How to successfully convert a church
What you should know before you start a church conversion project
Many new churches were commissioned at great expense in the Victorian and Edwardian era to accommodate the huge church membership of the time. Every pew was filled and collection plates were brimming over. But times have changed and the number of regular Christian worshippers has been in decline in the UK since the 1930's.
A report by the Church Building Council in England entitled Struggling, Closed and Closing Churches, describes how declining numbers of church goers, unaffordable repairs and maintenance concerns have resulted in many churches no longer being viable. Churches situated in deprived areas, urban settings, certain geographical locations and those in very small parishes are those likely to be most at risk and over the last fifty years, the number of redundant churches being put up for sale has risen year on year.
The various Commissioning bodies have been pragmatic about pricing, meaning redundant church buildings represent amazing value for money. For the price they are sold for, you often wouldn’t even be able to buy the land they sit on, far less the raw materials used or the cost of employing the skilled masons and builders required to build it.
Unique features of a church conversion
Each church is unique and they range in size and style from humble small chapels up to almost cathedral like structures. Many are exquisitely finished, brimming with history, with carved stone and wood, beautiful stain glass work and amazing volume and grandeur.
Church windows were usually placed above eye level in order that the congregation not be distracted by the outside world, so views from a church are often compromised.
They may also extend high above where a first floor would be placed, meaning that they may be bisected when putting in a first floor.
These windows were never designed for residential use and can limit the light entering the building. They will also not be compliant with modern standards and so a form of secondary glazing will be necessary.
And whilst stained glass can be beautiful, the subject matter of some is not always pleasant. Your child might not appreciate a bedroom window depicting the crucifixion of Jesus or the image of John the Baptist’s head on a plate.
Legal differences with church conversions
Once the legal process to deconsecrate the church has been done, it effectively becomes an empty building. But as it is one in which the local community may feel a certain ownership over, clauses may be added to the legal documents to ensure that certain criteria are met in the renovation.
Don’t be surprised if the church governing body wants to see proof that you have the funds to complete the project. There may also be a covenant attached to the sale which requires the work to be carried out within a stated time frame and they may also be able to check in and monitor the progress of the work.
If a church is surrounded by a graveyard, the sale may only include the footprint of the building with a right of access. The surrounding grounds are public space to which anyone has the right of access to visit or tend to graves and, theoretically, burials can still be carried out. On a positive note, if the graveyard is retained by the church authorities they will often maintain the grounds. Ideal if you’re not a keen gardener.
Graveyards may also represent a challenge in connecting services to the church. Any digging may expose ancient burials and you may require the services of an archaeologist to supervise any work taking place in the church surroundings.
It's also worth remembering that not everyone relishes living in a graveyard and resale values can be negatively affected by the presence of one.
Planning can be complicated when it comes to churches as many are listed buildings and the planning is dependent on what grade or category they are.
Churches fall into the F1 planning class for public worship or religious instruction and it is within permitted development rights for a church to be used as a crèche, day nursery, day centre, educational establishment, museum, art gallery or public library without the necessity of obtaining change of use consent.
A church also has potential for a variety of other uses, such as a theatre, cinema or entertainment venue, hospitality and restaurant, retail space or community resource, all subject to obtaining appropriate consents. And a conversion to residential accommodation might also be possible, again subject to the usual consents.
Once planning permission and listed building consent have been granted, then work can begin.
Converting a church
Whether they are being converted into apartments or into one large house, it is important that the character of the church is maintained and that the features that make it special are highlighted. Although never intended to be lived in, the renovation must ensure it functions perfectly as a home. Church conversions can be difficult and expensive projects but getting the design right is very rewarding.
The exterior of the church should be left by and large unchanged other than repointing or cleaning the walls and general maintenance.
However because churches are often fairly poorly light despite the large windows, you may want to apply for permission to increase their size or add extra windows and roof lights. This will instantly open the space and allow both views and a sense of connectivity to the outside.
If the roof requires attention it is important to retain as many of the original roof tiles or slates as possible. Church steeples can be both challenging and expensive to renovate but are an amazing feature to have.
The materials used in churches are often the best in quality and they should be reused as much as possible. If more material is needed, it can be expensive to buy and sometimes difficult to source.
The volume of a church can be magnificent but it’s important to avoid the ‘squatting in a church’ or the ‘furniture warehouse’ look by having a careful balance between the open plan living spaces and smaller intimate areas.
Heating a large space can be costly so if possible consider installing underfloor heating. As with all new homes, your conversion will have to comply with building regulations. Insulation must be added to walls and beneath the roof structure to ensure that your home is warm and economical to heat.
Keep original features such as pillars, stained glass windows and any church fixtures you can. Roof timbers, trusses and, where possible, stone walls should be left exposed. Wooden features can be left in situ or repurposed, retaining a sense of the original church.
You should consider using an architect and builders with experience of working with church conversions. There are a number of firms that specialise in converting churches and chapels and they have a wealth of knowledge that will give you a great outcome.
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