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Comprehending Pre-Construction Planning

“Unless commitment is made, there are only promises and hopes; but no plans.” (Peter Drucker)

Save costs, save aggravation, make effective decisions, construct a better and more user friendly building by planning early and planning thoroughly. Much can and should be done before engaging specialists.

Priests and parish councils need to know what they are getting into, and how to avoid the unnecessary costs and risks that encumber almost all nonprofit projects (including parish projects). New facilities are an extraordinarily expensive solution to any need. If it’s necessary to build there are ways to reduce costs, risks and stress, and increase the benefits from a new or renovated facility.

The Order of Things

For many parishes, the first reaction to any perceived need in facilities is the instinct to hire an architect (or even a design-build contractor). Unfortunately, the design skills that an architect can offer are only one factor in a wise, cost-effective, and long-term solution to facilities issues. And they are far from the first step.

Design and construction are expensive acts of execution; major expenses (and major mistakes) can be avoided by starting with the most fundamental steps of organizational planning and following them in sequence, to make certain that all of the right questions are being asked. The needs and answers that initially seem obvious often miss the real opportunities.

The first step should be some form of strategic planning, followed by program planning, and operational planning. Only with a fully current consensus on vision and strategy, reinforced by a clear evaluation of program needs and a tough and thorough business plan, can a parish hope to conceive, design and build the right facilities—if, indeed, facilities are the right solution at all.

Once all of this planning up to date it will be necessary to seriously evaluate the need for a new facility. When thinking about any new project, the first question to ask is whether there are non-facility solutions that might address the problem without incurring the extraordinary expense of construction. Can functions be shuffled to re-balance under-used areas with over- used ones? Can an existing building be transformed more cheaply than a new one can be built?

Define the project

If construction is unavoidable, what is needed to define the project? Often parishes identify some very general issues and expect an architect to figure out the details. Left to their own devices, architects will necessarily invent forms and functions that represent only a limited insight into the needs and wisdom of their client. If architects are given clear and precisely articulated goals, they may well be able to reflect the aspirations of their clients in striking ways – and not necessarily at any greater cost!

A parish is best served when it prepares an architectural program and a project budget before selecting an architect. A well-developed program document first will help to budget the project and then to measure the design work against the goals. The traditional quantitative program lists all of the spaces required—down to utility rooms and closets—with their purposes, detailed characteristics, areas in square feet, all of the equipment needed, and important adjacencies (spaces that should be next to each other for proper functioning).

Beyond these quantitative parameters, it can be effective to develop a qualitative program, as well. This qualitative program can consist of the character of spaces, values of the organization, and messages to be communicated. By articulating carefully issues of function, expression and meaning, the qualitative program can mold the facilities of a parish to support its mission.

One parish wanted to be of greater service to the non-Orthodox community when building their multi-purpose classroom and office building. They decided to create public space for modestly sized community use with its own secure space and access to restrooms. Other service agencies and organizations such as those of the 12-step movement could rent the space for a modest fee. During the working hours and on Sundays it would continue to be available for church use.

The program should be used to frame a project budget, which should be incorporated, along with the program, into the contract with the architect to assure clarity and accountability. As with all subsequent budgeting, this should be a comprehensive project budget, not just a construction budget. It should include construction costs, soft costs (all fees, furniture, and equipment), an allowance for contingencies (a figure that is gradually consumed or reduced during design and construction) and, ideally, a building operation and maintenance endowment. Such an all-inclusive project budget is the only way to avoid misunderstandings and surprises.

Assess capacity

Once the project is defined, assess whether the resources to support it or a modified version of it are available through a capital campaign planning study to ascertain a reasonably attainable fundraising goal. It may be possible to borrow a portion of the funds needed for the project. If so, there may be a variety of possibilities with bank lines of credit. Under certain circumstances a loan from the endowment, if one exists, may be appropriate.

Borrowing may seem a much more palatable option if the project offers significant revenue- generating potential, so quantify this possibility. A real-time, interactive financial model can be extraordinarily useful at this stage, allowing the parish council to test and visualize consequences for a variety of scenarios.

In addition to financial capacity, ascertain whether the required real estate is available. If there is an existing master plan, this may be a simple question that has already been examined. If there does not exist a master plan, consider whether it’s possible to work without one in order to save additional expenses.

Who will be involved in the project?

Priests and parish council members who have not been involved in an institutional design and construction project often have no idea of the complex nature of the work required. By the time they find out, they may have incurred significant unnecessary expenses.

There will likely be a primary need for a project manager with the experience and authority to manage the process, facilitate communication among all parties, make the most of the operational decisions, and channel the decisions that require parish council, general assembly or hierarchical approval expeditiously and with clear analysis of options and repercussions. Some of these tasks may be beyond the skill set of a facility project manager; it generally helps to have the priest (if capable) or a key volunteer to act as project director to make or facilitate major decisions.

Depending on the skills and experience of the project manager, on large project an out-sourced “owner’s representative” may also be needed. (It is also possible to hire outside professionals for the entire project management function.)

Beyond the direct project staff issues, a major project also will affect the overall rhythms of management and governance in parishes unaccustomed to building. It will be important to define clearly a hierarchy of levels for engaging the priest, parish council or building committee in design decisions and tradeoffs, and especially in financial decisions. Once design and construction begin delays in decision-making and changes of direction can be very costly. The more clear and streamlined the process the more likely the project will stay on budget, on time, and produce satisfactory results.


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