May 2005
Buildings and Grounds

Holy Care of Holy Places

Serving on a buildings and grounds committee is probably one of the most thankless tasks you will ever be asked to do for your church. There is little glamour in maintenance, and most of us live with unrealistically small budgets that result in crisis management care for our churches. Why do we struggle so with maintenance and why is it considered such an inferior responsibility? If the truth be told, we are indeed the foundation stone which helps ensure
a welcoming shelter to those who arrive at our door.

For those who seek to find a systematic way to provide good, efficient maintenance, read on. For most congregations, maintenance is unplanned, although there is a direct cost relationship between proactive vs. reactive maintenance. Planned maintenance can save money. However, before you can plan, you have to know what you are maintaining. For many of us, this is the first part of the journey to effective planned maintenance.

Begin with a church property register
My recent experience with a dreadful fire at a church in New Jersey has made me aware that parishes first need to know what they own. The Council for the Care of Churches in England provides its churches a property register form; I suggest the same idea for American parishes.

Such a register for your parish should include information on the buildings, their documents, and their contents. Much of this information, while it exists, is unorganized and found piecemeal in many of our parishes. An example: the preparation of drawings for a church can cost between $6,000 and $20,000. Most churches have them, but they are often stored in a back room, easily lost to a fire or flood.

Maps, drawings, photographs, deed restrictions, lists of funds and benefactors should be kept in your register. Include as well a list of building contents: furnishings, stained glass, art and sculptures, bells, organs, textiles, books and sheet music. Use your camera to make this process easier. Vestries also need to understand the historic significance of parish buildings, chronology of construction, building materials, and any deed restrictions.

Condition assessment
Once you have established what you have, you then need to know its condition. Inspection of religious properties is a critical part of putting the planned maintenance puzzle together and helping your parish to be a warm and welcoming space. Why is this step so important?

  • It saves money.
  • It allows good fiscal planning and budgeting.
  • It anticipates major capital expenditures and encourages good building maintenance planning.

Quinquennial (every five years) inspections have been mandated by the Church of England since the ‘60s for all churches, and I recommend such a process for American churches as well.

A quinquennial plan takes on the big picture and helps determine the most urgent priorities. Prepared by a professional, the quinquennial report should provide detailed photographic evidence of deteriorated conditions, along with a cost estimate of projected work. The other advantages of a quinquennial is that the work is sensibly phased and results in successful fund-raising.

Scheduled maintenance
You are now ready to move forward with a scheduled maintenance plan. Develop a realistic budget and checklist for each season, including:

  • Gutters and downspouts must be cleaned frequently.
  • Maintenance of machinery and equipment must be done regularly and the best prices for this type of work are at the end of the season, e.g., have the furnace serviced in the spring after the heating season.
  • Building materials must be repaired appropriately. Respect the value of older materials. Remember a one inch piece of wood on an old window frame has approximately twenty growth rings as opposed to four growth rings in a new piece of wood.
  • Schedule repairs logically. For example, if scaffolding is required to change a light bulb, use the scaffolding to change all the light bulbs at the same time.
  • Check your plants. When they are close to buildings, especially near sedimentary stones, they form an expensive problem because they encourage biological growth, often resulting in rapid deterioration of the stone mortar.
  • Test the electrical systems and lightning protection systems every five years.
  • Develop detailed schedules for cleaning each room and surface. This will help the sexton to plan and budget his cleaning maintenance work.
  • Include the sexton in meetings because he usually knows more about the buildings than anyone else!

A maintenance manual
Tracking maintenance is best done by keeping a church maintenance manual and it should be the sole responsibility of one vestry member. A manual should include committee members, an emergency contact list, approved contractors, monthly maintenance schedules, inspection reports, maintenance budgets, long-range plans, meeting minutes, and technical information on repairs.

It is a long road ahead for many of us, but with God’s guidance we can pass on to future generations well maintained holy places.

A native of England and a member of Trinity Episcopal Church in Princeton, Annabelle Radcliffe-Trenner is a founding principal of HistoricBuilding Architects, LLC, in Trenton, New Jersey. Named “Young Architect of the Year” in 2002, she is committed to helping those who care for buildings in the public realm, including historic churches.

This article is part of the May 2005 Vestry Papers issue on Buildings and Grounds