Build For Efficiency

Keeping your dream facility from becoming an annual budget nightmare.

How does the church administrator, working with his designers and builders in developing a new church design, work through the labyrinth of possibilities and make the right decisions balancing up-front costs with long-term energy and maintenance costs? It’s not easy, but worth all the time and effort you’ll put into it. Experienced church designers and builders have a lot to say on this subject, in terms of both general principles and specific tips.

High Means Dry

A good place to start is the ground elevation, that is to say, the height of the lowest floor above the surrounding grade. “The ground elevation can almost never go too high,” says Albert R. Luper of Worship Concepts. “But it can go too low. If the ground elevation is too low you will always have moisture problems, which means rot and mold.”

Most big churches have concrete floors, and Luper explains that these floors should be a minimum of 12 inches above grade. This will keep the water away and give the building a “chance to breathe.” Luper says a wood floor should go 20 inches or higher above grade.


The most important energy consideration in the design of exterior walls and a roof is insulation. “You are always struggling with thermodynamics,” says Luper. The basic concept we are all familiar with is that if there is heat on one side of the wall and cold on the other, the natural tendency is for both sides to balance out. The warmer side gets cooler while the cooler side gets warmer. The more extreme the difference, the more extreme must be the insulating barrier of the walls and roof.

Proper insulation is often necessary to maintain building integrity. “We do a lot of steel structures for churches, and notice that many builders put the exterior brick veneer directly onto the metal sheeting,” says Doug Mattox of Mattox Construction, Inc., a builder for Ceco Building Systems. Mattox explains that the lack of insulation around the steel can lead to a structural problem. As temperatures change inside and outside, moisture condenses on the steel, and that moisture eventually leads to rust.

Instead of placing the brick veneer directly next to metal sheeting, Mattox recommends building a six-inch stud wall for the exterior wall. Insulate the stud wall with R-19 insulation and sheath it with a waferboard exterior sheet. The entire building can then be covered with an impermeable building wrap to keep drafts and moisture out. Then the brick veneer is built next to the wrapped waferboard.

Advances in Concrete Walls

Dale R. Yoder of Cornerstone Design Architects, an affiliate of The Horst Group, says that two new construction techniques offer advantages over previous concrete wall structures. The first is called insulated concrete form (ICF). With this technique, concrete forms are made from plastic foam boards. Concrete is poured into the forms and the foam becomes part of the permanent wall structure, adding a high insulation value and a surface ready for interior and exterior wall finishing. “This method is in the R-22 insulation range and is very efficient,” says Yoder.

A second newer method for walls is called concrete form masonry (CFM). With this method, the forms for poured concrete walls are constructed using a technique similar to bricklaying. The uniquely designed form units consist of interior and exterior masonry faces, a foam insulation layer, and plastic insert connectors that separate the two faces. The units are cemented together using mortar. The result is a concrete form with finished interior and exterior masonry walls. The form is filled with concrete, creating a strong, attractive, insulated cement wall.

Roof Designs

Mattox points out that churches are now going more rectangular in shape and are getting larger. With these larger structures, the use of wood trusses across the span of vaulted ceilings is not recommended. Steel provides a better support in this respect.

Dave McLane of United Church Structures says that beyond a certain load, the amount of wood needed to maintain sturdiness is not cost effective. But for more conventional spans, as well as for walls, McLane advocates wood because “from an aesthetic standpoint, wood has a very warm feeling.”

Jim Peckham of VP Buildings notes the long-term performance advantages of a steel roof. “You don’t need to worry about painting it for 20 years, and maintenance costs are considerably reduced.” He also points out the need for properly designed insulation with a steel roof. “You want to provide a dense insulation board between the exterior metal and interior structural contact point,” he explains. “A very dense polystyrene material works well here. It will keep the heat out in California and the cold out in Massachusetts.”

Peckham talks about an interesting new development in roof design. Roofs in hot climates not only absorb heat into the building but also into their own material, causing eventual degradation. But a new “cool roof” approach uses special pigments and colors in the roof material designed to reflect solar heat away from the building. The design also allows the roof to cool quickly.

