Architects and Churches - What Does Arkansas Law Require?

July 16, 2015
Architects and Churches - What Does Arkansas Law Require?

When a church builds or remodels, finances are always a major consideration. As a result, discussions arise concerning reducing costs. What are the priorities? What can we do without? Where can we “cut corners” and still have a facility that will meet our needs? Every facet of the process is considered, and inevitably, architectural services become a part of the discussion.  Someone will question if it is really worth it, and wonders why the church can’t just hire a contractor and build what is needed. The simple answer is that in most cases, it is against the law in Arkansas to build a church facility without the services of a licensed architect.

The Arkansas Architectural Act dictates what is and is not required in Arkansas, but like many government documents, finding a simple answer is almost impossible. Also coming into play is the Arkansas State Fire Code, which adds additional building requirements.  After reviewing both documents and seeking the wisdom of two Arkansas Baptist deacons – both licensed architects – here are answers to the most common questions.

• When is a church required to use an architect? If construction is valued at $100,000 fair market value and approved by the fire marshal, or if the building has multiple floors, then plans have to be approved by a licensed architect. The State Fire Code further states that if a building is more than 5,000 square feet, then an architect is required. Note:  this requirement is figured on fair market value, not actual construction costs.

• When is an architect not required? If a one-story building is valued at less than $100,000, has less than 5,000 square feet, and plans are approved by the state fire marshal, then architectural services are not required.

• Our church is in the country. We have no zoning laws. Do we still have to have an architect? Yes. The Arkansas Architectural Act and the Arkansas State Fire Code are in force for the whole state.

• Is it legal to use plans designed for another church? Only if those plans are certified for your location.  While the original architect may not charge as much to adapt the plans, every location is different and changes made to accommodate that location must have specific approval.

• Can we use an out-of-state architect or architectural service? Yes, but only if he/she is registered with the state of Arkansas before actual construction begins.  Also, be aware of what you are paying for.  Some firms offer discount plans that are only basic floor plans. Additional drawings for foundation, mechanical, electrical, etc. are provided at additional costs, and actual costs could be as much or more than a full service architect would cost.

• Can plans be drawn by someone else, and then submitted to an architect? It depends on the architect. Again, while an architect may choose to charge less if  a major portion of the plans are drawn by a third party, the architect’s seal is his word and it is his reputation and legal liability at stake. He has to be sure the plans are both safe and meet codes.

• If our church meets state code requirements, are we ready to build? State codes are minimum requirements. Many local governments have additional requirements that go beyond state codes. For example, state code may not require a fire sprinkler system in a specific building, but local codes require it. Plans must satisfy all codes, which is an additional reason to rely on the expertise of a licensed architect.

• If we don’t use an architect, who will know? There are three factors that need to be considered:

• The Legal/Liability Aspect – Churches are not exempt from local and state codes, nor are they exempt from the consequences of violating those codes. In addition, if there were a future injury or death that is deemed to have been caused by the failure to follow the law, the church and its leadership would be liable for any damages assigned by the courts.

• The Safety Aspect – While some codes may seem excessive, expensive, and frivolous, they attempt to assure the safety and well-being of the public. A former state fire marshal (a good Nazarene layman) said it this way: “Preacher, I want to see more people go to heaven, and I don’t want to see them burn up in your building before you can keep them from burning in hell.” Safe buildings send a message that people are important to your church.

• The Ethical Aspect – In reality, many smaller churches could probably build without an architect and no one would ever know, but what messages are we sending to our church, our community and our children? In the teachings of both Jesus and the apostle Paul, we are to abide by the laws of man unless they are in direct conflict with the laws of God. By obeying the law, your church is not only a proper member of your community, you exhibit your belief in the authority of Scripture, even when it is not to your liking.

Future articles will discuss considerations in choosing an architect and additional safety issues for churches. If you have questions, please contact the Evangelism & Health Team of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention, (800) 838-2272.