Planning and Building a PraiseBuilding – the Preliminaries


The term praisebuilding simply refers to any structure, either new or converted from an existing structure, used for worship. Religious architecture scholar, Stephen J. Ferrandi, in his book by the same name, coined the term “praisebuilding.”  The term does not discriminate as to the faith, style of worship, or method of construction.  A praisebuilding can be as simple as several bamboo logs lashed together to make a rudimentary temple or it can boast the architectural magnificence of Saint Peter’s Basilica.  Mohammed Ali Mosque, Westminster Abbey, Mahabodhi Temple, and Shaarei Shomayim Synagogue are all praisebuildings. So too is a storefront church on Main Street, a converted barn in the countryside, and a tent where worshippers gather to pray.


Congregations across the globe have used nearly every type of structure as a center for their praise and worship. During World War II, the Italians worshiped in the Roman catacombs, while the British held church services in the relative safety of the underground subway system. How many times have people of all faiths held prayer services in barns, hospitals, automobiles, even hunched under sandbags?

Today, congregations across the globe have decided for various reasons to create a worship center out of an existing structure. For many congregations, economics help dictate this decision. Either there is little land available for purchase, or the cost of land is beyond the means of the congregation. In many cases, the congregation needs to be in a certain geographic part of a city, town, or county, and so the location dictates that rehabbing an existing structure in order to remain in that area is the prudent thing to do. Other congregations, fundamental to their mission, have chosen to work with what is given to them and so the adaptive re-use of an existing building works thematically for them. Still other congregations find that it simply makes sense to purchase an existing structure rather than to build from scratch.

No matter why a congregation decides to create a praisebuilding, there are several basic rules one needs to follow in order to have a successful project.

Site Selection – Choose a site that is convenient to your membership. It doesn’t make sense to buy a building that is located across town if the membership can’t or won’t commute. Choose a building that is within 30 minutes traveling time for most of the congregation, if the majority of the members travel to services via their own automobile. If many in the congregation walk or rely on public transportation, 20 minutes’ travel time is probably in order.

Parking – If the majority of members will be traveling to the new building via personal automobile, ample parking is a must. Many inner city buildings are available at give-away prices simply because the areas in which they are located don’t offer parking.  If people can’t park once they get there, the building isn’t really much of a bargain.  Since most services are going to be held on the Sabbath – Friday evening, Saturday or Sunday – the parking situation in many areas favors a praisebuilding. Although it may be difficult to find parking for a Thursday morning funeral service if the limited on street parking is normally used by area office tenants, it may be easy to find parking during the weekend. Many government jurisdictions calculate the parking requirements for buildings of assembly (praisebuildings) at one car per four people.  Thus if the congregation seats 400 people, parking for 100 cars will be required. (Since local regulations vary by jurisdiction, check with the local building and zoning department to determine the parking requirements in the project area.)

Zoning – Although buildings of assembly are allowed in most locations under most zoning regulations, there may be areas where buildings of assembly are not permitted by zoning.  Even when permitted, many times a special exception is required. If applying for a special exception, it may be prudent to retain the services of a local zoning attorney.

Types of Structures – Almost any type of building – concrete block, brick, wood frame, or metal skinned – can be adapted into a praisebuilding. Certain building shapes work better than others.  Try to find a building that is a square or rectangle, and large enough to have multiple activities happening simultaneously.

Perfect PraiseBuildings – Bowling allies, dance halls, department stores, warehouses, car dealerships, movie theatres, strip shopping centers, large restaurants, catering halls, discount stores, supermarkets, roller rinks, ice skating rinks, and funeral homes work well as praisebuildings because of the basic shape of the building, column spacing, and the height of the roof deck.  If a congregation can locate any of these types of buildings, they will probably receive an added benefit by having on-site parking. Additionally, most of these types of businesses would have been originally established near a major roadway, so visibility for the worship center is an added plus as well.

Space Requirement – An important question that faces every potential praisebuilding purchaser is the size of the building to acquire. While there is no steadfast rule that fits every organization, there are several good rules of thumb that allocate specific square foot requirements per person for each type of space in a praisebuilding.

The square footage requirement for the sanctuary is based on building and fire code, as well as the type of seating that will be used in the space.  One rule suggests allocating seven square foot per person in a sanctuary. This doesn’t mean that a person will occupy that much space just by sitting, but rather, by doing many activities while in the space:  walking, moving about, preaching, teaching, sitting, and so on. Additionally, if the space will have fixed seating, such as pews or theater seats, fire code dictates that each person will occupy 18 inches of pew space. The reality is that since people like a little elbow room between them, 21 inches per person is more realistic. Fire code mandates the following rules for fixed seating: The back of the chair or pew must be a minimum of 36 inches to the back of the next row of seats. Pews can only be a maximum of 22 feet, 6 inches long unless an aisle is immediately in front of the pews for quick egress (exit). The rule here is that in case of an emergency, one should not have to wait for more than seven people to exit their seat before approaching the end of the pew.