Roof Maintenance

Peckham notes that a key way to minimize roof maintenance and repair costs is to minimize the number of roof penetrations for things such as ventilation pipes. Each penetration is another opportunity for leaks. He also says to avoid placing air conditioning units on the roof. Not only do the additional penetrations create leak opportunities, but also the need to constantly service the units increases roof traffic. Walking on the roof wears away its protective layers and shortens roof life. He advises to put these units behind a screen within the building, in a structure at the back of the building, or on the edge of a parking lot.

Luper warns against cutting corners to save costs with a roof. “You can spend a lot on an expensive roof, then cheapen it up with inexpensive flashing, which may look great but does not have the same life expectancy.”

There are also “a host of little things” to keep in mind about roofs, Luper says. These include roof overhangs to protect windows and doors, proper slopes and water sprouts for runoffs, good exterior trim materials that won’t rot, and a roof material strong enough so it is amenable to high-pressure sprays for cleaning.


In terms of glass, there are a number of considerations to keep in mind and balance out that can appear contradictory. According to Brady Eggleston of Century Builders, reflective insulated glass, especially double or triple glazed, helps keep the outside weather out. In addition, special coatings and films can be added to allow in more warmth from sunlight (for cold climates) or block warmth (warm climates), and to limit the amount of damaging ultraviolet light that is allowed to pass through into the building.

Eggleston points out a relatively new initiative called “daylight analysis,” a tool used by architects to design buildings for the maximum use of natural light. The goal is to reduce electrical costs for daytime lighting. “Look at the positioning of the building so you have glass east and west to take most advantage of natural lighting,” Eggleston says. The design must also balance the amount of solar heat allowed to enter the building.

“Skylights present special consideration,” says Charles Dahlke of Barden & Robeson Corporation. “They bring in a lot of natural light, so you save money on artificial lighting, but the energy goes up through the roof. That’s where you have the biggest loss. The insulating R-value of a skylight is about 3 to 4, as opposed to 38 [for a roof], a huge difference in numbers. So while you can save on lighting, you can spend much more on heating and cooling.”

Simply having well-defined codes and a good understanding of upfront costs and lifecycle costs is not enough to remove all complications. “Most states have their own energy codes, often dating back to the 70s, when they were very rigid,” says McLane of United Church Structures. “Now states tend to leave the [code compliance] determination to the building inspectors. But some enforce the codes more than others, some in a way that’s necessary and some in a way that’s not necessary and is more costly. Some inspectors are more knowledgeable than others. You should be aware of who you are working with.”

New Ways to Heat and Cool

The biggest energy considerations have to do with heating, ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC). There are many varied approaches to this topic. Eggleston of Century Builders speaks of a novel approach for air conditioning that involves using cooler underground temperatures. Tubes are buried deep underground (in some parts of the country up to 400 feet deep) and water is pumped through the tubes. The cooled water goes to a heat exchanger in the building and is used to absorb heat from the air. The air gets cooler and the water gets warmer. The warmed water is cycled back underground for cooling. This method, known as geoexchange, uses much less electricity than a compressor-type air conditioning unit, and can also be used to supplement heating in very cold climates. It is also possible to collect rainwater and use it to flush toilets, which are now being designed to flush far fewer gallons than before.

“We do large churches and wind up ‘zoning’ buildings-using a split system rather than a central plant for heating and cooling,” says Eggleston. He explains that an energy management system is used to create different control zone areas such as the auditorium, offices, and nursery, providing heat and cooling energy only when needed. Eggleston says zone control can be more cost effective than one large system for the entire complex.

Save Energy and the Environment

“There’s a huge effort in the United States for ‘green buildings,’ which are environmentally friendly and have a long-term sustainability,” says Peckham of VP Buildings. “Architects are looking for materials and use processes that have the least negative impact on the environment. So energy, recyclability, and the environment all come into play. California passed Title 24 (energy efficiency standards for buildings), which will impact all structures but will most severely affect air-conditioned space. This will affect other states, several of which are already taking a new look at their energy codes and evaluating what requirements they will have for insulation, especially in public buildings where air conditioning is used.”

