"It's an industry-wide problem," explained Craig Janssen of Acoustic Dimensions (AD). "Up to 30 percent of our worship projects would stop after the schematic design phase because the project simply wasn't real. Often we would know that the project wasn't financially feasible in the very first meeting, but we had no way of communicating this to the client. And when we did, there was always the issue of, 'But aren't you just the AV consultant?'"
Janssen continued, "As a team, we become very personally invested in the projects on which we work. It was discouraging to watch facilities value-engineered down to the point that they were unable to meet the ministry needs for which they were being built in the first place. In the AV world we use technology every day to solve problems. It occurred to us that a combination of consulting skill and technology could be used to solve this one as well."
This started AD on a 2-year journey of developing a solution that would eventually become an entirely new division, Strategic Dimensions. The team began developing computer-modeling software to track the variables for use in their consulting practice. The software is designed to work in real time so that as leadership and design teams make decisions, they can see the impact of those decisions immediately.
"If you break the project development process down into its basic components, you will find that all of the issues are about people, space, time and money," Janssen related. "Think of it as a puzzle. Like a Rubik's cube, you can't move one square into place without rearranging all of the others. It works the same way in a construction project. Each decision that is made affects everything else."
AD began to pull together the data on hundreds of worship projects across a wide variety of denomination and geographical boundaries. "As a team, we were in a unique position to begin to pull this together," Janssen added. "Because we work on so many churches each year, it was current real-world information that we already owned."
As AD began to develop its database, certain metrics began to emerge. For example, in churches with highly successful children's ministries, for every seat in the main worship center there was a fairly consistent amount of square footage in the children's areas. It provided a window for calculating children's space in the computer model.
The computer model calculates over 12,000 variables of information. Though the program was originally written in MSExcel customized with visual basic, it is currently being rewritten as a standalone application.
"The challenging part of this has always been to make the program usable and productive when you are setting up the models and also when you are presenting in front of an audience," explained Ryan Knox, who did a large part of the programming. "In a work session, it functions almost like presentation software. It allows a large group to fully explore scenarios, then make educated decisions based on the results. Within a few hours, a committee can come up with a unified decision that might not have otherwise been reached. Best of all, the decision tends to stick."
The program also supplies graphics that assist clients in reporting the reasons for their decisions to other groups within the church. "We tried to make it as nonlinear as possible," Knox elaborated. "Generally, you can affect global parameters because everything is interlinked, tracking across the entire computer model."
"Quite honestly, we didn't initially know how well the process would be received," commented Steve Reed, a senior consultant for Strategic Dimensions. "Yet every time we go through the process with a church, people are blown away. Nonviable scenarios drop off the table with a minimum of emotion, and people start to get excited about the ones that are viable."
Though the computer model is currently designed to work for churches, it isn't limited to those projects. "We've received interest in the process not just from churches," Janssen revealed, "but also from architects, banks, fund-raising consultants and contractors. The process can be applied to performing arts, universities, healthcare and entertainment industries as well."
"The big, hairy, audacious goal," said Jeff Otero, senior consultant at SD, "is to completely change the way facilities are planned. One of the biggest advantages to the process is how quickly it can be achieved. What used to take months, can now be done in just a few weeks."