Designing the PraiseBuilding Complex

Whether one calls it a sanctuary, worship space, celebration room, nave, assembly hall, or great room, the focal point of a structure is the single most important room in the Praise Building. Designing this space, (which for the purpose of this text, we will call the sanctuary) need not be complicated to design or expensive to construct. There are four major components to designing your PraiseBuilding: structural elements, systems, assembly issues and decorative ideas.

Structural elements are the brick and mortar components of building. These elements for the most part are governed under local and in some cases, federal building code regulations. How these pieces come together vary quite a bit from locality to locality because of various building codes and even local interpretation of these codes from inspector to inspector. While restoring churches in Homestead, Florida in September 1992, it was puzzling to learn that the building code regulation for installing roofs was changed three times in a single week. The Miami Herald ran an article that the Chief Building Inspector for Dade County had failed inspection on his own house since the recently completed roof was not constructed to the most recent code.

If the members of a congregation’s building committee are going to undertake the work themselves, they should purchase a copy of the local building regulations, read them and follow them. Following these regulations will save lots of problems and will insure that the structure is built to code. Keep in mind that build to code simply means building to the minimum standard allowed by law.

Here’s a story that illustrates what can happen if you build your building and don’t follow the rules.

While working in Florida after Hurricane Andrew in 1992, my restoration firm was retained by a major insurance company to help estimate the re-building cost of some of the more than 200 churches and synagogues damaged by this massive hurricane. My firm’s objective was to ascertain the extent of the damage and submit a detailed construction estimate to the insurance company.

One day the insurance adjuster stopped by our make-shift Florida office with a message that I needed to call the Senior Vice President of this insurance firm immediately regarding a major problem with one of their claims. I drove twenty miles to Miami to the closest phone since all phone lines were down after the hurricane. The Vice President told me that his firm had a church claim that they wanted me to investigate for them. Apparently, a church that was completed and dedicated in June of that year, had suffered a total structural collapse two months later in August.

This was strange since none of the homes in this area were damaged to the same extent. The insurance company wanted to know what went wrong before they released the two million dollars for which the complex was insured. I was told that I could hire any professional I needed and submit my report back to them in a week.

Later that day, I drove to the site and sure enough in a neighborhood where the majority of the homes were still standing with only shingles missing and lots of trash and debris scattered about, only remnants of this church stood. The original structure was simple in design with white stuccoed concrete block walls raising eight feet from the ground and a large A-frame roof perched on top. What I saw was that the front wall of the church had pancaked into the sanctuary causing the roof to collapse onto the pews. The only thing that remained of the complex was the rear wall of the church and the balcony it supported. Looking at the damage, I surmised what happened to cause such massive destruction. A large gust of wind, the same wind that had blown the roof shingles from the surrounding houses, had hit the front wall of the church with a force that toppled it over. This in turn caused the roof to drop onto the pews which caused the side walls to buckle and give way causing a complete structural failure. The next question was to determine why this happened. After all, there were hundreds of houses surrounding this church that suffered no structural damage.

Two days later, I returned to the site with a structural engineer. Together we examined each of the various building components: the cement blocks, nails, wooden trusses, various fasteners, the re-bar re-enforcing rods that ran through the concrete walls, the mortar, etc. Slowly the story of why this building failed came together. Where the local building code required seven pieces of re-bar installed in every structural column and tied together, we found only two, untied. Where code required the concrete blocks be filled with concrete, they were hollow; where structural steel supports were to be installed, we 
found wooden bracing; where hurricane strapping was required, there was none. After four days of detailed examination, we found 77 reasons why this building had failed.

The ultimate reason lay under a mound of debris. I couldn’t believe that any licensed contractor could do such shoddy work as this. We asked the pastor of the church where the church office was. He pointed to a mound of roof debris. I got on my belly and with flashlight in hand, crawled through the debris until I found a series of steps that went down to what would have been the church offices under the altar area. With the weight of the roof resting on the platform I was under, I didn’t want to stay down here too long. I crawled on my knees until I reached a small hallway. I was able to stand up and walk though a door. There, pinned to the wall, was a blueprint of the church complex and a complete set of all of the building permits signed off by various building officials. As my flashlight shone onto the permits, I noticed something very strange. The building construction was started in 1989 by one firm and the project was completed in 1992 by a different firm. The other thing that I noticed was that each permit had been signed off by the proper inspector every time.

