OGDEN (AP) Homebuilding in Utah has slowed to a crawl this year, but demand for new places of worship continues to flourish in the face of economic downturn.
For the state's leading denomination, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, new buildings are a natural outgrowth of being one of the world's fastest-growing religions.
"The church builds when they need to," said Rob Howell, a spokesman for the LDS Church. "Meetinghouses are constructed to accommodate the membership needs of the church."
Building God's Way, an Ogden-based firm that designs Christian churches and schools, combines economic and religious principles in its business model.
Founded 10 years ago by local architect Daniel Cook, Building God's Way seeks to provide cost-effective designs for various Christian churches and schools around the country, chief executive Steve Hartman said.
The company designed, and through its 20-plus contractor partners across the nation, built 27 churches and parochial schools in the United States last year.
It has designed about 400 buildings to date, and currently has about 200 projects in various stages of the design process, Hartman said.
"The heart of this whole business is to help churches and schools expand their ministries," he said.
Detailed, comparative figures on religion-related real estate are not readily available, but anecdotal evidence suggests the sector is at least somewhat insulated from the economic ups and downs that affect residential building and other forms of commercial real estate.
"It's just such a small segment of the overall market that I don't think anyone is really keeping track," said Robert Lindsey, northern Utah manager for the commercial real estate firm Commerce CRG. "But I would think it's not really based on the economy."
For example, Arizona currently has one of the worst overall real estate markets in the nation, but the LDS Church recently announced plans to build two new temples there.
LDS churches are built based on recommendations from local leaders, primarily stake presidents, who monitor attendance and congregation size and make recommendations to church headquarters accordingly, Howell said.
The church completes construction on an average of about 1.5 new chapels every day worldwide, he said.
The LDS Church had 13.2 million members at the end of 2007, and has added about 1 million members since 2004, he said.
Unlike other forms of real estate, churches don't count on selling or leasing space in their new buildings, so the state of the market isn't as much of a factor in their building decisions, Hartman said.
But while the market for churches hasn't seen the same decline as the housing market, it still faces some of the challenges with which others in the construction business are dealing.
Most notably, rising costs for concrete, steel and other materials have affected all builders, and churches are no exception, Howell said.
"We experience the same fluctuations in the cost of building materials as everyone else," he said.
Large organizations like the LDS Church, as well as religion-oriented, for-profit companies like Building God's Way, are able to offset some of those higher costs by entering agreements to buy direct from manufacturers of building materials.
"Like a Sam's Club or a Costco, we purchase in large quantities and pass on the savings," he said.
"It makes it possible for a small congregation to build, when normally they couldn't imagine doing something like that."
However, Hartman said, churches and parochial schools are not immune to recession.
They rely heavily on member donations, which tend to shrink when the economy is in a downturn, he said.
"It impacts peoples' ability to give. That's one of the major challenges churches and Christian schools face," he said. "But it's interesting that the economy hasn't really impacted the amount of construction."
The cost of new projects has risen as much as 25 percent in the first four months of 2008 alone, he said.
In cases where cost increases have outpaced budgets, Building God's Way works with ministries to either redesign the project to fit the budget or take a phased approach, in which the company will build part of the original design.
"We try to respond to their budgets in challenging times," Hartman said. "There's no project we've done where money was not an issue."
Meanwhile, Building God's Way is making waves in the national religious community with its designs.
Two of the company's recent projects the 140,000-square-foot Northland church in Longwood, Fla., and the New Beginnings Christian Center in Portland, Ore. were recently named among the seven "Most Innovative Church Buildings in America" by the international magazine Ministry Today.
Partnering with ministries and various contractors gives Building God's Way a chance to reach out and spread religious messages to others, Hartman said.
He said construction sites often take on an adversarial air among the various parties involved, with territorial disputes and harsh language.
Bringing a philosophy he calls the "ministry of construction" helps create a more respectful and courteous environment, Hartman said.
"We're trying to run a good business model, but also make sure that ministry is why we do what we do.
"We're 100-percent business and 100-percent biblical at the same time."