Architectural Studies

Church Conversions in England

The Adaptive Reuse of Sacred Spaces

Maastricht’s Gothic Dominicanenkerk, built in the late-thirteenth century as a monastic church and abolished in the late-eighteenth century, was restored and converted into a bookstore and café in 2007.

The Church of England controls over 16,000 churches, ranging from vast, urban cathedrals to small, rural, parish churches. But church attendance in England has been falling steadily for decades. In 2016, the average number of people attending Sunday services each week dipped below one million for the first time. Only about 1.5% of the population currently attends a Church of England service in a typical week: 760,000 out of a population of 53 million. (There are, of course, other religions practiced, but remember that—unlike the United States—England has an established national church.) With church attendance so low, hundreds of churches have already been declared redundant, while others persevere with small congregations or in poor states of repair. With attendance rates continuing to fall, there is pressure of various sorts to repurpose, raze or redevelop some church buildings. But, complicating this situation, most churches are actually listed buildings, meaning they have been afforded a certain degree of formal governmental protection.

One novel solution, in its earliest phases of experimentation, proposes to preserve churches through adaptive reuse by maintaining their exterior envelopes but completely repurposing their interior spaces. Such a solution would not be viable or cost-effective with most structures, but churches, as a building type, tend to have voluminous and uninterrupted interior spaces. They also frequently occupy prime real estate, especially in urban areas. Many churches, especially in the nineteenth century, were originally constructed with high budgets and quality materials, providing a good basis upon which to develop.

In the past few years the city of Bolton, a former cotton-mill town outside of Manchester, has become a leader in the exploration of repurposing churches. For instance, the Churches Conservation Trust, which to date has taken possession of over 350 churches around England, almost all of which have become fairly conventional local heritage sights, sponsored the adaptive reuse of the Church of All Souls in Bolton as a new community center. For more details about this project, which serves a predominantly Muslim population in a former Church of England structure, see the half-hour documentary entitled “Northern Souls.” Also in Bolton, private developers recently converted Holy Trinity Church (a Grade II building completed in 1825) into an 82-unit luxury apartment complex called Trinity Court.

Originally completed in 1881 and then closed in 1986, Bolton’s Church of All Souls now houses a community and business center.

You have recently joined the staff of a large, non-profit, charitable organization that is interested in partnering with the Church of England to fund the adaptive reuse of several churches. In the near future the organization plans to announce a public call for proposals, inviting members of the general public to suggest possible reuses of local churches. All suggestions must be for nonprofit ventures that are in partnership with one or more registered, local charities. Before unveiling this project, however, your organization would like to have a policy plan in place for assessing and selecting the winning proposals. The mission statement of your organization, which has a vast endowment, is rather vaguely worded, only declaring that its primary goal is “supporting architectural conservation and innovation in the interest of the public good.” You have been assigned to the team tasked with developing the policy plan, and the team leader has decided that each team member should independently brainstorm possible directions or guidelines in the form of a 1,000 word statement.

The bookstore Waanders In de Broeren opened in 2013 in a 15th century church in Zwolle, Netherlands. Photo by Joop Van Putten.

Some of the questions that have already been raised in a preliminary meeting include: Will it be best to sponsor a handful of very expensive and highly impressive remodels or would it be best to underwrite a much larger number of smaller projects? Which aspects of the proposed projects should weigh most heavily in the balance? How would you weight the results if you had readers of the proposals assign scores on various counts—such as, perhaps, 1) the architectural significance of the historic structure, 2) the social impact of the adaptive reuse, 3) the likely financial sustainability of the proposed project, 4) the efficiency of investment, measured in the remodel cost per square foot of finished usable space, 5) the urgency of church repair work, 6) the size and number of local charitable partners, 7) likelihood of positive impact on neighboring local vicinity, and any other categories that make sense to the team?

With regard to the architectural significance of a structure, would this be considered on a purely local level, or would formal governmental determinations influence decisions. For example, how heavily would you factor in the Grade of a listed building? For reference, Grade I buildings (“of exceptional interest”) make up about 2½% of all listed buildings; Grade II* buildings (“of more than special interest”) make up about 5½%; and Grade I buildings (“of special interest”) make up about 92% of the nearly 400,000 listed buildings.

Further, will the best proposals win out pure and simple or is it more appropriate to ensure a geographical variety of winners, perhaps by choosing a comparable number of projects per region? Also, should proposals that come with additional promised sources of support, say local non-profits or private charitable giving, receive higher priority?

Feel free to survey issues in a generalized and overarching manner or to focus more specifically on a narrower subset of issues.

In Utrecht St. Jakobuskerk ceased holding services in 1991. It then served as an antiques showroom before being remodeled as a split-level private home in 2007-09. Photo by Frank Hanswijk.

If you would like to read more about the funding picture for the Church of England, there are some details available at their website. You can also read more about the Churches Conservation Trust at their website.

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