It took a couple of days worth of research to determine what all of my findings meant. In the end, the truth was this: The church had hired a construction firm in 1989 to build a church according to signed-and-sealed approved architectural drawings. Soon after the construction firm was hired and had pulled the various permits, the contract was terminated when the church ran out of money. Two years later, the church had raised enough money to begin the work once again. However, this time the congregation didn’t 
hire a licensed contractor, but decided to do the work using volunteers. The local building inspectors, I alleged, decided to look the other way and approve the sloppy work because volunteers were completing it. In the end, the structural collapse was caused by very poor workmanship, not adhering to the approved plans and specifications, and the failure of the local authorities to catch these problems while the building was under construction.

What was the result of all of this? The Vice President of this insurance company flew to Florida to give the pastor of this church the bad news. Since the church wasn’t built to local code by a licensed contractor, as the church had claimed when they purchased the insurance policy, the policy was void. Although the building was completely destroyed, the congregation was not entitled to any insurance proceeds since they committed fraud when they applied for the insurance by stating that the building was built to Florida’s building code.

Let’s discuss structural issues as they pertain to potential PraiseBuilding structures:

Masonry – Before beginning any interior improvements, it is important that the building be as water tight as possible. For most masonry buildings, this means re-pointing exterior mortar joints and re-securing any loose or missing bricks or cement blocks. In some cases, it may mean coating the exterior surface with a moisture barrier to prevent moisture from migrating into the structure that could cause damage to the plaster or drywall surfaces. Masonry restoration is expensive because it normally involves scaffolding and is very labor intensive. Because of its expense, it tends to be more difficult to sell to a congregation because when it is completed, there isn’t very much to see. The same money spent on interior renovation yields grand and glorious results in new carpeting, upholstered pews, pendent lighting, stained glass windows, and sanctuary furnishings. Still, it is important to remember that to undertake a complete successful renovation, the first step must be to insure that the structure is water tight and structurally sound.

Although re-pointing is expensive because it is laborious and requires scaffolding, it is absolutely required before beginning major interior projects, if the PraiseBuilding is not water tight.

Roofing – As important as it is to ensure that the walls are water tight, it is equally as important to know the roof system is sturdy. Too many times, congregations will spend many tens of thousands of dollars on interior beautification, simply because they are easier projects for which to raise money than the non-glitzy roof repair. It makes no sense to renovate a building, only to have the existing roof fail after a couple of months. Remember, if the roof fails, the congregation not only pays for the roof repair, but also the damage to walls, paint, carpeting and furnishings. The answer is simple: before beginning any work, make sure that all of the roofing systems – roof, flashing, gutters, and downspouts – are sound and performing well.

Windows & Doors – If your PraiseBuilding is an older structure, there is a very good chance that the windows and doors will need to be replaced. If the decision is to salvage the existing windows, the congregation may be trading one problem for another. Windows, doors and other trim prior to 1978, were normally painted with lead-based paints, since these paints were able to withstand the harsh conditions to which these surfaces were subjected. If lead-based paint is found, a trained and licensed contractor should remove it.

Now, a few words on the interior components:

Plaster & Walls – Plaster walls show that an older building is of substantial character. Plaster walls are constructed using a four-part system. First, strips of woods called lath are nailed horizontally to the upright structural members of the wall’s framing. This lath is spaced approximately ¼” apart. When the first coat of plaster called the scratch coat is coated over the lath, much of the plaster is forced between the spacing and enters the openings and clings to the roughened surface of the backing lath, locking the scratch coat to the lath. The plaster which locks the brown coat to the back of the lath is called the key. Over this, scratch coat is applied to the brown coat, followed by the finish coat of plaster called the white coat. If either the lath or brown coat have suffered damaged, it is probably more cost effective to remove the plaster wall completely and install drywall in its place.

If only the white coat is damaged and the brown coat is in good repair it is probably more cost effective to repair using either patching plaster or joint compound.

If the building has been well heated over the years, the walls will probably be in good repair and may not require anything more than some patch plastering and a good painting. However, if the building has not been heated for some time or has been exposed to the elements, there is a good chance that spider cracking, surface, or sub-surface damage may have taken its toll on the walls.

Spider cracking is very common among plaster walls and is caused by the expansion and contraction of the surface coat (white coat) plaster. It can be recognized by very thin veins just below the surface of the paint. These cracks are normally thinner than a strain of hair and may form a network of cracks that covers the entire wall. Spackling the plaster walls with a very thin coat of joint compound may hide these imperfections. If the wall surface has extensive spider cracks, covering the wall surface with a wall liner such as Flexwall, Glidwall, or Durawall, will cover and seal the wall and create a new smooth surface for painting. These wall coverings are sold through commercial paint supply firms and are installed like wallpaper.

