How Do You Plan For A New Building?

By: Dick Curd

If your church is planning to build soon, one of the nation’s leading designers of buildings has some insights that may help you, your building committee and your congregation.

Darrell Howe talks straight, rather than academia. Recently, he from the field he led in marketing-merchandising-design for America’s foremost corporations to build churches as the “master designer.”

The names of his clients read like a who’s who of corporate giants: Atlantic-Richfield, Kaiser/Aetna, Sheraton Hotels, Texas International Airlines, Levitt & Sons, Macco Corp., The Larwin Group, Leisure World, and many more.

His efforts in design and marketing have earned him the Professional Builder Award for excellence, House and Home Magazine Award for excellence and the national Apartment Association Design Award. He has been featured in Time, Life, Home Magazine, The Los Angeles Times, House and Home Magazine and many more.

The function of the “master designer” is relatively new to the church. He unifies land planning, architecture, interior and exterior design to create a total environment without conflicting with any individual roles. The master designer oversees the architect, land planners, contractors, interior designers and others to make one complete statement to fit the overall objectives in developing or remodeling a church.

But why would Howe, with such a successful career, turn to churches?

“My mission in life is to reach the unchurched,” he says. And, Darrell Howe, of Darrell Howe and Associates, Los Angeles, believes the church building has a lot to do with an effective local ministry for both the congregation and drawing in new people.

However, he has very definite ideas on the subject. Evidently a number of pastors agree because he has more than $30 million in church-related construction underway not counting what he has completed in the last several years. Those involved with church construction might do well to carefully consider his thinking. Here are his suggestions:

1. Choose your building committee carefully. Over the years churches have grown in this country with the “volunteer concept”- meaning most tasks surrounding church activities are performed by volunteers including the building committee. However, Howe says bluntly, “Building by committee can be a disaster. Bob’s wife likes green, Bill’s purple and Frank’s red. What they end up with is usually a mishmash because of a lack of experience.”

In short, most churches, both large and small, are built by committees with no practical experience. “The average member doesn’t know anything about coordination of materials,” he continues. “For instance, if they have set a figure for construction, do they know how to coordinate these materials to come out ‘on budget’ and yet have a fine looking sanctuary?”

He suggests a proper committee should have people who are well-traveled, astute, and learned in different cultures as well as having some knowledge in merchandising or marketing. Committee members should be knowledgeable about environmental concepts such as color, design, coordination of materials as well as finance, planning, and fund raising. These qualities are all “musts.” In short, the committee should be able to think in concepts rather than individual tastes.

2. Be equally concerned about the choice of architect and builder. Howe feels most churches look first within the congregation for these services. If they do, they should ask a very basic question: “Have you ever designed and built a church?” The answer is usually, “No.” If they have, check their work. If they haven’t, the storm flags should go up because designing and building a church is a complicated and exacting process to gain the desired results. Howe, says, “It’s a science in its own. It needs a professional.”

“Just because they hire an architect it doesn’t mean they are home free,” he continues. “Whether they go inside the church or outside, who is giving the architect direction? The committee? Just because a person can draw a straight line doesn’t mean he has taste. Walk around your city and you can probably count on one hand the number of buildings you really enjoy, yet every building you see was designed by an architect.”

3. Consider turning to an outside professional-a master designer who can also help avoid problems for church leadership including political pulls, factions and downright disharmony.

How does a master designer operate? Normally, he meets with the pastor and building committee, and carefully listens to what they want. Then he studies the congregation, the community and general environment and finally presents design renderings and concepts during Phase 1. During the phase contact is maintained with the pastor and one representative of the committee.

If the project is approved after 30 days, the master designer assembles the architect, builder-contractors and other crafts, starts construction and oversees the entire project. (The concept has worked so well for Howe and others, that their fees as master designers are about equal to the savings they achieve. In other words, it costs no more to achieve a vastly improved project.)

Howe firmly believes, whether it’s a new building or remodeling, a project can always be brought in on budget and in good taste.

“Building is probably the biggest hassle a church gets into,” he says. “Every member feels he or she owns a piece of the rock. If they will have the same faith in their master designer as they do in their pastor, all will flow very smoothly.”

4. Use a construction project as an opportunity to make a strong statement to the community through the church’s “environment.” Howe sees environment as everything from the structure, both exterior and interior, to choir robes, lighting and sound, right down to attractive men’s and women’s restrooms-an area frequently overlooked for the seating size. Howe carries “environment” right through exterior landscaping and signs to the logo.

“The professionalism of church design is a fine line between dignity and reverence,” he says. “That’s again where the expertise of the master designer comes in. Many churches today are production minded for television, illustrated sermons or musicals and need to be careful not to look like a Las Vegas showroom.

“I also know million-dollar churches that are monstrosities. Many built from the 1950s to the 1970s are so crazy in their design, they look like abstract art rather than something that represents the Lord.

“By the same token, I hear people who say, ‘Why do we need an attractive building to worship the Lord?'” he continues. “I tell them, ‘Why not serve Him the best you can?’

“Why are only the big churches making these statements? You can have a beautiful church that seats only 200, and not spend a lot of money.

Howe recently completed Landmark Christian Center, Downey, California, for Rev. John Scarr with seating for 400, including the best sound and lighting systems money can buy, for $400,000. Once construction starts on a new sanctuary, the present building will become a multi-use building with no remodeling required. Elements of design make it feel like a church rather than the youth social hall it will become.

“And you could take a typical church structure and freshen it up for considerably less than that,” he says.

