Houses of the Holy: The historic churches that have been turned into a family home
It takes a leap of faith but for the brave, the reward at the end is a unique living space.
Friday 08 April 2011
Philip and Carol Bourqui go to church every day – they live in one. The front part of a converted Grade-II listed former United Reformed Chapel in Clifton, Bristol, built by the great church architect CF Hansom in 1868, has been the couple's spectacular home for 20 years. "The typical response of our visitors over the years has been 'wow'," says Philip. "It's a dramatic building both inside and out – in fact, one of the great benefits of living in a church is the sheer size." Hence their decision to move: they now want to downsize.
The Bourquis' home is one of many urban Gothic revival churches in the country to be converted into housing in the last two decades. The Church of England has around 16,000 churches, of which some 25 close each year, and many of them find their way onto the housing market. That's before counting the multifarious ex-Methodist chapels, often in rural locations, that also come on the market.
A typical example is The Old Chapel, Upwell, Cambridgeshire, converted by Henry and Jane Wright, who took two years to convert the church with the help of eco-specialist architects, SEARCH.
"It's been great," says Henry. "It's quite plain from the outside, then when you get in, you see a floating mezzanine floor connected on one side to the main building."
Upstairs, the Wrights have created three bedrooms and a wet room downstairs. But it's the big church space in the middle that makes it special and the reason they're now looking for a more orthodox house. "We now have a baby and want to move to a more ordinary home," says Henry.
Churches represent a boon to a housing market in need. They offer a significant stream of characterful buildings for sale, often with exciting internal spaces, and they have a real allure to a more flamboyant buyer.
"Converted churches have winning elements like large spaces, natural light and distinctive features," says Christopher Frost, who works in land development for agents Cluttons LLP.
Kent agent Nick Forman, of Freeman Forman, veteran of converted church sales, has noticed churches particularly attract creative home-owners. "They seem to attract artists, writers and musicians," he says. "Perhaps it's because they have great acoustics and big wall spaces."
With open-plan receptions, bedrooms tucked into eyries, mezzanines and big windows – some with stone tracery and even stained glass – you can see the appeal.
From another perspective, churches testify to the decline of church-going in the UK, and can have an elegiac quality as well as being charged with a local resonance – locals may have been married in your home.
English Heritage advocates maintaining their original use if possible, or failing that, adapting it for a community use that preserves the building's spirit. "The best use for any historic building is the one for which it was built, and places of worship are usually buildings that have served their purpose for many years," says Diana Evans, EH's head of places of worship. "In fact, in rural areas they are often the only public building still serving the wider community."
At the same time, Evans recognises that sometimes churches have to close and that becoming a home is not a bad outcome, provided the structure "carries the story of its past into the future".
A case in point is St Saviours in Leicester, a 1875-vintage Grade II listed church designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott, architect of St Pancras Station and the Midland Grand Hotel. St Saviours goes on sale shortly after gaining the seal of planning approval from the local authority and English Heritage via Leicester agents Andrew Granger. With red bricks, stone spire and slate roof, it's expected to attract developers rather than an individual as it comes with a Neighbourhood Centre attached.
Those who fancy converting a church should not be carried away with the romance. "Converting churches can be devilish," says Christopher Frost. "Planningproblems aren't uncommon. Many churches are listed and require sensitive and costly conversion, plus buyers might have to demonstrate to the local council that there is no need for the continuation of church use or of alternative community use."
Plus – and this will be an instant turn-off for some – old churchyards could compromise plans for outdoor spaces. Tact and tenacity are required. "With churches, you need to be aware of their limitations," says Nick Forman. "They're often in a central part of a town or village, they may not have any parking or garden, and might be surrounded by graveyards. Their appeal is to a very small sector of the marketplace – so bear that in mind if you have plans to sell on."
Also, larger churches, notably the 19th-century neo-Gothic behemoths, can be very hard to convert because of their scale. "When a soaring window has been cut in two by the addition of a extra floor, it can result in a space that looks clumsy and odd," says a spokeswoman for the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings.
Methodist chapels like the Wrights' home are simpler, but they'll still present design problems; as will church fittings such as memorials, screens and pews. "In my experience, planners often require the nave to remain intact," says Forman. "This can create a lovely open feeling – but it will restrict the amount of rooms you are able to build upstairs. I'd also advise people to find out whether any of the contents, such as the organ and pews, are included in the sale."
Architecturally, churches and chapels can be a real challenge, particular in their subdivision. "This will have an inevitable impact on the character," says Emma Adams, head of heritage at planning consultancy DPP. "Therefore, an open plan subdivision, rather than arbitrary partitioning which has little relevance other than to produce rooms, will be the most impressive solution."
It's worked for the Bourquis. "We managed to get it quite cosy, while maintaining the big spaces," says Philip. And don't forget the advantage of a church when it comes to a major life event. "We married over the road at a functioning church," adds Philip. "But we came back to ours to have the photographs done."
Church House in Clifton, Bristol is on the market for £675,000 with Richard Harding Estate Agents (www.richardharding.co.uk); The Old Chapel in Upwell is on the market for £230,000 from David Clark and Company (www.clarkhomes.co.uk).
A buyer's guide
* The first thing you need to do is check with the person selling whether the building has been deconsecrated or not.
* "If it hasn;t then this will be one of the first things you will want to arrange with the church authorities," says Emma Adams, head of heritage at planning consultancy DPP.
* Adams adds that there are regulations about the removal and relocation of headstones, which vary with different denominations of churches. "Essentially, it is up to the developer to liaise with the church to be clear on their regulations. In most cases attended gravestones cannot be moved and access to families must be given by appointment, so this aspect does need to be thoroughly investigated before taking on such a project."
* Relocating headstones to the properties perimeter wall is often a compromise.
* English Heritage's free guide 'New Uses for Former Places of Worship' is available atwww.english-heritage.org.uk.
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