Could retrofitting unused churches help solve the housing crisis?

After attending the Green Home Festival in Edinburgh last week, I was left with one main question: could retrofitting disused churches be the key to solving the housing crisis?

The ‘giving churches new life’ session at the event explained what happens to churches and community halls at the end of their working lives and how they can be converted into energy-efficient social housing.

The show was hosted by Jess Davidson and Eamon McGarrigle, both architects at PagePark, as well as James Anthony, net-zero coordinator at Eco-Congregation Scotland — a Christian environmental charity addressing climate change and conservation.

James said he expected there were “more church buildings available now for alternative uses” than there had ever been previously.

Referring to a study conducted by the National Churches Trust, James revealed that in the UK, there were more church buildings than supermarkets, post offices and public libraries combined.

According to the research conducted in 2019, there were around 40,300 church buildings in the UK, compared with 14,300 supermarkets operated by grocery retailers, 11,500 post office branches, and 3,600 public libraries.

“This gives you the kind of volume of buildings that exist,” said James.

“Churches are looking for spaces that suit their needs, which have changed and evolved over the past 100 years,” he added, explaining that many of the existing buildings haven't kept pace.

James shared that this presents two opportunities: for churches to upgrade and convert their own buildings for their future needs and, for those that have more buildings than required, they can be used to serve other issues, “like the lack of housing or houses for social rent,” he continued.

Cunningham House in Shettleston, Glasgow — retrofitted into residential flats by PagePark

One of PagePark’s church conversions — the Cunningham House project in Shettleston, Glasgow — comprised the redevelopment of the site of the old church, with a change of use from ecclesiastical to residential.

Of the homes delivered on site, 15 were flats in the existing church building and five two-bed flats were created in the new-build element.

“The old vessel building was converted into a standalone three-bed house,” stated Eamon.

Like many sites in the area, the church had been subject to extensive mineworking, and investigations revealed a mineshaft on the corner of the church which required to be grouted prior to site start.

The church is category C-listed, however the existing hall — a later edition — was not. This was demolished to make way for the new-build element, housing flats, and a lift.

The roads to the rear were unadopted and agreement couldn’t be reached with the owners to allow vehicular access. The project was subsequently developed as ‘car-free’ and gained planning consent on that basis.

“The conversion of a church to homes presents a whole host of challenges architecturally and performance wise,” added Eamon.

“Churches tend to be quite cold, draughty and prone to damp, whereas we need to provide a warm and comfortable space for people while at the same time safeguarding [the] existing building fabric and respecting the heritage with that.”

The types of assets PagePark works on can be anything from a 16th century castle or a theatre, to a mid-century university building in Edinburgh.

While Jess explained how “every building is useful to someone” when it comes to retrofitting, there are historic and existing issues around ownership.

“In Leeds, we have a significant problem with having multiple international owners that own the upper floors to a lot of the high streets and city centres, who are quite happy for those to fall into absolute ruin to the point where there’s very little we can do,” she divulged.

With the right framework — and a motivated, caring owner — in place, it seems many older buildings, and not just churches, can be repurposed to boost housing stock and the environmental benefits that can come with this.

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