When planning space for a fellowship hall, allow 15 square feet per person for seating and tables and chairs. Sabbath school classrooms also require 15 square feet per person.

When planning any space, it is best to refer to BOCA guide book that spells out all building codes requirements by property and space usage. This is the very text that architects and space planners refer do when designing any space.

Architecture – One of the basic principles of adaptive re-use is working within the confines of the existing architecture to create a new space out of an existing shell. The idea is to preserve as much as possible of the existing architecture while allowing a new, unintended use to be adapted to the structure. An example of this would be if the praisebuilding was originally a warehouse with heavy wooden beams and structural supports, preserving the wooden beams as a decorative element to the space would marry the original architectural design to the adaptive re-use.

Systems – Many times existing systems such as sprinklers, alarms, HVAC (Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning), or electrical can be upgraded to allow the salvage of components to the original system. It is very important to have truly competent professionals evaluate each system before deciding to save or replace it. Too many times congregations spent hundreds of thousands of dollars renovating a praisebuilding only to have the salvaged boiler blow three weeks after the project is completed. If the HVAC system is in good repair, have an HVAC contractor determine if the amount of cooling capacity, measured in tons, is sufficient not only for the size of the building, but for the amount of people anticipated to use the worship space. Many times an HVAC contractor will base the size of the unit on the size of the room; however, in a praisebuilding environment, several hundred people together in celebration give off a tremendous amount of heat which must be figured into the equation when determining the size of the HVAC unit.

Structural Integrity – If the property has severe structural issues, it may be less expensive to build from the ground up than to salvage an existing structure. A competent structural engineer can help to assess the extent of the problem and assist in evaluating the expense involved in correcting the problem. The idea behind creating a praisebuilding out of an existing structure should be a way of reducing the total cost of construction while preserving an existing structure.

Environmental Issues – If the congregation plans on restoring an older building, they will likely be dealing with various environmental issues that could affect the cost of the renovation project. It is very likely that the older building may previously or currently have asbestos insulation, asbestos tile, underground storage tanks, lead paint, PCB’s, contaminated soil, or other hazardous materials. All of these problems can be solved safely and legally; the issue is simply at what cost. Once having identified a potential problem, obtain expert advice before attempting a repair or removal. This will save many thousands of dollars in penalties and fines later if it is determined that the solution created more problems it solved.


Why Wal-Marts Work Well and Candy Stores Don’t

The most important step in transforming an adaptive re-use structure into a worship center starts with the very first step: site selection. The selection of the subject property can make the design and construction process move smoothly if the right property is selected. On the other hand, choosing a project that simply doesn’t have the right dynamics to lend itself to a worship center will be regretted with every change order presented by the contractor.

The selection process should begin by working with a local real estate firm to identify all buildings for sale that have the basic design principles that will be outlined later in this chapter. Remember, since none of the buildings were originally designed to be worship centers, it helps to have at least one person on the selection committee who is a draftsmen, architect, contractor, or has the ability to visualize the new church where loading docks or rows of metal shelving now stand.

The most important rule in real estate is location, location, location. When it comes to selecting a building to be transformed into a praisebuilding, the most important rule is the bigger the box, the better. For thousands of years most people have worshipped in structures that were either squares or rectangles or a combination of both.

It has only been within the last fifty years that circular, octagonal or decagonal style sanctuaries have gained in popularity. As any architect or construction estimator knows, any building that is not a square or rectangle will be more expensive to build and furnish.

Here is a simple way to understand why this is true. The basic shape used in construction is the rectangle. Plywood, flake board and drywall all use 4’ x 8’ sheets as their standard size. Cement blocks and clay bricks both use rectangles of various dimensions as their standard shape. Carpeting comes in 12 foot wide rolls and is normally cut into long rectangle strips called runs. Roofing paper and roofing shingles are rectangular in shape. Floor tile uses 8” x 8” or 12” x 12” squares as standard sizes.

If a building can be constructed from whole sheets or units of these building materials, rather than the workman having to cut each sheet to form an unusual shape, the project will save in both in labor and material cost.

Example: If a room is to be constructed measuring 12’ X 15’ by 8 feet high, with two
windows measuring 3’ x 4’ on the rear wall and one standard size door, the 
contractor will need to use 13 sheets of standard size drywall a to create 180 
square foot interior. However, if the structure were a 12 foot octagon by 8
feet high, with the same two windows and standard door, the contractor would
need to use 24 sheets of standard size drywall to create 96 square feet of 
interior space.

When selecting a building, look for structures that are square to rectangular in shape. 
If sanctuary, offices, classrooms and kitchen with a fellowship hall will be in the same building, it would be better if the building is deeper than it is wide. Long, narrow buildings don’t work well, since one needs to allow room for hallways. Additionally, since the building is an assembly space, local building codes as well as fire codes may require secondary and tertiary egresses.

Buildings that were constructed for discount department stores, K-mart, Wal-Mart, Ames, Best Buy, Hechinger’s, and so on tend to work extremely well. Many grocery stores and auto dealer show rooms can also be easily transformed into a praisebuilding.

