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Tuesday, Oct 3, 2023

Raising a House of Worship Is Hearty Task for Many Hands

The pastor or rabbi, the organist, the Sunday school teacher, the board of directors and the congregants , that’s just some of the many users that a builder has to accommodate while trying to erect a house of worship.

“There are multiple players and users of a church facility and they all want to make the church work best for their interests,” said David Weigel, chief estimator and preconstruction services manager for Escondido-based Erickson-Hall Construction Co. “There are a lot of cartwheels you have to go through to make this happen.”

Being pro-active is key, said Weigel, whose company has more than a dozen religious facilities in its portfolio.

“We try to get good communication in the pre-design phase, bringing the owners and users together with the architect and design team,” said Weigel. “I consider myself a therapist. I don’t know how I do it, but I manage to pull a rabbit out of a hat a lot of the time.”

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How so?

“They say they are going to build for $5 million,” he said. “They ask, ‘Can we make this thing look like the Sistine Chapel?’ We are there to help bring reality in terms of costs. We team up with the church and approach the project from a business standpoint.”

Mark Baker, principal of Escondido-based HB & A; Architects Inc., has worked on several church projects over the years.

“It’s always comprised of a group of volunteers with differing opinions,” he said. “There isn’t that drive or underlying motivation to get the building done and make money. It’s like herding cats, getting the groups together to make decisions and move on.”

Tweaking Tradition

Baker grabbed what he considers to be the brass ring with the recently completed $2.4 million Ner Tamid Synagogue on Pomerado Road in Poway.

“It’s a great showpiece for us,” said Baker, who served as primary architect and project manager on a project that was in the works for four years.

The new 6,000-square-foot synagogue , located on an 8-acre campus , includes a 300-seat sanctuary, kitchen, library, administration offices and support spaces for the 400 members. Among the design features are 12 stained glass windows depicting the original tribes of Israel. The windows were created by David Ascalon of Asca & #173;lon Studios in Philadelphia.

But, as with any religious building , especially one steeped in centuries of tradition , any modern innovation can prove to be a hard sell. Baker recalled that one “very vocal and prominent” member of the congregation objected to the asymmetry of the design.

“This can really bother some people and it bothered the heck out of this person,” said Baker.

The early houses of worship tended to be symmetrical, Baker observed, but in the 1900s the modern movement began to take hold and the dynamics started to shift. Prior to that, joked Baker, an architect who tried to tweak tradition risked getting burned at the stake for heresy.

How did Baker resolve his design dilemma and appease the disgruntled con & #173;gre & #173;gant?

“The ultimate tipping point came when there was enough consensus with the rest of the group, and he finally went along with it,” said Baker. “He is ecstatic about it now.”

Another big challenge with building houses of worship is that money tends to be tight.

“Pastors feel a strong responsibility to make budget,” said Geoff McMillen, project manager for San Diego-based Legacy Building Services Inc., which is now finishing up the Eastlake Community Church auditorium in Chula Vista that is scheduled to open in December. “They don’t know the industry, and it’s hard for them to understand what the end cost will be.”

McMillen’s job is to show them the many elements that come into play beyond the building itself.

“More often than not, they are taken off guard about how complicated it can be,” he said. “They are trying to do the best they can with the resources given to them by their congregation.”

Those collateral costs can add up, said Weigel of Erickson-Hall.

“People think in terms of what a building will cost, but not about the development site and what the city and county governments want us to do on the infrastructure,” he said. “We have to approach it as a business.”

San Diego, along with other metro areas, has its own set of challenges, said Weigel.

“It’s not like building out on the plains of Kansas where you can go out on the prairie and build a church,” he said. “People don’t realize that the government looks at you as any other developer. You have to do the same environmental studies and it takes a long time. During the process, you better know where you’re going in terms of budget or you could end up with something way over budget, because you didn’t take into consideration what the city wants you to do.”

With the uncertainty sometimes involved with building religious facilities, in addition to balancing the often conflicting needs of congregations, some pros take a pass, said Weigel.

