Tim Cool on Counting the Real Cost of Church Buildings



timcoolThis week on the unSeminary Podcast, Tim Cool with Cool Solutions joined me for a tremendously informative and enlightening conversation about stewarding the facilities God has entrusted to us.

Tim is the father of 18-year-old triplets who are in their last quarter of high school, almost ready to take the leap into college. He is in the business of helping churches build, plan and design their buildings. Cool Solutions also helps churches take care of their facilities, and that’s what we spend most of our time focusing on in today’s conversation.

When people think of a new church facility, what comes to mind for a lot of us is raising money for the initial costs. We pray and invest a lot of effort and energy on figuring out how to fund the project and then on deciding what color to paint the walls. We get really excited about the look and feel of a brand new worship facility. But how to do you keep a new building in Opening-Day condition?

Tim says you can’t, and that shouldn’t be your goal. A more appropriate goal is to be a good steward of what God has entrusted to you to take care of. Everything on the earth belongs to the Lord, so what we are called to do is to steward our facilities as a part of what we’ve been blessed with.

“Facility stewardship isn’t just how we take care of a building after it’s built, it’s thinking about it before we even get into it to make sure we’re going to be able to take care of it!” 

On the front end:

What can you do on the front end, before you even start to build, to make sure you’ll be able to be a good steward of what God has blessed you with?

Start by just taking a little time to think through some basic facts, so you’re not caught off-guard and over-budget in the future. For example:

  • Utility Costs: These will be with you forever, and they’re not likely to go down. If you cut corners to save money on a building that is less energy efficient, you will pay for it long-term.
  • Practical Matters: The 40-foot chandelier may indeed look very impressive, but who is going to change the burned-out light bulbs? The same thing applies to the theater seating with sloped floors that are 30 to 40 feet below the light bulbs in the recessed light fixtures.
  • HVAC: Realize that this will make up 50-75% of your utility bill. You can help keep it down by:
    • Insulation: Don’t skimp on this!
    • HVAC control system: Don’t skimp here either! Don’t pay for air conditioning 24/7 because someone forgot to flip a switch!
  • Lighting: This is the #2 driver of your utility bill. Consider controlling lighting costs by putting in occupancy sensors on the lights and fans in rooms like restrooms.
  • Know your costs: Tim advises that a church can budget approximately $4.50 to $7.00 per square foot for operational costs annually. This includes utilities, janitorial services (including once or twice a year carpet and window cleaning), and typical general maintenance, such as changing light bulbs, grounds maintenance, and HVAC 20×20 filters from and maintenance. It also includes Capital Reserves.
  • Capital Reserves: Tim recommends keeping about $1.00 per square foot annually in a capital reserves fund. This isn’t a slush fund! It’s not to be used to fund the youth group’s mission trip or the praise band’s breakfast. This money will be spent in the future and it’s prudent to have it set aside for the care your facility. It’s good stewardship!

What’s it Cost?

Maybe you’re wondering why Tim and I took the time to review this information. The following facts and figures may surprise you; I know they did me! This is critical information that you and your congregation need to understand when you’re making decisions about the future of your building.

Tim tells us that from 70% to 85% of the cost of ownership of a building is in the operational costs. The following illustration may help put that in perspective:

Let’s look at the life-cycle of a 40-year building.

  • The building is 30,000 square feet and cost $150.00 per square foot to build. So the cost of construction was $4.5 million
  • The church borrowed $3 million at 6% interest over 7 years, so in the first 7 years, 1.1 million is the cost of the money to build the facility
  • Using $6 to $6.50 per square foot to estimate operational costs per year and allowing for inflation, the facility will have used over 15 million dollars in operational costs over the 40 years. Only 20% of the cost will have been in sticks and bricks.

Best ideas:

Whether you have plans to build a brand-new building, are adding on to an existing structure, or have no plans to do any type of construction, there are some great lessons to learn from Tim on stewardship:

  1. Don’t side-step what you have to do to take care of your existing structure. Caulk, paint, and be a good steward of what God has blessed you with.
  2. Don’t rob Peter to pay Paul. Start a capital reserves fund and hold it as designated for that purpose.
  3. Check out Cool Solutions for more information. They are a great resource for ideas on sustaining and managing what God has entrusted to you. You can find them on the internet at or send your questions via an email to Tim Cool at [email protected]

Interview Highlights

00:38 // Rich introduces Tim and welcomes him to the show.

