Need a New Church Facility? Consider Purchasing an Existing Building

by | Design-Build, Facilities

By Jacquelyn Block, AIA

When a church has outgrown its existing property or is starting a new campus, one of the first big decisions to make is whether to purchase land and build from the ground up or purchase an existing facility and renovate. The decision to renovate or build new has a significant impact on the overall project budget, schedule, and aesthetics of the building. 

Ground Up New Construction or Renovate an Existing Facility?

One of the primary benefits of building from the ground up is more control over the design of the building. Having a blank slate allows the building to be designed to meet the church’s needs from size, layout, mechanical and building systems, and the site circulation/parking. With a renovation, you’re typically working within the confines of the existing site layout and building structure, which could be limiting, but could also provide a unique design opportunity (such as renovating a historic building or an old theatre).

While new construction allows for more control over the design, renovating an existing building has several potential advantages.   

  • With more vacant retail and commercial building space available across the country there might be an opportunity to purchase an existing building or do a long-term lease at a lower cost than purchasing raw land for a new building. Vacant grocery stores, office buildings or retail spaces, while unconventional for churches, are often in high traffic, visible areas with sufficient parking, which can be attractive.
  • Often, existing buildings are already strategically located in the community a church is trying to serve.
  • With the current labor shortages and supply chain challenges, you’ll need to consider the cost of construction that continues to increase. Purchasing and renovating an existing building is typically less expensive than constructing a new facility because the site work, parking, utilities, and structure of the building are complete. Depending on the building and local jurisdiction, the renovation might also be eligible for a historic preservation or urban renewal grant.
  • The construction duration for a renovation is usually shorter because the parking, drives, utilities and exterior (shell) of the building has already been constructed. The reduction in construction time allows a church to move in and start hosting services earlier. A shorter construction schedule also reduces downtime for weekday preschools or other operational entities working within the building.
  • Renovating an existing building reduces waste and demonstrates good environmental stewardship, because many features of the existing building can be reused rather than being constructed new.

Selecting an Existing Building for Renovation

There are many existing buildings that might serve a church well depending on the congregation size, goals, and vision of the church. Theatres, vacant church facilities, big box retail stores, older downtown buildings, and warehouses are all potential candidates for a church facility. Renovating a vacant church may only require cosmetic upgrades to meet your church’s needs and aesthetics if it is in good condition, while modifications to a big box retail facility may require more significant changes to the interior and exterior.  

Before purchasing an existing facility for renovation, it’s important to have the right team in place to help identify potential challenges, determine the capacity of the building, and provide a rough order of magnitude cost of construction.

An initial facility assessment can identify zoning or code challenges, outdated mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems, and other technical issues. It’s also important to engage an architect to do a test fit, which tests the viability of the project before purchasing the property. The test fit will determine if the project requirements can be accommodated within the building. For example: How many worship seats will the building support, how many children’s classes will fit in the building, are there enough parking spaces to meet code and support the worship attendees, etc.

Next it’s important to have a construction cost estimator or a general contractor provide a rough order of magnitude cost estimate. Renovations often have more unexpected costs due to unforeseen conditions within the facility than new construction, so it’s important to include contingency funds.

GFF Architects: Test Fit Diagram

Considerations when Purchasing an Existing Building:

  • Do the ceiling heights work for the Worship space? If you’re purchasing a vacant church or theatre for renovation this most likely won’t be an issue but it needs to be considered if you are renovating a big box retail or warehouse, which might have a lower ceiling.
  • Current mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and fire protection systems require more space above the ceiling than older systems. Is there enough ceiling space to accommodate these while achieving the desired ceiling heights?
  • How do the existing columns work in the proposed Worship space? Do they impede site lines to the platform?
  • Are there environmental noises, such as a flight path above the building? Do the mechanical units located on the roof above the proposed Worship area potentially negatively affect acoustics?
  • Will new restrooms need to be added to meet current building codes and support the Worship attendees?
  • Will the current electrical capacity support the audio, visual, and theatrical lighting loads or will the electrical capacity need to be upgraded?
  • Will any modifications need to be made to improve accessibility to (and within) the building for people with disabilities?
  • Older buildings might require improvements to the insulation in walls and roof or new insulated windows for thermal comfort and to lower ongoing operating costs.
GFF Architects: Fellowship Church Frisco (conversion of a former Gander Mountain retail store)

Although renovating an existing building requires proper evaluation and collaboration with a design and construction team, they provide exciting opportunities for churches to grow and continue to reach the communities in which they serve.

Jacquelyn is an Architect and the Church Works Studio Director at GFF. The GFF Church Works Studio is a team of highly experienced professionals who focus exclusively on the planning and design of faith-based facilities across the country. For more information visit: Church Works // Spiritually, Environmentally and Community Driven (

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