Church conversions are among the most characterful of property developments. Instantly recognisable, they’re widespread – both in the city and in the countryside – and the best examples provide an airy, atmospheric meeting of old and new.
The Victorians in particular were prolific church builders, and time was that every village had its own church (often three – a catholic one, a protestant one and a Methodist chapel). But a decline in numbers of churchgoers, coupled with a car-owning population that’s much more mobile than it used to be back in the day, mean that for many years parishes have been consolidating their congregations and selling off the extra buildings to support themselves. Often architecturally striking, these de-consecrated churches can be surprisingly cheap, but before put your flat on the market and begin sketching up your dream conversion, there are a few realities worth considering.
The age and aesthetic value of most churches will mean that they’re likely to be listed. If they are, significant exterior remodelling will probably be off the cards, while extensions – if you can get them past the planners at all – will take a lot of wrangling. And you could find it’s more than just the masonry that’s protected – the windows might need to be preserved too.
Part of the joy of conversions is that they can allow you to create new homes (to some extent) in conservation areas where development is severely restricted, but if this is your motivation in getting hold of your old church, remember that the planning restrictions will be even stricter in a conservation area.
Planning requirements are likely to affect both the costs and the timescales of your project, so make sure you’ve factored it all in before you commit.
Stained-glass windows are not especially insulating, and if they’re listed then you won’t be able to replace them with something more practical. Of course every church is different, but common features like high ceilings, stone walls and the fact that churches – like many old buildings – were not designed with modern energy efficiency concerns in mind, all mean that getting your utility bills under control could be a costly business.
The expense of repurposing
Changing the use of a building so drastically could well come with a bit of a price tag. Your church will probably have some plumbing somewhere, but it could be pretty rudimentary. Same goes for the wiring. A more modern church might have kitchen facilities that you can adapt into a new kitchen, but many won’t.
Apart from wiring and pipework, another thing that might edge costs up is the odd shapes and sizes of fixtures and fittings. Glazing, for example, could well be an expensive custom job, and doors might need to be specially built.
As with any old building, you need a really thorough survey to identify potential problems like damp, dry rot etc. A church building may be on the market precisely because the roof is in a bad way and the parish can’t afford to fix it, while there’s also the possibility that the building may have been empty for some time. Do your homework, and you should be fine.
On paper, your old church may appear to be set in a sizeable plot, but before you start deciding where to site the hot tub, consider that your new garden may well be a graveyard. There might be visiting or maintenance rights (moral as well as legal), and getting a graveyard deconsecrated and moving remains can be a lengthy business.
Even if the graveyard doesn’t form part of the property, it will complicate your life. Digging down to fix a broken pipe, for example, will need permissions and sensitive handling, while the proximity of graves may preclude extensions or more drastic building works. Clearly you can’t disturb graves in any way unless they’re being officially relocated.
More vocal neighbours
While the building will be your property, it’s possible that other people in the community around you will have strong spiritual and emotional ties to the place. They may have worshipped there, or might have relatives buried in the grounds, and might have trouble coming to terms with the change of use. Comes the day someone sees you lighting up a cigarette on your way in, or your dog cocking his leg against Auntie Doris’s gravestone, and before you know it you’ve made the local paper for all the wrong reasons.
In a milder sense, people might be a bit more forward about their opinions when it comes to planning notices. You might just need to be a bit diplomatic.
All that said, you shouldn’t be put off. None of these issues are insurmountable, and so long as you’ve been realistic about your expectations, timescales and budgets, your gorgeous new church conversion should more than compensate for the extra hassle.