00:58 // Tim introduces himself.

01:35 // Tim references his triplets.

02:28 // Tim talks about goals when planning a new facility.

04:11 // Tim gives examples of long term considerations when planning worship spaces.

05:05 // Rich agrees with Tim by offering an example of a church he recently visited.

05:57 // Tim talks about cost implications on ministry budgeting.

06:47 // Tim highlights the mistakes that impact operational costs.

09:09 // Tim gives us a breakdown of long term operational costs.

14:42 // Tim offers advice on facility care and maintenance.

17:03 // Tim advises churches to ‘start small, grow into it, build as you go’.

17:53 // Tim offers his contact details.

Interview Transcript //

Rich – Well hey everybody, happy Thursday, welcome to the unSeminary podcast. Thanks so much for tuning in, we know you’re busy as you prepare for this weekend at your church and we’re just honored that you would take some time out today to listen in and hopefully be encouraged and built up.

We’ve got a great conversation lined up. We’ve got a returning guest, Tim Cool from Cool Solutions Group is with us today and I’m excited to see what Tim has to say and probably challenge some of us today as we’re leading at our church. Tim welcome to the show.

Tim – Great thanks Rich it’s great to be back.

Rich – Why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself and about Cool Solutions?

Tim – Okay yeah. Short story is Tim Cool is the father of 18 year old triplets that are in their last semester of high school. So if everyone could buy some of my books or hire a film, I could pay for college this year. So that’s the home life.

My background is helping churches plan and design and build their buildings and then also I’ve stepped into the realm of helping them take care of their buildings. So that’s pretty much what Cool Solutions does.

Rich – That’s amazing. Three, you know, triplets that’s amazing, all going into college. Now have they sorted out where they’re going or are they still in the throes of that, trying to figure that out?

Tim – Well all three want to go to Appalachian State up in Boone, North Carolina. One of them has been accepted, the other two have been waitlisted.

Rich – Okay.

Tim – The one that was accepted spent a little more time on her grades than the other two.

Rich – Oh okay, nice cool. Well that sounds like you’ll be sending a significant part of your income to Appalachian. So that’s great. Well why don’t we talk about church facilities? Obviously I think when people think of your company or thinking about building a new facility, we spend a lot of time, effort and energy, we take a lot of time to raise the money and pray about it, sweat through the details, figure out what color to paint the walls and things look amazing on opening day. Is it even possible to keep your facilities, a kind of opening day readiness for years, or is that just a dream we should let go of?

Tim – Yeah that’s a great question. The reality is you’ll never keep them as nice as you have them on opening day. Think about, if you moved into a brand new house, yeah it looks great and you keep painting the walls every so often and you can make them look fresh and new, but it’ll never look brand new.

Rich – Right.

Tim – That really shouldn’t be the goal. The goal though is trying to be a steward of what God’s entrusted to you. So I’m a firm believer that everything out there belongs to God. Even the guitars over your right shoulder belong to God.

Rich – Yes.

Tim – If we believe that then we have been asked to be stewards of what God has entrusted to us. Too often when we think of stewardship, in terms of a stewardship campaign, we’ve got to raise money, but if you go through the New Testament, stewardship and the word ‘entrusted’ is used at different times, talking about things that God has entrusted to us. Sometimes it was physical things, sometimes it was the word ‘God’ itself and how his people have been entrusted to us.

So the question is, what are we doing to steward what God has given to us? And the facilities are just a piece of that. So the bigger question is, what are we doing to provide facility stewardship for our buildings?

Rich – Absolutely.

Tim – And facility stewardship isn’t just how do we take care of it, it’s thinking about it before we ever get into it, to make sure that we are going to take care of it.

Rich – Okay, so there’s something that stuck out to me when you said that there. Obviously on the front end, when we’re designing our spaces, we want to be thinking through, “Okay how are we going to care for this long term? How are we going to steward this long term?” What are some of the things churches should be thinking about on that front?

Tim – The utility costs are going to be with you forever.

Rich – Right.

Tim – I’ve never met a utility company that lowers their rates.

Rich – That’s true.

Tim – So the reality is, if you go with a building that has less energy efficiency, you’re going to pay for it long term. There’s going to be perpetual care that is always going to impact your ministry budget.

Then think about, yeah isn’t it really cool to have that 40 foot chandelier in the lobby space, but the question is, how am I going to change those lightbulbs at certain times? How am I going to change the lightbulbs in my worship space, when I’ve got theater seats on slope 4 and I’ve got 30 feet to the bottom of the light picture?

