How to Avoid Common Mistakes on Mosque Projects

How to Avoid Common Mistakes on Mosque Projects September 19, 2014

On Saturday August 30th, I was invited by ISNA (Islamic Society of North America) to their 51st Annual Convention, held in Detroit, Michigan this year, to moderate a panel with American Muslim Architects about how to Avoid common mistakes on Mosque projects in the United States. Due to some last minute cancellations and changes in plans by some of the scheduled panelists, I ended up becoming one of the panelists along with Architect Christopher McCoy (President of McCoy Architects LLC in Kentucky) and the panel discussion was moderated by Dr. Ihsan Bagby (a well known American Muslim leader and activist – also living in Kentucky).

We had a pretty good turn out for our panel discussion with well over 70 people in attendance (I was expecting maybe 10 people to show up:))! There was a lot of interest, feedback and questions from the audience – which shows that many Muslims around the country are either working on Mosque projects or just have an interest in the subject. In either case, I hope that we can do a similar discussion with more Muslim Architects at a future ISNA Convention (and other conferences).

The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, TN
The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, TN

For this summary blog post, I decided to just do a basic Q/A interview with an actual licensed Architect, who has designed over 20 mosques with 7 of them having been built in the United States: Christopher McCoy. I met Mr. McCoy over the internet a couple years ago after he read my blog post “Top 10 ways on How NOT to Build a Mosque in America,” and he told me he had many similar experiences with his work in Mosque projects over the years. His most well known mosque is probably the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro in Tennessee. I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. McCoy in “real life” for the first time at ISNA. He is a great guy and a very knowledgeable Architect.

Below is my interview with him (note that some of the questions are what the audience asked during the Q/A session of our panel):

IR: What is the benefit in hiring a professional Architect versus having a volunteer “designer” and/or an “engineer” from the local Muslim community working on the mosque project?

CM: Much of the time, we get what we pay for. It is unfortunate that some Mosques do not understand or appreciate the value of an experienced design professional. Sometimes Mosque leadership chooses donated or reduced fees for services under the perception that Architects and Engineers are similar to Drafters and Designers, which is often far from the truth. A drafter who trained overseas is often not knowledgeable of all the codes and requirements for building projects here in America. Construction is very complex and demands a full-time job to understand it. Unfortunately with Construction Projects, money is often the ultimate leverage any organization has. In many cases, if we don’t pay for it, we cannot expect a job to be done to our satisfaction.

IR: What are the pros and cons in using a “design-build” company versus the standard “design-bid-contractor” method for completing a project?

CM: The key to any project is getting a good, appropriate design. Often the design part of the process gets compromised. And many Design-Build (DB) companies are not experienced in designing (or maybe even building) mosques. Many DB companies tailor their skills to a particular project type (that is rarely mosques) for efficiency. The traditional Design-Bid-Build approach is often more appropriate, but other Project Delivery mechanisms should also be considered such as Construction Management (CM). Often a traditionally designed mosque can be constructed via CM giving the mosque many advantages during construction.

Construction Management (CM) is a project delivery mechanism, after the design is complete. That is to say, a different contractual relationship a mosque would have with a Contractor (builder) whereas the CM acts more as a liaison between Subcontractors and the Owner. The CM helps the Owner with unique, direct contracts with the Subcontractors, and often takes a fee on those agreements. In many ways, the CM acts similar to a General Contractor (GC) but the contracts are smaller and the construction progresses. The biggest advantage that I can think of is that the Mosque would not have to immediately contract for (or agree to) the full construction amount at the onset of the construction phase. Since mosques do not typically have all the funding in place prior to construction, an agreement for a lump-sum contract for the whole amount can lead to obvious problems with a traditional GC.

Design-Build (DB) is a whole different approach where as the Designer and Builder are treated as one entity. The mosque would hire the DB before design and a singular contract would carry through construction. This is often much simpler for the Owner and can be done very effectively. Early cost estimates can be much more accurate and immediate. This process is also often much quicker, which is a good thing unless you don’t have all the funding in place (which mosques typically struggle with). Usually the DB knows their project type well and executes this as a whole process. it should be should be noted that the DB process is not necessarily a deterrent for good design, it just often ends up that way.

But mosques really need to have their funding assured prior to construction regardless of approach or delivery mechanism. I cannot emphasize that enough. Inadequate and poorly timed funding is the root of so many problems mosques face with construction projects. Most mosques I’ve worked with at some point ask “how much do I need to start?” My answer is always “all of it.” Other project types never ask us that – they assume they’re going to have to pay for all of Construction (plus contingencies) at the onset. Design professionals have a responsibility to not let Owners and Contractors engage each other unless the work can be paid for.

IR: Many Muslim communities in North America do not have all the funds to complete their mosque project in one go. What are some recommendations in how to effectively complete a project with the budget and fund raising issues that many communities have?