The basic shape required by all of these retailers was that of a squarish rectangle. In this shape building, the interior space was suitable for various purposes. Many thousands of items could be displayed in the retail section, while tractor-trailers unloaded boxes of new merchandise in the rear section of the warehouse. The interior front was able to serve three purposes: shoppers were able to pay for their purchases in one of the many check out stations, management was able to watch the workings of the store from those paneled covered management booths (popular before the advent of closed circuit camera TV systems used today), and point-of-purchase displays could be presented to shoppers upon entering.

What may not have been noticed was the flow that the entire space was able to offer to all the employees and customers for their respective purposes. One didn’t feel impacted by the warehouse people, or were most likely able to maneuver from aisle to aisle without much of a problem, since the aisleways were generously spaced and the management team was able to see a good bit of the store from their booth. The building was big enough to allow all to do what they needed to do without being confining. The praisebuilding needs to do exactly the same thing. It needs to have classrooms in session in one part of the complex, services in the main part of the worship center, a board meeting in another, and volunteers setting up the fellowship hall for an event all at the same time. In order to achieve this successfully, a building must be large enough that it will lend itself to the creation of this type of flow.

When one looks at a structure for conversion into a praisebuilding, visualize all of these various activities taking place in the converted structure at the same time. Does the size and shape of the structure under consideration seem to lend itself to the creation of the necessary flow? Will ample hallways exist without taking away from the size of the classrooms and main worship area? Many times one can see this flow by drawing a floor plan of the space as it currently exists and a second overlay plan using tracing paper, showing how the congregation would propose to build out the space. By doing this, one should be able to see how these activities will work within the space. Remember, as a building designed for public assembly, the Praisebuilding will be required to have hallways and exits throughout the complex that meet state building and fire codes.

One important thing to remember when looking at a department store or warehouse for adaptive re-use is the need to work around column spacing. The small columns that occur in orderly rows spaced every 30 to 50 feet, probably cannot be disturbed without great expense since they support the roof. Most architects or build-to-suit contractors will simply attempt to lay out the complex around them, hiding as many columns as possible in walls, or boxing them in drywall to make them fit in with the interior design scheme.

If a column must be removed, hire a structural engineer to design a new way to support that area of the roof. Columns, although they may appear to be independent of each other, actually form a highly complex engineered system for transferring the weight of the roof and all weight that may lay upon it, down to the footings buried under the floor of your structure. Removing a single column without compensating for the load elsewhere could lead to structural failure in times of great stress such as a heavy snowstorm, torrential rains, or severe winds. 

Conversely, if your adaptive re-use design plans require that additional weight be placed on the roof, such as additional air conditioning units, use an engineer’s services since the existing column system was not designed to support the weight of the new HVAC equipment. The engineer’s services are not going to be terribly expensive. A competent engineer will find a safe and low cost way of supporting additional roof load.

Many good adaptive re-use structures lend themselves easily to the addition of a second floor or balcony. This option requires first retaining the services of a qualified structural consultant. Although a contractor or a group of hard-working volunteers could construct this additional floor space in short order, it is a must that the congregation know before hand if the other structural systems in the building can support additional weight without reinforcement.

Remember the “live load” stress put on a structural system, such as a column by a group of one hundred members celebrating during a service, is very different from the “dead load” of a piece of equipment that may weigh the same as all one hundred members.

A worship space needs to have as high a ceiling as possible. If the structure has a 9 foot ceiling in place, with no cavity above the ceiling, this building will probably not work as a praisebuilding. Look at the roof deck. The roof deck height is the distance between the floor and the underbelly of the roof (if one is looking at a flat-roofed structure).

Example A. The existing ceiling height is 9 feet, but if the ceiling tiles are removed, the distance to the roof deck is 16 feet. This structure will work well since there is plenty of open space that can be utilized to create a new, higher ceiling height.

Example B. The existing ceiling height is 10 feet, but if the ceiling tiles are removed, the distance to the roof deck is 11 feet. This structure will not work well without extreme modifications since there is little space above the ceiling to create a higher ceiling height.

Higher ceiling heights in praisebuildings are critical so that when elevated platforms are built for worship (altars, bimahs, or pulpits), sufficient distance to the ceiling is maintained.

From a purely construction view point, there is little difference in the structural design between a house of worship and a standard warehouse. Both structures require high ceilings, a large concrete floor capable of holding a fair amount of weight, and tend to have proportions that favor square or rectangular buildings. Warehouses may require large openings for dock doors, while worship buildings tend to have smaller areas for windows. Each structure requires a large parking area and tends to be located near a major roadway.

The major difference in a house of worship is that the systems required – heating, ventilation, air conditioning, electrical, alarm, sprinkler and plumbing tend to be substantial requirements over the typical warehouse. Naturally, the finishes and interior design of your church will probably not resemble a warehouse, although many congregations like the “warehouse look” for their ministry.