By Rodney C. James, Master’s Plan Church Design & Construction
“Owning our own building, our own land, our own space has been one of the larger lessons of 2020!” While many churches who were leasing schools, theaters, and other venues were not allowed to meet in 2020, those who had a building of their own were able to open their doors and continue ministry.
So, what should you consider when taking the step from being in a leased space to buying your first building or considering the startup of a new campus? You can consider buying an existing church building or purchasing a building which had a totally different purpose such as an old grocery store, Walmart, or a big-box store that has been vacated. Post-pandemic, there are many such buildings available for purchase.
The real question is…what is the “true” cost of buying that building?
We all know there is the cost in the purchase of the building itself. But the reality is, if we’re going to use it for a church, if we’re going to repurpose it, or if we’re going to make it work for the way we do ministry today, there are going to be costs involved to convert that building into a tool that facilitates our mission and our way of accomplishing ministry.
One of the items that should be evaluated is the utilities serving the building. Can they handle the needs for a church? For example, if you have a grocery store, you may have only two or four restrooms. When we convert to a church and we put 400 or 600 seats in the worship center, we’re going to more than double or triple the restrooms required by code to facilitate your occupancy load. Is the sewer line big enough to handle that? Is the waterline big enough to manage that many flush valves? If not, replacing or adding new lines can be very costly and should be considered in the equation of value.
A variety of structural items should be considered as some of these can have devastating outcomes or significant costs. For example, if the slab is post tension, that means it has high-tension cables throughout the floor. If you will need to cut the floor to add new sewer lines or new toilet locations, it can be extremely dangerous with a post tension slab if not done properly.
Another structural consideration would be the interior column layout. If you are converting a big box into a church, you will not want columns every 20 feet across the front of your platform. Many times, several columns will need to be removed or relocated. The correct calculation of that cost is important, because it can be a significant number in your budget.
For the right feel and for line-of-sight for video screens and lighting you should study the ceiling height. In this space, the volume of the room matters. Low ceilings can work against you. Knowing the right height is an important variable that should be determined prior to making a purchase.
Calculate Mechanical System Limitations
Can the current HVAC systems handle the capacity and the load that’s going to be required for you to have church? For example, if the building was previously a big box store, the average occupancy load for that use is dramatically different than a sanctuary space that’s going to have 400 seats in it. The HVAC system is likely to be insufficient for the new ministry use.
Other mechanical systems to consider are fire alarm and sprinkler systems. For assembly spaces, like churches, sprinkler systems are usually required by the International Fire Code. If there is no fire sprinkler system, the cost to add one can be very expensive. In a worst case scenario, the main water line servicing the building may not even have enough water flow to support such a system. That can be a devastating discovery after you purchase the building. Depending on occupancy, the fire alarm system may require upgrades as well.
Counting the cost to upgrade HVAC, sprinkler, or fire alarm systems is a variable in the “real cost” equation for your building purchase price.
There are many other considerations that are part of the “real cost” of purchasing a building that will become the new tool to facilitate your ministry. You need a good partner, in addition to your real estate agent, who can walk alongside you and knows the questions to ask and the details to consider when you think about buying a building. By having the right partner, you can ensure that you don’t buy a building and end up busting the budget on the renovation because you didn’t anticipate everything that was going to be needed to make the building work for your ministry.