The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) is an organization with an impact along these lines. “This is a leading-edge certification body,” says Eggleston. The organization is pioneering a national building standard called LEED, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. In addition to emphasizing energy efficiency, LEED involves state-of-the-art strategies for sustainable site development, water savings, materials selection, and indoor environmental quality. More information is available at

More Light with Less Energy

“Frequently overlooked is the use of highly reflective ceiling colors,” says Jim Gillikin of Myler Church Building Systems. “These increase the light and so limit the number of light fixtures needed, thus using less electricity, and also less heat from these lights which may have to be compensated for by more energy from the air conditioning system.” Gillikin recommends using energy-efficient lamp fixtures. Jerry Bowman of Horst Construction adds “LED (light emitting diode) is both an energy and maintenance saver. It reduces lighting energy by 80 percent.” Luper suggests that churches with high ceilings purchase a scissors lift for the in-house maintenance person to replace bulbs. It can be stored in a small area, and does away with the necessity of hiring someone to simply replace bulbs.

Energy Management

Luper believes that energy management systems can be a great benefit. A moderately priced system might cost $15,000, but a really good control system that runs on the Internet can cost from $25,000 to $40,000. These systems can be automatically set to monitor heating and cooling, as well as turn lights on or off and lock or unlock doors. The property or business manager can control these things from his home, if necessary. There are various automatic components such as sensors that determine if anyone is in the room, and if not, then turns off the lights.

Yoder says there is a full range of energy management options, including a highly sophisticated programmable computer system. But a church could also benefit from a much simpler system in which temperatures and lights are simply managed from a central monitor. Or it might be as simple as the old-fashioned light switch and thermostat in individual rooms. Depending on the church it may be best to go very high-tech, stay very simple, or be somewhere in-between. “You have many choices,” Yoder says. “Just make sure you think out a management strategy that’s appropriate for you and your church.”

Inexpensive Details Can Add Up

Luper adds that there are a number of little details that cost little or nothing, but can be cost savers down the road. “People often plant bushes away from the building, but then they grow and mature and the branches bring moisture and bugs up against the walls and windows,” he says. “Determine how high they will grow, then set them far enough away from the building so there will be no contact.”

Another little detail Luper recommends is to use metal mats at all the doors. “Recessed, corrugated walk-off mats that are not very expensive,” he says. “Every pound of dirt caught in them costs six dollars to remove, but six hundred dollars to remove if it gets into the carpet.”

The attic of a building is easy to overlook. “The attic needs to be properly ventilated no matter what the material,” says Bill Britt, a builder for Wick Buildings. “Even the space above a cathedral ceiling needs free flowing air to keep the inside within seven degrees of the outside temperature during winter and summer. If air is trapped, it can become over-heated, making it harder to cool the interior of the structure.”

Without any protection above them, acoustical ceiling panels can collect moisture, sag, and eventually collapse, says Mattox of Mattox Construction. Eggleston adds that it’s good to invest in humidity-resistant ceiling tiles that resist 90 percent of the moisture.

Exterior paint is a key consideration that is often overlooked. “One of the things I often see in budgets is cheapening up on paints,” says Luper. “In my opinion, this is a big mistake. It takes as much labor to put on cheap paint as good paint. I would encourage the very best paint for the exterior of the building. It won’t let moisture in and is good for long term maintenance.”

“Try to use a carpet with a high thread count,” says Eggleston. “It will cost more up front, but if you cut corners you will find yourself replacing it every two to three years.” Luper suggests using a three-inch strip of the carpet rising on the vertical baseboard of the wall, which is washable and prevents scruff marks on the wall, and also looks good. Gillikin says that in high-usage, hard-surface floor areas masonry tiles are the best bet because they provide a much longer life than any type of sheet vinyl or vinyl composite tile.

“There are many different ways to build a building,” says Dahlke. “But you want to make sure that what you put in, especially mechanical systems, are correct for the building. Sometimes you can over-design something. You have to look at the cost of installation versus the cost of operation. You have to know what you are working with. I personally don’t recommend going above and beyond what you need.”

Thomas G. Dolan is a business journalist who writes in a wide variety of fields.

This article originally appeared Your Church magazine.

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