How to Calculate Seating Capacity for Your Church
Whether you’re moving to a new space, building a new church, or launching a church plant, you’ll need comfortable seating for your congregation. Before you can begin to compare styles and pricing, you need to determine one important factor: the seating capacity of your church. If you type this question into a search engine, however, there is no clear and easy answer. The process of buying worship seating shouldn’t be this stressful! Here is a guide to calculating seating capacity for your church. We hope this information makes the whole process a little easier!
Determine Maximum Occupancy
Determining your space’s maximum occupancy is an important first step. This will tell you the absolute maximum number of people you can safely have inside your church. How do you find out your maximum occupancy? Here are a few methods.
Consult the International Building Code
The International Building Code (IBC) gives guidelines that can be helpful. In this online chart (Table 1004.1.2), the IBC recommends allowing for 7 square feet (what is called the “occupant load factor”) per person in spaces with unfixed chairs. This means that if your church has chairs that are not fixed to the floor but can be moved around, you have a convenient way to calculate your maximum seating capacity. Here’s how it works.
First, figure out the area of your church, but don’t include stage space, closets, or any other spaces where people will not be sitting. Once you have the area calculated, divide it by 7, the square feet per person recommended by the IBC. Let’s say, for example, you have 2,000 square feet in your space. Divide 2,000 by 7, and you get a maximum occupancy of 285.7. Round the number down to 285 to be safe.
If your church has fixed seating, like pews or theatre seats, then this method will not work for you since the occupant load factor for spaces with fixed seating is dependent on the seating capacity. If your church has pews or theatre seating, or if you’d like a more accurate measurement, here are some other methods you can use.
Ask Your Builder
If you are building a new church, your builder is a great resource for calculating seating capacity. Talk to the architects involved with the project and get their input; they will know the current building codes and regulations in your area.
Contact Your Local Fire Department
Ultimately, the local fire marshal is the most authoritative voice on this matter. Contact your local fire department to learn about the codes that are enforced in your area. Many factors go into determining the code, from the square footage of the room to the width of the doorways, to the amount and placement of exits. Although the International Fire Code can give you guidelines to follow, your fire marshal ultimately decides how strictly to enforce the code.
Once you have figured out your maximum seating capacity, there are several other factors you need to consider.
Comfort Vs. Capacity
Although the IBC’s recommended 7 square feet per person is a good estimate, this is not going to be the most comfortable option for your congregation. You’ll want to increase this number to ensure your members are not squeezed together.
Exactly how many square feet should you leave per person? That is ultimately up to you to decide, but here are some guidelines from church builders. LifeWay Builders recommend 15-17 square feet per person for a church with a capacity up to 300, and 12-24 square feet per person for over 300. PraiseBuildings.com has this helpful chart that gives similar measurements, with a recommendation of 20+ square feet per person for a building that holds 500 or more people.
Take into Account Your Seating Layout
You also need to consider how the seats will be arranged in your church. The number of chairs you can fit will differ in a church with traditional straight rows versus one that has a circular or angled layout. Straight row seating is more efficient and will require less space than any other shape. But don’t let this stop you from using a different layout! It’s important to take your congregation’s preferences into consideration. They may feel more welcomed in a space that has a less traditional design. Or, your church may have an unusual shape that requires an unusual arrangement.
Church Chairs Vs. Pews
If you’re purchasing church chairs, you’ll know exactly how many to buy, since each chair holds one person. Pew seating can be trickier. Oftentimes, the manufacturer will claim a higher capacity than is realistic. Each member of your church will take up varying amounts of space in a pew depending on their height and weight. In fact, research has shown that realistically, pews will never be used beyond 80 percent of the manufacturer’s claims because of Americans’ sense of personal space. This realistically reduces the capacity of pew and their effective costs by 20 percent. With church chairs, on the other hand, you know exactly what you are getting.
Bringing It All Together: Calculate the Seating Capacity of Your Church
Once you have determined the maximum occupancy allowed, chosen a seating layout, and decided on a comfortable square footage per person, it’s time to bring all these factors together and calculate the seating capacity of your church!
Let’s say you have a maximum occupancy of 300 people according to your local fire codes, and you’ve decided to leave 16 square feet per person. For simplicity, you are going to use a traditional design with straight rows. This means that your church’s actual seating capacity will be 131 people.
Once you know how many chairs you need, it’s now time to think about what type of chairs you want. ChurchPlaza has a wide selection of high-quality church chairs with prices and financing options to fit a variety of budgets. If you need help setting a budget for your church chairs, we’ve also written a guide to budgeting to help you take the next step towards your seating purchase.