Bringing in a major project that is environmentally sound, has dignity and taste, and is on budget can be done. Cost overruns are not necessary.

“In our Freemont, California, project, they wanted 80,000-square feet for $5 million to include a school, church and other buildings. This is about $63 per square foot, a very conservative figure. They wanted everything complete, right down from the pulpit and choir robes to signs, furnishings, pastor’s office, the works. My first impression was, it couldn’t be done. But, when you know the
materials, what to use where, areas to spend in and others in which you save, it can be done,” Howe says.

“My major concern as a designer is not just to satisfy fellow Christians, but to reach the unchurched,” he says. “And we have found that creating a subtle, peaceful and celebrative environment makes it easier to attract the unchurched.”

5. When you build, be realistic about the size of the project and the timing.

The size of the church is often dependent on the pastor, his charisma, and the programs. An ambitious building program may not be wise without these elements. A smaller plan may be in order.

Howe cites a more practical example. “Let’s say a church with 1,000 seats is running two services and they are both filled. Then they should be looking toward seating 2,500 to 3,000. They only need to attract another 500, to 1,000 and every seat will be filled for one service.

“This allows a potential for real growth for the second service in the future-2,500 more seats. We have been able to achieve that growth in every project we have built.

“I know pastors who are running three morning services plus one in the evening and they are burning themselves out,” he says. “This is an indication it is time for expansion.”

6. Realize the importance of color, texture, lighting and sound. When it comes to selecting color and texture, Howe notes than men relate to texture…the woods, fabrics and landscaping, while women are more affected by color.

“What does a used-brick fireplace represent in texture?” he asks. “It’s warmth, tranquility and togetherness. Color strikes the same emotion as music. It brings things alive. Color can create celebration, peacefulness, tranquility, a spiritual stimuli, reverence. Red gives a feeling of celebration while green is cooling and relaxing.

“In the church I did in North Hollywood, California, (First Assembly of God) no one would have thought about using emerald green. I did, and with it I included a lot of interior plants for a cool, soothing environment for a church which is situated in a very hot area in the summer.

“The indoors-outdoors feeling is really done by using windows, skylights, plants and color while still maintaining the dignity and reverence that the building represents. I believe people should have a feeling that says, ‘Thank you Lord, this is our gift to You.” Acoustics, sound and lighting are equally important.

Acoustics is the science that deals with the production, control, transmission, reception and effects of sound.

“Acoustics must be designed into a building, not solved after completion,” says Howe. It’s another key area for the master designer, because many architects are not completely qualified in the area. They need suggestions and leadership.

“When it comes to sound, unfortunately many churches again turn to someone in the congregation. If that person ever leaves, the church can be in trouble because no one else understands the system.

“If you can’t hear the pastor, forget it. And if the sound system doesn’t produce top quality, the pastor’s voice can become irritating and the choir and musical productions impossible.

“With more and more churches doing plays, musicals, illustrated sermons and TV, lighting and sound are becoming a highly specialized area,” he adds. “Churches with 1,000 or more seat as many as most civic center theaters and auditoriums, where only top professionals design the system. When selecting a professional in these areas, the church should be sure lighting and sound companies know how to get the most for the least and not the least for the most.

“I’m a great one for feeling lights should be dimmed during prayer. And rather than let spotlights just hang there, they can be installed and hidden so only the choir can see them.

“Plan the lighting and sound. They are two of the first things that should be taken into consideration. I am sure that 80 percent of the churches still have their original sound systems even in remodeled facilities. Acoustical design and engineering should be planned for maximum effect and growth and yet blend in harmony with the environment, texture and color.”

Howe has also pioneered the orchestra pit for churches and frequently places the musicians on the main platform level, but in a slightly lowered area, about 12 inches. The reason?

“I got tired of seeing their feet. That’s why all desks have a ‘modesty panel’ across the front.”

7. “When a pastor says he wants to build what he calls a ‘utilitarian’ building, I simply don’t feel I’m in God’s house,” he continues. “It’s like an assembly hall at a university or even a remodeled warehouse.

“I’ve heard pastors say they built with block because they didn’t have big budgets. Not having a lot of money is absolutely no excuse. I don’t care how big or small the budget, when a master designer is involved, we can still control the choice and use of materials plus landscaping. They can have a very nice building on the same budget.”

He obviously knows what he’s talking about. Howe, and his Darrell Howe & Associates, designed literally thousands of low cost homes. He felt it was important that the little guy on a lesser income should have the same advantages in lifestyle as the wealthy person. “I was weaned on low-cost housing and was still able to create designs and homes that someone making either $10,000 or
$100,000 could enjoy,” he says.

It’s that kind of thinking that Howe and other master designers are beginning to bring to the church building market, giving the most for the money, yet keeping the architect and builder in line and functioning smoothly to bring the project in on time, on budget.

“Overall I’m trying to create a pride for the Lord, the congregation and the church. I’ve had success in many fields and now I feel I can be a little idealistic and do something for my Lord and the people. It’s that simple. Like the music and choir, the church, that structure, becomes the background. It helps bring out the best in the pastor to reach the people we must reach.”

Dick Curd is president of Joy Productions, a full-time Christian public relations/advertising/marketing firm in N. Hollywood, California. He is a graduate of the University of Arizona with a degree in journalism. He served on the editorial staff of the Washington Daily News and was an announcer on KTRT, cameraman-director for KOLD-TV, Tucson, Arizona, and manager of KVOW, Littlefield, Texas, before serving as an Air Force information officer.

(The above material originally appeared in Ministries Magazine.)

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