CM: Foremost, mosques should recognize that construction is expensive and plan for contingencies rather than downplaying it for the community which often has a very negative affect on the entire project as well as the community at large. But there are steps Mosques can take to make construction costs more manageable. Projects can be phased and large scopes of work compartmentalized. Generally we advocate a mosque building the largest shell they can (truly) afford. Finishing lower levels (or basements) for Multi-Purpose Halls are much more attainable if the shell is in place. Fundraising is much more effective when a project is already under construction, so we strive to identify specific costs that the community can relate to (i.e. dome, minaret, carpet, wudu areas, light fixtures, etc.). This makes a project easier to relate to for the community. Furthermore, Mosques should challenge designers to come up with more inventive and multi-use space(s) rather than individual rooms for every function. For example, a large Islamic Center project was broken down into 4 phases: Large Mosque, Islamic School, Multi-Purpose Hall, and Recreational Center. In this case, the mosque’s first phase was the Multi-Purpose Hall since it is designed to be used as both a mosque for 600 persons and a large banquet hall. The much larger mosque for 1000 persons is actually Phase 3, after the school. This also has another fundraising advantage: the community is raising funds for the mosque multiple times. It’s hard to get donors to give to Multi-Purpose Centers over a Mosque.

As a side note, the fundraising model does not appear to be working well for many mosques. It is unfortunate that mosques tend to rely upon donations for operation and construction of new facilities. Why don’t mosques build facilities that are sustainable and/or help pay for the operational expenses? Many donors are hesitant to give fearing that they’ll be asked to do so again and again. Why don’t mosques build shopping areas, exercise/recreational facilities, hotels, restaurants, banquet halls, etc. as income-producers to sustain and pay for the operation of designated prayer facilities?

IR: Is it easier to remodel an existing building and convert it into a mosque or buy a piece of land and build a brand new mosque from the ground up?

CM: Unfortunately it’s often much cheaper to buy property rather than build anew. But it’s often more expensive per square footage to renovate than to build from the ground up. So it really depends on a couple of factors that should be entrusted to professionals experienced with mosque design from the conception of a project. If the community can find a good existing building that works well with minimal renovation it’s often a good choice. Some examples of this include empty big-box stores or former churches. Other advantages of renovating often include simpler/pre-existing zoning conditions and existing site improvements such as parking and utilities in place. But mosques then often forget to budget for suitable renovations and focus primarily on the property purchase alone. Substantial renovations can be expensive but are often crucial for community acceptance and/or donations. It’s much easier for a community to get excited about a new mosque and the costs are much more straight forward. Often communities end up much happier with a purpose-built new mosque over renovated structures. After the project is complete, we end up with the building and don’t think much about how much it cost. A new mosque for a community has tremendous appeal that is hard to resist.

IR: What is ADA and is it required for all mosque projects?

CM: The American with Disabilities Act is a law enacted by Congress in 1990 that is wide ranging and encompasses many aspects of discrimination against persons with disabilities. Most people refer to the part that pertains to barrier-free construction such as elevators and grab bars that has yet to be incorporated into most building codes. However many jurisdictions have a sliding scale of requirement on this based on up size and other factors. In some areas, small mosques can meet code without meeting some of the ADA requirements. But larger mosques are usually required. It really depends on the codes for the area and it takes an experienced professional to sort this out. But often the intent of the ADA is missed. I often ask (even small) mosques “why don’t you want your facility to be accessible?”

IR: When looking at an existing building or piece of property to buy to use for a future mosque, what are some things that should be looked out for before a purchase is made?

CM: Some of the key elements are: zoning, convenience, parking, and qibla [direction for prayer] orientation. Often mosques think that a large, undeveloped tract of land on the outskirts of town has perceived cost advantages that often do not work out to be true. Rural sites require considerably more site development costs and are usually much more contentious for zoning issues. Urban sites may be more expensive to buy, but are usually much less expensive for utilities an easier to re-zone (if required). Urban sites are much more convenient for the community which should be more of a priority. But with renovated structures, the analysis is much more complex to see if an existing facility is feasible. The community should trust an experienced design professional before or during the site selection process to avoid many costly mistakes. As designers, we often have to inform mosques of their poor property choices and/or high development costs after a purchase has already been made.

IR: How can women can get more involved in the design of the women’s area and/or the mosque in general?

CM: I really wish I new how and have been asking this same question for many years. I’ve worked for probably over 20 mosque boards/committees (maybe more – I stopped counting) and the number of women involved you could count on one hand. And of those few women, their involvement was minimal at best. At community presentations, many women have opinions about the design and we appreciate that. But decisions are not made at presentations, they’re done at the board/committee level. While there are certainly some men who discourage women from participating, there are many more men who want women to be more involved. I’ve seen boards/committees BEG communities for women to be involved but none actually show up to the meetings. There are likely many reasons for this and I’m not trying to criticize. But I do know that from an Architect’s perspective, women often make very good clients. I personally appreciate a client being opinionated and passionate about what they want and I am much more motivated to do a good job for those who care (regardless of gender). Many women in the mosque are quite active in the operational aspects so it’s baffling to me why women do not end up on the building committee. Many men on these committees want women to be a part of the process, and not just for the “women’s issues!” How can women get more involved? I say push, shove, scream, demand, cajole, or do whatever it takes – if somebody gets offended, that’s their problem. It’s your mosque! Things get done by those who show up and try. You have to be in the room when decisions are made!


P.S. If anyone has any other questions or would like some Architectural design consulting and assistance on a mosque (or other building type) project, please email me at! Thank you.



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