Rich – Yes.

Tim – How am I going to do that? So thinking through those types of things before the first lightbulb burns out is critical.

Rich – Oh my goodness, yeah. It’s funny, I was just in a church this week, built in the 60s, and it’s a beautiful facility, it’s kind of right at the end of when it seemed like churches were building things that, just in themselves looked beautiful, as opposed to more utilitarian right?

So it has some beautiful stained glass and it was a fantastic space, but we were standing in this space looking up, and the guy who was with me said, “How do you change those lightbulbs up there?” And he said, “You know it’s funny,” this was the guy who’s like the leader from the church, one of the elders, he said, “You know, we’ve been talking for years, we’re not really sure how to change those lightbulbs.”

So they’ve just been slowly going out and they’ve tried all different kinds of things. You know, the floors not… you can’t get a lift in, all these different things, and then there’s a whole set of lights that he said, “We’re just letting those burn out. Once they’re done, we’re not even worrying about those ones.” So it’s amazing when that happens but it really does.

Tim – Yeah I’ve got a client that I work with in Texas. When I went through their building to evaluate it, they had 18 different kinds of lightbulbs.

Rich – Oh my goodness wow.

Tim – Some of them were really cool lightbulbs that the architect and engineer had spec’d, they were like $25 each to replace. Then, after that, you couldn’t get them anymore.

Rich – Right.

Tim – Which means not only do you have to go and find a different lightbulb, you’re going to have to find a different light fixture because a regular lightbulb won’t fit in it. Now it’s a significant cost.

Rich – Oh wow. On the kind of energy efficient front, when a church is designing a space, what are some kind of common mistakes, or things that you’re seeing? Lightbulbs obviously is one of them, you can see that, you take however many lightbulbs you have and that adds up quickly. But what are some other areas that people are making mistakes on the front end?

Tim – When you look at your operational costs of a building, HVAC will be the number one driver of your utility bill. It will make up anywhere to 50% of your utility bill.

Rich – Wow.

Tim – So anything you can do to help with that is a critical thing. Number one, make sure the building is properly insulated. Don’t skip on insulation and make it weather tight. Secondly, don’t skip on the control system for your HVAC. The last thing you want is an air conditioning unit running 24 hours a day just because someone forgot to pull the switch. That’s worthless.

Other things that you would then want to look at is, how can you control your lighting? Lighting’s your second biggest item. So in rooms that maybe have occasional use, like restrooms, put in occupancy sensors. Now a kind of fun note is, the occupancy sections work great in restrooms, because that’s a room that doesn’t have windows generally.

Rich – Right.

Tim – So when you’re driving by at 9 o’clock at night, you don’t know the restroom lights are on and what’s generally tied to a restroom light is also the fan. So you burn the light and the fan all at the same time. Well I heard of one church that had put their occupancy sensor by the door, which is great when you walk in, but when grandma goes to the back stall and spends more than an appropriate amount of time back there, that light goes off.

Rich – Right.

Tim – Then what does granny do to get out of that stall?

Rich – Yes oh my goodness.

Tim – So you need to make sure that you’re thinking through those kind of logistics, that you get good coverage over a whole area, because if you and I decide to go in there and read Sports Illustrated for 30 minutes, just to get away from the rest of the staff, we don’t want the lights going out on us.

Rich – That’s so true. Oh gosh that’s a little too close to home. That’s great. Now what about, are there rules, kind of tacking a little bit, when you think about the cost of a facility or like square footage, I’m a total newbie on this stuff, how do I go about calculating? How often should I be replacing windows and doors? Is there like a number I should be thinking about; square footage or cost of the space? How does that work? How should I be planning for that, looking into the future?

Tim – Yeah great question. Generally speaking, you need to be budgeting between $450 and $700 per square foot for operational costs.

Rich – Okay.

Tim – That’s an annual cost.

Rich – Yep.

Tim – So if I’ve got 100 thousand square feet I should be budgeting somewhere between $450 and $700 thousand a year for operational costs.

Rich – Okay,

Tim – What that would include is utilities, your janitorial, including seasonal cleaning like doing the windows once or twice a year and carpets and so on, then your general maintenance. You’re doing your air conditioning filters, replacing lightbulbs, all the stuff you would do on a normal basis.

