Reducing Building Operating Cost Through Good Design

Chase Oaks Church - Plano, Texas

Churches face a significant challenge in accomplishing as much as possible with limited resources, but construction dollars represent only a small fraction of the total expenditures over the life of a building. While cost of construction is certainly an important consideration, as long-term building owners and operators churches should also consider the true costs of a building over its entire life cycle. Beyond construction cost, life cycle costs also include operating expenses and energy use, maintenance and repairs, replacement of furnishings and equipment, and future renovations as needs change. Over a 30- to 50-year building life, operations often represent 65-85% of the full cost over a building’s life cycle.

Design decisions about the selection of major building systems, along with characteristics of the building envelope, interior environment and site development can make a direct impact on your yearly operating budget, and a modest investment in strategic priorities and long-term thinking during the initial definition of a project can result in substantial savings over the life of a building.

These strategic decisions fall into three major categories:

  1. Choices which may increase direct construction cost but result in lower operating costs, such as higher efficiency HVAC equipment, direct digital controls for HVAC, high performance glass, improved building insulation, and improved durability of interior finish materials.
  2. Strategies with little or no construction or design cost impact, such as solar-optimized building orientation, integrated and holistic consideration of the interaction among building systems, iterative energy modeling to test the impact of design alternatives, and thoughtful programming to “right size” the building from the start.
  3. Design decisions which offer long term benefits to users but where return on investment is difficult to quantify. Research indicates that daylighting and views to the outside, enhanced room acoustics, localized temperature control and improved indoor air quality  reduce absenteeism of staff, increase user satisfaction, comfort, productivity and well-being, and aid recruiting and retention.

Other than personnel, energy use is the most significant part of operating cost, so investing in energy efficiency is one of the most effective means of reducing life-cycle costs. This includes strategies for sustainability but does not necessarily mean pursuing building credentials under LEED. MEP systems typically represent up to one third of the cost of construction in church buildings, and heating, cooling and lighting represent approximately 80% of total energy use, so efficiencies gained there are most impactful.

Longevity is another important factor, particularly in the selection of finishes in church buildings. As an example, a resilient floor might be less expensive to install than terrazzo or polished concrete but requires regular maintenance and replacement every 10-15 years. Over a 40-year building life, a resilient floor might cost twice as much as terrazzo, which requires virtually no maintenance.

Strategic thinking during project definition can often improve operating efficiency and operating cost with little or no burden on construction cost. We recommend an integrative design approach which considers building systems holistically, using an iterative energy modeling process which enables the design team to test the impact of design alternatives across a variety of building systems on overall performance. For example, improving the R-value of roof or wall insulation and adding high-performance windows can reduce the required capacity of the HVAC system, allowing a smaller electrical service and saving HVAC equipment weight and duct sizes, which may in turn yield reductions in building structure or skin cost as well as operational savings. Considered collectively, the net impact to the construction budget for this optimization may in fact be savings rather than additional cost.

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The GFF Church Works Studio is a team of highly experienced design professionals who focus exclusively on the planning and design of faith-based facilities.

For more information, please contact:
Stephen Pickard, AIA at
Jacquelyn Block, AIA, LEED AP at