Construction and the Heritage Fund: Nancy Sofen’s Personal Point

Twenty years ago this spring as a new member of Follen, I was asked to join the Buildings and Grounds Committee. There I found my people: those who create and care for physical spaces as an expression of how they value the people and activities that use those spaces. I later served on the Construction Oversight Committee for our last renovation from 2001-3, and today still belong to the Buildings and Grounds Action Team (whose acronym just begs us to call it by the biblical “begat”), chair Follen’s Financial and Human Resources Action Team and serve on the current Construction Oversight Group.

Construction Oversight Group

I’m up here today to talk about our upcoming building project. Except for Claire, the members of the Construction Oversight Group (COG, as we call ourselves) are all also members of BGAT and include 3 architects, 2 landscape architects, a lawyer and property manager, and a heating, ventilation and cooling (HVAC) engineer. I myself bring no professional expertise to the group but love being part of this incredible team. Its deep knowledge of this building and scrutiny of every minute detail of plans and proposals over many months has helped our hired partners enormously even as we drive them a bit nuts.

This congregation is comfortable with the frugal Yankee mindset that usually guides Follen repairs and renovations. But this project is different from those we’ve done in recent memory – it is truly transformative. You embraced the vision of a building that is accessible to all with dignity and ease and gave generously, and Epp’s matching gift enables a 3rd floor to replace lost meeting space and give music and other programs some breathing room. This is the last major expansion Follen is likely to make on this property. The total raised in our Capital Campaign, which now stands at just over $4M, means that we can do it right, and that’s something we can all be proud of.

The project is big, and incredibly complicated. Renovating buildings that were built over a span of 140 years, with varying floor levels, adding AC, managing stormwater runoff while hard up against the lot lines, meeting updated accessibility and building codes, satisfying needs of staff, programs and storage for a growing congregation, and in an Historic District to boot, are only some of the issues we’ve grappled with. The design process has been exciting and exacting, and we’ve arrived at a plan that we think really works. We want to move this project forward quickly so that we can take advantage of a summer window when construction won’t have to work around Waldorf’s schedule, and so that we can move back into the sanctuary, and the nursery space below, for services in the fall. Now that we have Historic Districts Commission approval, the COG believes that we can, and should, start this project this summer.

COG has been meeting with our architects almost weekly for a year now to make design, equipment and material choices that provide real accessibility, smooth traffic flow, light-filled spaces, good acoustics, durable outdoor materials, energy efficiency and moisture and climate control. For cost reasons we’ve had to narrow the scope of the project, so we’ve cut things that we know can be treated separately in the future, such as adding to and remodeling the Marshman Center. We’ve simplified HVAC systems and pushed back against requests by the Historic Districts Commission for more expensive exterior materials. You’re wondering, if we raised $4M, why can’t we do everything? Current (and still preliminary) construction cost estimates are around $3.5M. There are also significant soft costs, which include professional fees, construction financing and logistics, which add up to between $600-$700 thousand. The total of these costs is at or a little over what we’ve raised. We’re still working very hard with Maryann Thompson Architects and the chosen contractor, ZVI, to lower costs further and to get what we want and need within our budget.

Then is it standard best practice to set aside a contingency of 10% of construction costs, in our case about $350,000, toward unexpected expenses. To take this contingency from the construction budget will require giving up on a range of desirable options and would likely compromise our satisfaction with the final result.

The Heritage Fund

What we’re asking you for is congregational approval for access to the Heritage Fund of Follen’s endowment for the construction contingency, a maximum of $350,000, to be used only if needed for unanticipated expenses that arise after we’ve agreed to a scope and budget with our construction manager. We commit to budgeting all known construction and soft costs for this project within the amount that’s been raised by the Capital Campaign. But we feel strongly that to omit from the scope upfront something that’s important to the project, in order to reserve a 10% contingency, when we have other funds available, does not serve Follen well in the long run.

The Heritage Fund, one of Follen’s endowment funds that is currently valued at $353K, is specifically for the preservation and improvement of our physical plant. There is another building-specific endowment fund, the Beals Repair Fund, that currently holds $77K and that we do not plan to touch. Those who gave to the Heritage Fund intended for it to be used for the building. Obviously, we would prefer to not need it – and would not use it for those “nice to have” scope additions unless we first came back to you and asked.

We are appropriately nervous about all the uncertainties we face, but I trust the combined experience and wisdom of this group to make sound financial and operational decisions. This request has the support of the Capital Campaign Committee, Financial and Human Resources Action Team, and Program Council, with Parish Board to consider it tomorrow night.

With every worship service, anthem, committee meeting, fair, covenant group, RE class, and operetta, we are building and rebuilding this community. If we’re going to build a space that holds and does justice to these sacred activities, it’s time to accept the gifts of those who endowed the Heritage Fund, to help us do it.