Old Churches, New Beginnings

Colin McNeish

  Page\Park architects' pod-like intervention at St Teresa's RC Church  
  Page\Park architects' pod-like intervention at St Teresa's RC Church, Glasgow to create a sperate activity space (Photo: Page\Park architects)  

Conservation of any historic asset requires the protection of both its physical components and its significance. Where the asset is a place of worship, its use plays a particularly crucial role in defining its form, its character and its significance. However, keeping churches, chapels, and other places of worship in use can be difficult in an increasingly secular era.

In Scotland there are around 2,600 listed places of worship, many of which are suffering from falling attendance. Here the Church Buildings Renewal Trust (CBRT) has been key in advocating the wider use of church buildings beyond their primary function of worship.

As well as introducing the work of the trust, this article seeks to provide advice – and hopefully inspiration – to anyone involved in or considering a church renewal project.


Be inspired by example For anyone considering renewal, there is now a large resource of inspiring projects led by church groups who have thought laterally about how to turn around ailing fabric, diminishing congregations and poor connections with their immediate communities. These have resulted in some diverse and vibrant new uses for existing church spaces which provide meaningful service and support to local communities and have proved mutually beneficial.

Explore the resources The process of sourcing grant-funding for projects can become a full-time occupation. It requires great perseverance not only because there are now so many awarding trusts who are willing to underwrite part of the cost of projects, but also because each application has to be carefully tailored to the specific funding source. Leverage can be an arduous task but persistence can be well rewarded. The best advice is to read the application guidance notes carefully.

Engage with the community Grant aid and public funding will usually be dependent on demonstrating that the project is for the benefit of the community, and not for the congregation’s alone. However, engaging with the community can bring many more benefits, including much-needed assistance with maintenance, management and fund-raising.

Consult trusted experts Historic fabric needs specialist care so it is important to carefully research potential consultants and contractors, looking at examples of their finished projects. There are well-established conservation accreditation schemes for architects, surveyors, structural engineers and conservator-restorers, and the website BuildingConservation.com can help you to focus your search (see http://bc-url.com/accreditation). Engaging a good conservation consultant is a wise investment and an essential pre-cursor to achieving a successful contract.


  A facilitated workshop delivered by Empowering Design Practice in partnership with the Church Buildings Renewal Trust to consider extending the use of Adelaide Place Baptist Church, Glasgow
  A facilitated workshop delivered by Empowering Design Practice in partnership with the Church Buildings Renewal Trust to consider extending the use of Adelaide Place Baptist Church, Glasgow (Photos: Colin McNeish)
  A facilitated workshop delivered by Empowering Design Practice in partnership with the Church Buildings Renewal Trust to consider extending the use of Adelaide Place Baptist Church, Glasgow

At the outset of any project the key to success is to engage with local people and access the connections they have in their communities. But how do you achieve this in practice?

CBRT has organised several workshops recently to explore how places of worship can be successfully used by the congregation and the community at large. One of the most productive of these provides useful lessons. It was held in Adelaide Place Baptist Church, Glasgow (itself an inspiring story of renewal) and was delivered in partnership with Empowering Design Practice (EDP, see Further information). This innovative group is currently engaged in a five year research programme exploring how community-led design can help to empower those who look after historic places of worship to create more open, vibrant and sustainable places that respect and enhance their heritage. The project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Several church groups from different backgrounds were invited to attend the Glasgow workshop. All were on the threshold of commencing renewal projects in their respective places of worship, but none had progressed very far with any defined outcomes.

After some inspiring stories from the EDP team about successful case studies, the groups were introduced to a range of approaches for engaging people in design and demystifying the process. During the afternoon workshop the groups explored the implications of putting the principles outlined in the morning session into practice in their own contexts.

The groups used memory mapping to visualise their church buildings, identifying the opportunities associated with the positive and negative perceptions of various spaces, exploring the different ambience created by lighter or more inviting areas and the darker or more intimidating ones. They also evaluated obstacles to the flexibility of the spaces; the effects of scale, colour and comfort; and the opportunities for intimate and corporate worship from each group’s perspective. The exercises were carried out using post-it notes, drawings and models as a means of capturing the moment. This approach promotes an audit of the full potential of the existing resources and engages different personalities in discussion to move from often widely varying perspectives to a consensus on the common goals. The groups could then proceed to the early stages of writing their own project briefs, a good brief being essential to a good solution.