So $450 to $700 a square foot is a good number. That also includes your capital reserve money, which is the other big thing that churches just forget to do. We generally recommend about $1 per square foot of that $450 to $700 for capital reserves.

Rich – Okay.

Tim – And that capital reserve isn’t your slush fund, it isn’t your buy a new guitar fund, it isn’t the pastor’s going to the Bahamas fund, it is money you are going to spend. I can assure you that every air conditioning unit in your building will be replaced at some point in time.

Rich – Right.

Tim – So you can’t work with the capital reserve as just a savings account, it’s just money you are going to spend in the future, so you’re being prudent to set aside now.

Rich – Right, wow.

Tim – Think of it in this term. I did a report for Church Executive Magazine a few years ago. They were challenging one of my blogs; The Cost of Owning a Building. So they said, “Well can you prove that?” I said, “Yeah I can prove that.” That wasn’t meant to sound arrogant. But we look at the lifecycle of a 40 year building.

Rich – Right.

Tim – If you take, let’s say a 30 thousand square foot building and you build new at $150 a square foot or something, that’s $4.5 million to build it.

Rich – Yep.

Tim – Let’s say that you’re going to borrow $3 million of that $4.5 and you put it on a 6% loan that you’re going to pay off in 7 years. During that first 7 years you’re going to spend $1.1 million in interest, but that’s your cost of money.

Rich – Right.

Tim – If you take the $450 to $700 a square foot and just assume it’s, I don’t know, $650 a square foot. That’s $195 thousand a year. If you assume a 1% inflation per year, non-compounding over 40 years, you’re going to spend close to $15 million in operation costs.

Rich – Wow.

Tim – So over 40 years only 20% of the cost of the building is sticks and bricks.

Rich – Right.

Tim – 70% is the cost of operations.

Rich – I don’t want people to miss that. That is an incredible point. I think sometimes we… a lot of times I’ve seen churches, they eek out their existence to get into the space and they starve literally everything. They ratchet every financial thing they can do, they push to the very end and then what happens and in fact there was a church we were quite closely involved with, helping them kind of rebirth, where they kind of ended up in a bit of a downturn and they delayed any maintenance on their facility for probably 20 years.

Tim – Yeah.

Rich – In the end it showed. It was close between, do you just push it over and start over again, because there’s so much that they had missed. That’s incredible I really appreciate that.

Tim – Now what’s interesting is, about the time I put that article out I got a call from the folks at State Farm Insurance out at Chicago. They actually have a division in Chicago that is made up of architects, engineers, facility managers, real certified guys that manage all their facilities around the country. The guy that called me was a believer and he happened to read my article and said they had just gone through the exact same exercise for all of their 40 or 50 year old buildings that State Farm own. They found that 80% of the cost of ownership was in operational costs.

Rich – Wow.

Tim – My number was 71%.

Rich – Right.

Tim – Then I found a book that was written in the 1960s by an architect that claimed that 85% of the cost was operations. So I think it’s pretty clear that anywhere from 70% to 85% is what you’re going to spend in operational costs and what ends up happening Richard is, we get our panties in the wire over $1 a square foot of construction costs or a half a percent fee of the architect’s cost, and we fail to remember, what will I pay for this thing for generations to come, what are we doing about that?

Rich – I think obviously that brings into focus a lot more, even you know, should we be spending a more up front to make the building more efficient to try to reduce those overall costs? Even if you can assume and you’ve assumed a fairly aggressive paying down of a loan over 7 years, I know the couple of building projects I’ve been involved, I’ve said like, “Listen I don’t want to get us into a debt situation where my kids have to pay this off,” so we’ve got to work hard now to pay as much up front, so that’s a clear picture.

Now Tim I want you to image that there’s that client church that you’re talking to, let’s say they are listening in and there’s that thing that you really want to say to them but because you want to be nice and it’s hard to say it to them face to face, but they’re listening in now, in this whole area, what’s the thing, or a few other things that you’d love to say to them, when it comes to facility care and maintenance?

Tim – Don’t sidestep what you’ve got to do to keep your building up and definitely don’t rob Peter to pay Paul when it comes to your capital reserves. You’re going to spend that money. Think of it this way, if one Sunday you woke up and you couldn’t use your building because it wasn’t functional anymore, what would that do to your ministry?

Rich – Gosh yeah.