“Most contractors don’t want to deal with churches, because there is a real long process to get through, and there is no guarantee that you will get to build the church,” said Weigel. “They may not have money, or they may decide to bid it out and give it to the lowest bidder.”

Pete Sara, executive vice president of San Marcos-based Kunzik & Sara Construction Inc., considers his contributions to the remodel and expansion of New Life Presbyterian Church in Escondido to have been “a labor of love.”

Sara’s company, as well as other suppliers and vendors, donated $850,000 to the $3.8 million, 23,000-square-foot, two-level church.

“I kidded the pastor,” he recalled. “I said, ‘When you went through the seminary, you probably didn’t think you were going to be a project manager.’ & #8201;”

And it was challenging. Sara had to carry on the work around Sunday services.

“We had to have power every single Sunday,” said Sara. “In the summer months we had big fans to keep the air moving, and heaters in the winter.”

Sara, who attends the church, ended up putting in 10 to 11 hours a day of work, six days a week for 10 months.

“Our business suffered in one respect,” he said. “In March, when the project was coming to an end, I had a few projects put on hold. I had to start looking for work.”

Then, apparently, divine intervention came his way with “two huge projects.”

“We went from being a $50 million business to a $100 million business in the last six months,” said Sara. “That is a miracle itself.”

Market Forces

The market for religious facilities keeps pace with building projects in general, said Baker.

“There has been a bit of a push in terms of more houses being built, and a bit of a surge in construction of religious facilities,” he said. “But, it might slow down. Houses have, and if houses are not getting filled, religious facilities wouldn’t get filled.”

What is different about houses of worship is that many of them often get their start in temporary, leased spaces.

“We have seen over the years in the San Diego area quite a trend toward new congregations starting out in a variety of different spaces , light industrial and commercial areas. Then, once they get the funds, they build the facilities.”

Designing for a house of worship isn’t the same as creating a space for, say, a regular commercial building, said Baker.

“You’re going to church for spiritual uplift,” he said. “You want to be able to go into the space and feel good, get a connection with the higher powers. It does require that you’ve got something that will be more spiritually uplifting than a basic box.”

But, this can cut both ways, said Baker.

“It isn’t directly commercially driven, and we have the opportunity to be more flexible, and make it more of a thing of beauty,” he said. “But it’s a double-edged sword, because donations make up the building budget.”

Baker said that he doesn’t fret too much about getting paid for his religious projects.

“We are the first guys in,” he said. “We get paid early on. But, if you are the landscaper maybe you get nervous that the money will be running out by then.”

Buying the land is another important component. In the case of Ner Tamid in Poway, the synagogue project ended up being an ecumenical venture.

“There was a piece of land, 32 acres, and they didn’t need 32 acres,” said Baker. “But the owner wouldn’t sell one piece of it.”

The synagogue ended up joining with a group of Presbyterians that took 24 acres on what Baker refers to as religious row due to its mix of religious facilities.

“It’s the mile of souls,” Baker joked.

Let’s Rock

Sometimes it pays to be edgy, especially when your congregation skews to the under-30 crowd. Such was the case when plans were being drafted for the $55 million The Rock Church and Academy located on Rosecrans Street at Liberty Station. Formerly the site of the Naval Training Center, the renovated complex in Point Loma includes shops, restaurants and other amenities.

“When people think of church they tend to think of it as being solemn, quiet, reflective,” said Bob Cloyd, construction manager for the project. “We are trying to make it upbeat, different, fun and relevant.”

Completed Aug. 1, with its first service conducted Aug. 26, The Rock Church is wired for all manner of high-tech, high-definition gadgetry, projecting sound and images on a screen 90 feet wide and 35 feet high that runs the full width of a stage. Images range from animation to lyrics to such biblical scenes as the Garden of Eden, all playing behind the individual presenting the sermon.

The screen also can post real-time polling numbers via text messages from the congregants’ cell phones. The polls might query: “Do you believe that God created the universe? Or do you believe in evolution?”

