multitude of opinions and fundraising challenges.

What if you could pull off the amazing architectural feat without the painful journey?

The way the design process begins is crucially important: it’s about vision, communication and managing expectations. It’s never too early to start talking to people who can help shape your building – here are my five recommendations for who to bring on board.

1. Form a productive church working group

 Gather six to eight people who can commit to the initial task of defining and agreeing the project and first stage designs. It’s important that it’s not exclusively church leaders, and not simply ‘agreeable’ people – healthy tension and differences of opinion strengthens designs.

2. Choose an architect who understands churches

Churches are completely unique architectural clients. Unlike a commercial or residential client, a church client is made up of a bunch of volunteers, people with diversity of gifts, opinions and enthusiasm for different church ministries.

For a successful church building project, an architect needs the skill of capturing the church’s calling and the ability to listen well. As well as inspired creativity to explore and discern practical solutions, they must also be able to communicate it in such a way that it draws healthy input and constructive feedback from the congregation and many other consultees.

3. Engage your local community

If the church exists primarily for the benefit of its non-members, I wonder how many churches take the time to ask their neighbours what they need?

Very often, churches come to us because they know they need to do something with their building, or because they’ve bought a plot of land or a redundant space and are excited about releasing its potential.

Finding out about the areas of social need can radically reshape a building design for more impactful outreach. Done well, this engagement process can also massively help the church in justifying and communicating the building’s design: a good community consultation process can form the basis of a business plan and planning application rationale; quickly win the favour of key local decision-makers and influencers; and make a big difference in securing funding applications later on.

4. Get to know your planning officers early

There’s a balance to be struck between raising enthusiasm for exciting designs, and making sure that the project is actually deliverable.  The timing for inviting feedback from the congregation and church members might depend on whether the proposals are likely to achieve planning consent and any other approvals needed.

By engaging in early pre-application consultation with planning officers and other statutory, church or advisory committees, the church can begin building relationships: inviting advice, soliciting opinion and raising awareness of the project. This is all the more important for historic building projects and those in sensitive contexts.

5. Bring in timely financial expertise

Most church building projects rely on fundraising, grant funding, and faithful and sacrificial giving by church members, so it’s essential that every penny is stewarded well.

Regular cost reporting throughout the design process is important to ensure control of the budget and to make sure the fundraising target is aligned and manageable.

Commissioning a fund-raising feasibility study can build confidence and guide expectations, while appointing timely professional consultancy can help to manage church funds wisely from the start of the project.

Yes, a smooth-running building project is possible!

When taking on a church building project, it’s helpful to remember to take it bit-by-bit.

  • Do each bit well, adopting a biblical mandate to be at peace with everyone.
  • Prioritise healthy and expert communication, maintaining good relationships and adopting intentional strategies to avoid potential for conflict, rising costs and time delays.

By aspiring to a relational approach to everything and bringing in the right people at the right time, it is possible to avoid the bumpy ride, endure the terrain and reach the destination of a successful building project.

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