Architectural Studies

Church Conversions: Sacred Space & Secular Reuse

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 of England 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 and shuttered, while many others barely endure with small congregations and large backlogs of deferred maintenance. With attendance rates continuing to fall, there is growing pressure to raze or repurpose many church buildings. Yet, further complicating this situation, most churches are listed buildings, meaning they have been afforded a certain degree of formal governmental protection.

One novel solution, still in early phases of experimentation, proposes to preserve churches through adaptive reuse by building new structures entirely inside them—maintaining exterior façades while remodeling interior spaces as needed. Such a solution might not be viable or cost-effective with most types of structures, but churches tend to have voluminous interior spaces, often making them suitable for such adaptation. Churches also frequently occupy desirable central locations within communities. Also, many churches, especially in the nineteenth century, were constructed with ample budgets and high-quality materials, thereby providing a strong infrastructural basis for redevelopment.

In the past few years the city of Bolton, a former cotton-mill town outside of Manchester, has become a leader in experimental repurposing of 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 “Northern Souls.” Also in Bolton, private developers recently converted Holy Trinity Church (a Grade II listed building completed in 1825) into an 82-unit luxury apartment complex called Trinity Court.

An interior view of the Church of All Souls in Bolton with its new community center (look closely: this is a single image, not two separate views).

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 multiple churches. In the near future your organization plans to unveil a major call for proposals, inviting suggested possible reuses of local churches. All proposals must meet the approval of the Church of England and must involve at least one local, non-profit, sponsoring organization from the same parish that will have an on-site presence within the redeveloped space. Though proposals may request up to 100% of the renovation expenses, a business plan going forward after the proposed construction phase is required to demonstrate financial sustainability. For-profit ventures are welcome to join in partnership with non-profits to suggest mixed-use projects.

Before unveiling this major grant initiative, your organization would like to have an internal policy plan in place for assessing and selecting 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 approaches to the guidelines in the form of a 1,500-word statement.

Maastricht’s Boekhandel Dominicanen, an early church remodel to receive wide attention, is a contemporary bookstore housed inside a medieval church in The Netherlands.

Some of the questions that have already emerged in a preliminary meeting include: Would it be best to sponsor a handful of very high-budget remodels or would it be preferable to underwrite many more small projects that are, architecturally speaking, less extensive or ambitious? Rephrasing the question, is it more important to generate one or two really striking architectural showpieces that might receive substantial national (or even worldwide) attention or, to the contrary, would it be better to reach as many local communities as possible by looking to stretch the funding pool as far as possible?

In addition, which aspects of any proposed project should weigh most heavily in the balance? Talk of a grading rubric for grant proposals has already commenced. Taking examples from the preliminary discussion, if you had readers assign scores on various counts, how would you prioritize grades in the following categories?

  • the architectural significance of the historic structure
  • the potential social impact of the adaptive reuse
  • the renovation cost, measured in expenses per square foot of finished usable space
  • the urgency of the need for repair work on the church
  • the size, number or scope of the local non-profit partners
  • any additional factors that seem pertinent

Which of these aspects should matter most or least? And why? And what other categories might you add to this list? And how would you rank these additional categories?

To clarify the issue of architectural significance, your supervisor has suggested that, initially at least, official determinations should be used to distinguish different rankings. For reference, Grade I buildings (“of exceptional interest”) make up only about 2.5% of all listed buildings; Grade II* buildings (“of more than special interest”) make up about 5.5%; and Grade I buildings (“of special interest”) make up about 92% of the nearly 400,000 listed buildings. How much should the architectural significance of a church influence the decision? Should a fantastic project in an unlisted structure take precedence over an average project at a Grade I building? How strongly should the official Grade of a listed building matter? And when, if ever, would you feel it necessary to question these official rankings?

Completed in 1894 and shuttered in 2006, the Church of St. James the Great in Cardiff, Wales, received planning permission in 2015 allowing redevelopment as 16 luxury apartments (an earlier planning permit cleared the way for it to become a rock-climbing center but the plan was not implemented).

There are, of course, many other questions perhaps requiring attention. How important is it to sponsor an array of quite different projects? For instance, is there a limit to the number of apartment complexes or community centers that should be funded? Or does it seem perfectly reasonable that a few logical and appropriate prototypes should emerge? Bearing in mind that your organization is not planning to provide ongoing financial support beyond the remodeling process, how confident must you be in future revenue streams for a project to be approved? How much of a gamble should your organization be willing to take that each project might be financially self-sustaining going forward? Further, will the best proposals win out, pure and simple, or is it important to ensure a geographical variety of winners, perhaps by choosing a set number of projects for different regions? How should the possible impact of a proposal be evaluated? All else being equal, is it more important to bring about positively life-altering changes for a few individuals or to make helpful but less consequential quality-of-life improvements for a much broader community?

For the purposes of your initial position paper, feel free to survey issues in a generalized and overarching manner or to focus more specifically on a narrower subset of issues, whichever makes the most sense to you. If you would like to read more about the funding picture for the Church of England, there are some details available at their website. If you are curious, you can also read more about the Churches Conservation Trust at their website.

The Gothic church in Zwolle, Netherlands was converted into a large bookstore, Waanders in de Broeren, by the firm BK Architecten.


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