“It makes the service very relevant and bonds the congregation to the message,” said Cloyd. “By giving a lot of production value to the service, it enhances the experience. It’s cutting edge, and you have to be.”

The church also features a production area, complete with three editing bays, an audio booth and video room. Eventually, funds permitting, the plan is to record Sunday services and upload them for broadcast, said Cloyd.

The three-story building, built by San Diego-based Harper Construction Co. and designed by Los Angeles-based architectural firm Gensler, had other demands.

“It’s a big chunk of concrete, and you really have to be careful about what you do,” said Cloyd. “Being part of the Liberty Station complex we needed to be a good neighbor and fit in. We couldn’t push the architectural envelope too much, but we still needed to establish our identity.”

The building , which took 18 months to complete , also had to be outfitted to multitask, accommodating church activities, the K-12 private school, and offices, along with efficiently moving around a “tremendous amount of people,” said Cloyd.

There also were structural challenges, combining the old with the new elements.

“We had to test to make sure that we could take the load,” he said. “We had to make sure that the foundation hadn’t deteriorated over time.”

Everyone held their collective breaths that the engineer’s test would give them the green light to proceed. If not, the additional work would have added “several extra millions of dollars that we didn’t have,” said Cloyd. “It came up just perfect.”

Another challenge: The building had to be acoustically outfitted to withstand the roar of aircraft flying over worship services, offices and classrooms. The dollars were rapidly adding up, said Cloyd.

“We were trying to build at the worst possible time,” he said. “When we were pricing and buying materials for this building was when China was buying all the steel and drywall and masonry products. All of our contracts had a line item that this price was only good for this period of time. Those time frames were very short and there was nothing we could do.”

As it happened, the subcontractors were able to secure the materials quickly, said Cloyd, and the project was finished “ahead of schedule, under budget and with zero accidents.”

History Lesson

One challenge that Cloyd didn’t have to deal with were the constraints of building in Liberty Station’s designated historical district. Legacy Building Services , general contractor on the North Chapel at Liberty Station , did.

This meant having to refurbish the exterior of the building, built in 1942, along with upgrading the electrical system, repairing the plumbing and heating systems and roof, while remaining true to the original design , from the wood pews and pulpit and historic lighting fixtures, right down to finding artisans capable of restoring stained glass and vintage pipe organs.

“We had to maintain the historic significance of the building,” said Tom Remensperger, director of business development at Legacy. “We wouldn’t have the freedom to tear it down.”

The $1.35 million project, finished in July 2006, had once served as a non-

denominational chapel for the Navy.

“At least once a week someone walking by would say, ‘I just wanted to see inside,'” recalled Remensperger. “We were married here,’ or had some other family event there.”

The principals of the project included San Diego-based Nadel Architects Inc. and C.W. Clark Inc., a veteran La Jolla-based developer whose portfolio includes the Marketplace, the retail component of Liberty Station.

Jonathan Holmes, senior project manager for Legacy, recalled that the North Chapel was “quite a challenge” beyond just remembering not to cuss on the site.

“There are a couple of trades that I never had to deal with before,” said Holmes, referring to the stained glass restoration and finish carpentry the project required.

The challenge was finding artisans “who know how to do that type of work instead of just punching out and installing. Now, everything is manufactured.” It also meant treading a fine line between preservation and repairing.

Some of the old wooden fixtures were “falling apart,” said Holmes, while the cushioned kneelers were “all torn up,” and required the services of someone who could work with appropriate fabrics.

“You can’t just put a Band-Aid on it,” he said. “Rebuilding old things is a challenge.”

Cloyd agreed that building a house of worship was anything but typical. He had quit his job with a local general contractor to offer his services to the project. Compared to his previous experiences on work sites, he said he noticed a big difference in how conflicts were solved on this one.

“Typically, with a project of this nature you roll up your sleeves and go to battle,” Cloyd observed. “On this project , working for a church , it’s not how you do business. It taught me a lifelong lesson. In the future, I think the shirt sleeves are going to stay down.”


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