Restrooms – In most PraiseBuildings, the construction of restrooms is as important as the construction of kitchen or audio/visual center, and is nearly as expensive. It is important that restrooms are built to area building codes. Use the highest quality materials the budget will allow. There is a difference between high quality fixtures and designer fixtures. Since restrooms will be used and abused, it is important that the architect or building committee specify high quality sinks, faucets, toilets and urinals, and dividing partitions that will withstand many years of abuse. On average, PraiseBuilding restrooms need to be replaced every twenty years, so it is important to spend some money here to get the most out of every fixture.

Over the last several years, many congregations have decided to make their restrooms more than the utilitarian spaces they once were. Today, restrooms may feature baby-changing stations, lounge areas, changing areas with showers, and even decorative artwork and lighting.

Depending upon the space constraints of the PraiseBuilding, it may not be possible to make each restroom ADA (American’s with Disabilities Act) compliant. The law requires that an ADA compliant restroom is easily accessible to persons with handicaps. Many buildings have found that by constructing a separate unisex restroom with a single toilet and sink that meets the ADA requirements, solves the problem and is less expensive than constructing each restroom to meet current ADA requirements.

Sanctuary– The most important aspect of sanctuary design is to create a worship space using scale, color, light and building materials that allow one to feel humbled in the presence of the Divine. Regardless if one stands in a temple in Thailand, a Mosque in Morocco, or the Cathedral in Chartres, one is humbled by the scale of the sacred space. Additionally, the quality of design and craftsmanship allows one to appreciate the worship space for the excellent craftsmanship contained therein. In modern PraiseBuildings, the same elements are used to create a contemporary worship space. Since the focus of this text is limited to working within the framework of an existing structure, much of the architecture detail of the original structure should be incorporated into the PraiseBuilding.

PraiseBuildings must inspire one to feel humbled in the presence of the Divine. Use color, texture, and craftsmanship to achieve this.

When designing a worship space, follow these basic design principles:

1. Create as high a ceiling as possible. High ceilings help create the feeling of awe and reverence. High ceilings also required create the acoustics required for most worship services. Music requires a high ceiling in order to sound full-bodied and powerful.

2. Use proportional spacing and balance to create a symmetrical worship environment. The stage, bimah, platform, altar, pulpit or other focal point of the worship space should be centered to allow most members of the congregation an unobstructive view. When placing seating, it is important to use symmetrical design. If pews are to be installed with a center aisle, each row of pews should be the same length and spaced the same distance apart to create an even appearance throughout the worship space.

Example: If fifty chairs are to be installed on the right side of the stage platform, then for the purpose of symmetry, fifty chairs need to be installed on the left side as well. Additionally, if ten large windows are installed along the left side of the sanctuary, ten windows, or at least some other similar decorative element needs to be installed along the right side to create balance in the room.

3. Select colors that create interest and drama in the space. When choosing wall colors, select a color palette that is off-white, crème, or a very light tint of a pastel. Walls painted dark colors, although dramatic, absorb light and cause the worship space to appear dark, which can prove to be a difficult environment in which to read.

It is better to use dark or bright colors as accents throughout the space. A good rule is to carpet the space in a single color and then use that color for the seating upholstery and painted accents. You may then use a variation of that color, or a combination of that color with other colors, to create interest on the focal point of the space – stage, altar, bimah, pulpit. Under most circumstances, ceilings should be painted either “ceiling white” or the same color as the base wall color. With very few exceptions, don’t paint the ceiling a dark color since this will cause the space to appear substantially smaller and will not allow light to reflect off the ceiling. 

4. Use fabrics, polished wood, lighting fixtures, artwork, and windows to create the drama required to give the space the feeling of reverence. The right combination of fabrics, decorative artwork, and accent painting can set the mood for the worship space. Before designing the space, visit as many worship centers as possible. See what works and what doesn’t. Visit the local bookstore or library and look at books on religious architecture, home decorating, and interior design. Try to find elements that can be incorporated into the PraiseBuilding.