Tim – Too many churches I hear them say, “We can’t afford to put $X away because it will rob the ministry or what we’re giving the missions.” Well let’s put the head on the other head and say, “Okay well what happens if we couldn’t use this building at all? What would that do to your ministry?”

Here’s a prime example. I did a project down in the Hilton Head area several years ago, which is a terrible place to have to work but somebody’s got to do it. This church, back in the 90s, decided to use a less expensive wood window. They did it for budget reasons which is fine. I’ve been doing this 30 years Rich, I’ve never met a church with an unlimited budget.

Rich – Right, right, exactly.

Tim – So sometimes you make value decisions which is totally acceptable.

Rich – Yeah.

Tim – I came back 10 years later to build another building for them and they said, “Hey can you come over and look at our windows, they’re not quite working right?” So we went over and looked at it and they were kind of shimmying up and doing funky stuff and they were rotting a little bit and I said, “Well when was the last time you had them painted and caulk fixed?” “Huh?” So they hadn’t done anything to them.

Rich – Right.

Tim – Building as a rule of thumb, according to the International Facility Management Association, deteriorate at a rate of 1% a year, just natural deterioration. Wood, paint, all that stuff deteriorates.

Rich – Right.

Tim – So we did a real quick regression analysis for that church, we said, “If you’d have reinstalled 16 tubes of caulk, at about $X per hour for a guy to do it and you spend about $400 a year, over 10 years, so you’ve spent $4 thousand.” Instead they spent $20 thousand to replace their windows.

Rich – Right.

Tim – So where’s the stewardship in that?

Rich – Right.

Tim – How can a church say, “We can’t afford to start setting aside money for that future repair,” but then when the air conditioning blows up they’re able to raise $50 thousand to replace the air conditioning system?

Rich – Right, great. Well is there anything else you’d love to share with us before we wrap up today’s episode?

Tim – Yeah, when I throw out some of these numbers I generally get a ‘deer in the headlights’ look. How in the world are we going to get the deacons or the elders to approve that kind of money? Start small, grow into it, you’ll build it up as you go. I don’t expect churches that have no reserve to start off, from day one, with a huge reserve account. But to have something is better than having nothing.

Rich – Absolutely.

Tim – It’s kind of like my retirement account. I don’t have enough to retire on right now but having a little bit is better than having nothing.

Rich – Yes absolutely. Well Tim I really appreciate you being on the show today. If people want to get in touch with you or with Cool Solutions how can they do that? Also you hinted a little bit earlier that this is kind of a newer part or a growing part of your business, why don’t you tell us a little bit about how you serve churches, particularly with these issues?

Tim – If they want to reach us our website is and my direct email is [email protected]. But this whole sustainability piece is just that part of the lifecycle, you know, we have ‘dreamy’ where you come up with the great ideas, then you plan it, then you build it and we never forget about the sustaining piece and it truly is a lifecycle, because then you sustain it and at some point you’ve got to re-plan it. So it’s this constant lifecycle. Unfortunately most churches stop at build and then they forget about everything else.

Rich – Right.

Tim – So out of good stewardship, we had to have something that provided that and if they go to our website, on our resource section, we actually have a new manual that we put out called, Facility Stewardship: Managing What God Has Entrusted To You.

Rich – Nice.

Tim – It’s about a 300 page manual.

Rich – Oh my goodness.

Tim – It’s got job descriptions, it’s got checklists, it’s got great articles and just a bunch of good tools for churches to use that if they’re just now thinking about how they’re going to steward their buildings, this is a great way to jumpstart.

Rich – Perfect. Well I’ll provide a link in the show notes as well, directly to that, so people can jump over to your site and pick that up. Tim I really appreciate you being on the show today, thanks so much for taking time out.

Tim – Thank you Rich.

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Rich Birch
Rich Birch is one of the early multi-site church pioneers in North America. He led the charge in helping The Meeting House in Toronto to become the leading multi-site church in Canada with over 5,000+ people in 18 locations. In addition, he served on the leadership team of Connexus Church in Ontario, a North Point Community Church Strategic Partner. He has also been a part of the lead team at Liquid Church - a 5 location multisite church serving the Manhattan facing suburbs of New Jersey. Liquid is known for it’s innovative approach to outreach and community impact. Rich is passionate about helping churches reach more people, more quickly through excellent execution.His latest book Church Growth Flywheel: 5 Practical Systems to Drive Growth at Your Church is an Amazon bestseller and is design to help your church reach more people in your community.