8 Questions with Facilities Planner Bobbi Dobson

by Ronald E. Keener

By Ronald E. Keener

Sun Valley Community Church (SVCC) in Gilbert, Ariz. built its
permanent 17,000- square-foot facility in 2003 after 13 years of meeting in a
theater, a high school, a junior high school and a rented church facility.
Weekend attendance at SVCC jumped four-fold during the six months following the
new facility’s opening.

With attendance at 1,100, leaders are now engaged in an
$8-million project that will add 65,000 square feet of space, including a
worship center, a children’s center, administrative space and gathering areas.
The issue on the table now is how to best outfit it all.

To answer that question, Keener spoke with Bobbi Dodson,
western-area facilities program manager for Hewlett-Packard in Tempe, Ariz., and
a member of the SVCC campus-development team. Dobson led the furnishings, fixtures and equipment team during
the church’s initial building phase and represents them again for their
expansion program that’s currently underway.

Ronald E. Keener: What few things are included under the
mantel of “facilities planning” in a campus-expansion program?

Bobbi Dodson:

“Facilities” isn’t
all colors and design, as some might think — there are at least four major
areas of concern that underscore the facilities function. Once you get into the
major-planning stages, a lot of discussion will focus around the following:
floor plan (known as the “footprint”) based on functionality; the size of
building based on growth, demographics and programs; master-plan review (and, if
necessary, realignment or re-evaluation); and budget — what you can afford to

REK: What three or four cautions would you offer a church
leader engaged in a building program as they relate to facilities planning?


Keep God the focus of your
project at all times. You’re building a vessel that will bring people to
Christ, and what you do and how you do it should all be to glorify Him.

After that central focus comes program development — making
sure your facility will fit the needs of church programming wherever practical.

Plan your best-case scenario and then filter out needs versus
wants. It will help you avoid having to come back later with changes, which
could add to the cost of the project.

Then there’s traffic flow: [You must] avoid bottlenecks both
in the interior space and in the parking lots. Our interior-traffic experience
at SVCC has been referred to as “swimming upstream like a salmon” when
parents have to pick up their children.

Third, consider subcontractors. Cheaper isn’t always better;
depending on the type of contract you set up for construction, don’t assume
that using the least expensive vendor or subcontractor is necessarily the best
and most cost-effective way to go. Sometimes you end up paying more in the end
for substandard performance.

REK: How is the facilities function integrated with, say,
construction, architecture or design?


A lot of planning goes on up
front in your project. The “function” of the facility you build is
determined by the programming aspects of the building. Will it be multipurpose?
Will it be a facility that serves the community? Will it have a concert-ready
worship center? Does it include a chapel?

What are the educational facilities? These are the types of
questions, among many more, that go into the planning stages. The overall functionality can dictate the type of design,
construction and architecture you will use in building your site.

REK: Are there a few things you’ve seen just go wrong that
church leaders should guard against in planning facilities?


I personally haven’t seen any
“bumps in the night” as such. In retrospect, I think there’s always the
thought that, We should have done this or If we could do it over, we wouldn’t do that. But
once the project is completed, we can’t go back.

Review, re-evaluate and be aware of changes — they’ll add
up and can have a major impact on your budget. Making changes while it’s still
on paper is most cost-effective.

My personal view is that you should be very selective in the
types of activities you get your congregation involved in when it comes to
supplying volunteer labor. Make sure you use those people who are skilled in
what they’re doing, available to assist those who aren’t, and oversee the
end result.

You can learn a lot from your own project experience, but you
can also learn from other churches’ building projects by talking with
[leaders] about what they did right and what just didn’t work.

Never assume you know everything about building the church
facility. Use your resources — surround yourself with individuals who have
vision, are creative and aren’t afraid to think out of the box, even those in
your congregation who are in the professional trades. If you’re using church
members as subcontractors, qualify them just as you would any outside
contractors. They can offer insight, ideas and even additional resources when it
comes to making some key decisions about your facility.

REK: How do you get the congregation’s best input regarding
facilities planning?


The key is to listen. In my
professional career, when we plan for new real estate, we sit down and talk to
the business-management teams and ask them what type of space they need to run
their business, how much space they need, and what specialty space is needed for
labs, demo rooms, et cetera. Everything is negotiated since you can’t
do “everything,” but in going through those discussions, you filter down to
what the true need really is.

For the church and the congregation, one approach I’ve seen
that has been effective is using the town hall-type meeting that’s interactive
and will allow your congregation to get involved. Have a structured agenda of
what you want to accomplish, and give them a venue to discuss their issues and
concerns. Allow them to ask questions and be honest with them. If you don’t
know the answer, say so. This gives them an opportunity to be heard and to feel
like they’re a part of the decisions about where the church is going and what
it’s growing to become.

REK: How do you achieve “taste” and good design in a new
building when there might not be people in the congregation who can offer it?


If you don’t have the internal
resources, use a reputable architectural and design-resource firm. They usually have an in-house staff of trained professionals
who can assist you in making the right choices for your facility.

Do your homework. Visit other churches and buildings you see
that are of interest to you, and ask about the designs, types of construction,
et cetera. If you see buildings with a certain type of finishing that you
like, take photos (if permitted). Share this with your architects. See if there’s
a way they can incorporate it into the overall design.

REK: SVCC is in the early stages of its planning. What will
the team become involved with later as construction takes place and the facility
nears completion?


Since we’re led by committee
(working as a campus-development team), there’s always something happening.
Whether it’s prayer from the prayer team or newsletter updates from the
communication team, there’s a tremendous amount of behind-the-scenes work
going on even now, in the planning stages.

The furnishings, fixtures and equipment team has been involved
since the onset of the project in several facets: preliminary budget setting for
furnishings; preliminary color schemes and design; and design review with
programming teams to address needs and wants of the different facets of
ministry. The technical team (sound, acoustics and lighting) is working on the
appropriate types of systems needed for the planned space.

The construction team is focused primarily on the type of
facility to build and is involved very heavily with the general contractor,
working on the preliminary plans. Meetings are already taking place with the
municipal officials and planning boards.

There will be a time over the next several months in which
this team will be involved with the architects to discuss design, color schemes,
finishes, flooring and more. As construction takes place, we’ll work with the
general contractors on selecting the appropriate fixtures and fixed furnishings.

REK: How do you deal with the range of costs of furniture and
other fixtures available?


You’ll spend a majority of
your budget on sound, lighting and seating. These three areas are the biggest
impacts on your congregation because if it looks good, feels good and sounds
good, people will want to come back.

There are a number of resources out there who work
specifically with churches to get the best pricing on products for your
facility. Some of it depends on taste versus cost, but there’s an overall
effort to get best pricing for whatever you need.

Use the creative talents you have in the church to provide
ideas, materials, sponsorship of equipment — there are many options to choose

Ronald E. Keener writes from Mesa, Ariz., where he follows
faith issues for the Church in society and culture, church renewal and growth,
and leadership and management. He is the former editor of Christian
Management Report. Contact Keener by e-mail at
[email protected]