5. If the budget is tight, don’t save money on anything that will be touched regularly. If the congregation must save money, it is better to save it above eye level. Too many times, congregations will attempt to save money by installing cheap carpeting, selecting low quality fabrics, inexpensive pulpit furnishings, and less than durable seating, when just the opposite should be true. If the budget is tight, and even when it isn’t, one should purchase the best quality fabric, wallcoverings, floor coverings, and furniture one possibly can. Keep in mind, these are the items that will come in contact with every member of your growing congregation for many years. Inexpensive carpeting that wears out in five years is really more expensive than a higher quality carpeting that will last twenty years.

When installing carpeting in a PraiseBuilding initially, there are no pews, or fixed seating with which to contend. However, when it comes time to replace carpeting, one needs to figure the removal and possible storage of fixed seating. This extra labor will far exceed the cost of installing a good quality floor covering the first time.

There are plenty of opportunities to save money above eye level or out of reach for most of the congregation. If one needs to save money, start with the basic design. Is there a less expensive design for the worship space that can create a similar look and feel? Purchase less expensive lighting fixtures, ceiling fans, stained glass windows, sound systems, artwork, etc. Don’t attempt to save money on anything that could wear out quickly with constant contact. Remember that replacement cost will always be more expensive than purchasing an upgraded product the first time.

The term “Kitchen” when applied to a PraiseBuilding means specifically a room used for the preparation and cooking of food. Don’t use this term if the only use will be to make coffee for an after service fellowship. The reason for this admonition is that a “kitchen” in buildings of assembly, come under the health and building requirements for restaurants. Thus, if the congregation plans on preparing chicken and fish-fry fund- raising dinners or cooking Thanksgiving dinner for the elderly or homeless, the PraiseBuilding must be constructed to the standards of a commercial kitchen.

A commercial kitchen differs from a residential kitchen in several ways. First, local health department codes normally mandate the size of the kitchen. On average, expect to dedicate a space of at least 14’ x 20’ for the kitchen area. The location of the kitchen is also important. Normally, the building designer places the kitchen in a rear corner of the building for a number or reasons. Locating the kitchen in the corner of the structure allows for venting the exhaust fumes, which is required by building code, as well as allowing for the installation of a ventilation system to replace the air in the kitchen with fresh air. Fire Code normally requires that a commercial kitchen have an emergency exit directly to the outside. And since a great many pieces of very heavy equipment need to be brought into the kitchen, it is useful to have a door leading from the outside loading area directly to the kitchen. This loading door will prove invaluable the first time the kitchen crew needs to unload a truckload of frozen turkeys or ship out several hundred packaged dinners for the elderly.

When designing the kitchen, it is best to first do a space plan on paper showing a rectangular room with an opening to the fellowship hall and a second opening to the outside. Next, begin to lay-in the various sinks, stoves, deep fryers, refrigerators, freezers, dishwashers, steam tables, food preparation counters, etc. One will soon find that all of these items require that the kitchen be a very large area.

Most restaurant equipment supply houses can take crude drawings and put them onto a commercial kitchen auto-cad computer program to show in three dimensions, exactly what the kitchen will look like. The purpose of this exercise is to see how the kitchen creates flow.

The secret of commercial design is to allow the people preparing the food to 
have plenty of elbow room while working, and at the same time find that the refrigerators, freezers, work tops and food preparation sinks are within a few paces of where each is standing. How does one achieve this? Design the traffic area as a racetrack. (See illustration.) In the illustration, all the cooking equipment is placed together in a row against the rear wall with the exhaust and fire suppression system directly above them. The sinks used for washing pots and dishes are placed along the left wall with storage cabinets directly overhead. According to health department regulations, a commercial kitchen must contain at least one stainless-steel sink with three compartments. Each division in the sink has a specific purpose – wash, rinse and sanitize. Additionally, most health department regulations also require that the kitchen have a single basin sink for washing hands. Neither of the sinks may be used for filling or disposing of water used in mopping floors. This activity requires a scrub sink which is normally installed in a janitorial closet outside the kitchen area.

The walls of a commercial kitchen must be covered in a washable material such as stainless steel sheathing, ceramic tile, plastic covered wall panels, or other hard surface materials. Whatever the surface selected, it should be scrubable and capable of withstanding the high temperatures generated by a commercial kitchen. Depending upon local building and health department regulations, the ceiling of your kitchen may be constructed from drywall with a scrabble painted surface or a drop ceiling with special hard surface tiles capable of withstanding moisture, scrubbing, and high heat.

Much of the expense of a commercial kitchen is due to the requirement that it contain a fire suppression system over all grills, stoves, deep fryers, and ovens. The purpose of a fire suppression system is to automatically suppress a quick spreading grease fire before it leaves the kitchen area. It is not uncommon for a commercial kitchen to cost between $20,000 and $80,000 depending upon local requirements, size, and equipment.

If the budget is tight, consider purchasing used equipment at a local restaurant auction. Restaurants have one of the highest failure rates of any type of business so it is very possible that equipment can be purchased for pennies on the dollar and will be in nearly new condition and only a few months or few years old.

Fellowship Hall – There are five basic design principals behind good fellowship hall design. 
1. Rooms that are rectangle in shape work best. The room should be at least half as wide as it is deep, and with a ceiling height of at least nine feet. Remember that when the room is filled with people all talking at the same time, the sound will be cacophonous. A higher ceiling will help the sound be defused and make for a more pleasant social environment.

2. Select floor coverings that will be able to withstand much abuse over the long term. This requirement normally means that if food will be served regularly in this room, the floor covering will be limited to commercial grade vinyl tile, linoleum, or ceramic tile. 
Most carpeting will not be able to withstand the heavy traffic and constant soiling caused by spilled food and beverages.

3. Select wall coverings and paints capable of being washed down. If the walls are to be painted, use a latex paint designed for childcare facilities which is capable of withstanding regular spot washings. (If someone spills a plate of spaghetti on the way to their table, both the floor covering and the wall surface will likely need to be spot cleaned.) If a wall covering is to be selected, limit the selection to commercial grade vinyl, since this will last for many years and be able to withstand the punishment imposed by the typical fellowship hall.

4. A suspended grid acoustical ceiling, white acoustical ceiling tiles, and flush mounted fluorescent lighting work best for most fellowship halls. They hide ductwork and piping while still allowing easy access for repairs and maintenance.

5. The fellowship hall is a gathering place or place of assembly, and as such, will be required to have access to the exterior in case of a fire or other emergency. Fire code will also require that emergency exit lights and floodlights be installed with a battery back up. Local building code may require that all exterior doors be equipped with panic bars which will unlock and open the door quickly in an emergency.

Administrative offices – When designing the administrative office portion of the PraiseBuilding, it should be placed close to the main entrance area. The placement of the administrative offices should allow one to enter the PraiseBuilding to take care of administrate business without wandering throughout the complex. Additionally, by placing the offices closest to a main entrance, one can zone the heating and air conditioning to allow for efficient heating and cooling of the this space, without having to heat or cool the entire PraiseBuilding space to the same extent.

A trick of the trade is to install a safe into the concrete floor of a closet of one of the administrative offices. This safe is then covered with a piece of carpeting, which can be lifted, for easy access.

Classrooms – The rule here is simple: Make the room as large as possible for its intended purpose. Use operable partitions to turn larger spaces into smaller ones while still retaining the flexibility to serve multiple purposes.

Audio/Video Rooms – For more than twenty years, worship spaces have led the way in the use of audio and video systems as an important component of their ministry. It is important to select an audio/video person who understands the ever-changing world of these components and can speak the language of the industry and understand the marketplace.

Childcare room– The leaders of many PraiseBuildings find it necessary to install childcare rooms to accommodate the needs of growing families. Childcare rooms can be as complex as having a sound-proofed room with a large vision panel overlooking the worship center, complete with piped in sound direct from the audio-video room, a private restroom, multi-colored carpeting, and plenty of games and videos for the young occupants. Many other childcare rooms are really nothing more than painted concrete block walls with commercial grade vinyl tile floors and a few children’s books and toys. Remember, it really isn’t how elaborate the childcare room is that makes it a good space for the children, but how the childcare providers use the space given to them.


Under most circumstances, it makes sense to utilize the PraiseBuilding as a daycare center to handle the needs of working parents in your area. After all, the PraiseBuilding may already have a childcare center that is only used once or twice a week. There are plenty of working people who pay between $50 – $300 per week for childcare. How much could it cost to hire a couple of childcare providers and maybe an administrator? However, before counting the income from this “great idea”, it is prudent to discuss this idea with other worship centers in the area to learn from their mistakes. It is certainly worth a phone call to the local licensing department to learn of the requirements for day care centers. One of the most important (and unfortunately most expensive) expenses of most daycare centers is the amount of liability insurance they are required to carry. Still, many congregations have found that a daycare center is a great way to become a part of the community, that in turn, can attract additional members to the congregation.