The brief-writing phase of the workshop involved brainstorming all the activities that could possibly be hosted in their place of worship. Participants were encouraged to explore which community groups could benefit from being invited to use an often strategically located community resource, and they were invited to consider changes and possible adaptation of existing church spaces which may trespass into sacred areas (and therefore other people’s sensitivities). By challenging preconceptions, new opportunities could be envisaged for releasing areas of the church to a wider audience and diversity of use, without necessarily infringing on the core function of worship.

By exploring who will have the greatest influence and vested interest in the project, individuals and groups can be targeted for moral, practical or even financial support. It is a useful exercise towards understanding which groups and activities would attract the investment required to sustain the building for the next generation, not just for the current members but the wider community.

This type of workshop held at the early stages of a project encourages creativity at a grassroots level, exploring inspiring precedents and gaining helpful information from people who have piloted previous projects. It also provides a context for examining design options at an early stage, which can be supported by the involvement of independent design professionals. At Glasgow, for example, a design-qualified buddy was assigned to each group. Where time allows, creating a physical model of the building can also be especially useful, particularly for those with less experience of working with twodimensionaldrawings and plans.

This kind of community engagement workshop should lead to a carefully documented action-plan to take the project forward to the next stage. Some will inevitably regard the exercise as unnecessary, but the outcome often proves them wrong. Many of the groups who have participated reported that the various tasks covered during the workshop unlocked a wealth of latent skills, benefitting both the group and the project. The most rewarding and beneficial outcomes recorded were the sense of unity achieved and the dynamic of the group working together as a team. They can then share their enthusiasm and their goals with others who must be involved on the wider scale. Having space to think promotes new ideas and perspectives and is an investment in the project, albeit in valuable time and effort.

As with any process which brings together a diverse group of individuals, there are bound to be bumps along the way. Good leadership then becomes key in directing, recording and managing the process and the participants towards a successful outcome. There are also now design guides which provide tried and tested resources and methods that offer a clear format for seeing the process through to a positive conclusion.


  Barony Church, West Kilbride
  Barony Church, West Kilbride (Photo: David Barbour)

Established in 1994, CBRT is one of the principal bodies promoting the conservation of the nation’s ecclesiastical heritage, and it works throughout Scotland and with all denominations to prevent redundancy. It is a registered charity managed entirely by volunteers.

The trust has four key aims:

  • to bring underused or redundant church buildings back into community life
  • to promote the conservation of churches which are of architectural and historic significance
  • to encourage congregations to engage in the process of renewal
  • and to inform and advise them by means of conferences and workshops.

In the recent past, CBRT has held conferences combined with workshops in Glasgow, Stirling, Kirkcaldy, Perth, Aberdeen and Inverness, with the aim of demonstrating how the trust’s aims can be met. All these events have focused on the successful use of church buildings by the congregation and the community at large. A further event is to be held in Dumfries in autumn 2018.

The following CBRT case studies show some of the successful outcomes that can be achieved through careful groundwork.

Barony Church, West Kilbride, North Ayrshire (project architect: Ingenium Archial Ltd)

The former Barony Church, last used for worship in 1978, had fallen into disrepair and was bought by West Kilbride Community Initiative Ltd to provide a focus building for an initiative centred on the town’s craft and design heritage (CraftTown Scotland) in 2000. The category C listed church had lost original stained glass and furnishings and required building fabric repairs.

An innovative contemporary design for the centre transformed the derelict building into the award-winning Barony Centre, which opened in 2012. Extension and alteration have provided a range of facilities, studios and a café, and the centre hosts a wide range of exhibitions, classes and cultural activities. The refurbishment was designed to be sympathetic to the building’s history while introducing distinctive, modern components that provide flexibility of use. It incorporates a workshop pod at mezzanine level, which appears to float above the main exhibition space.

Although in this case the church is no longer in use as a place of worship, the use of such a dramatic architectural intervention is equally applicable to buildings where secular and ecclesiastical uses are to share the same spaces.

  Pollokshields United Reformed  
  Pollokshields United Reformed (Photo: Andrew Lee)  

Pollokshields United Reformed Church and Hutcheson’s Grammar School, Glasgow (project architect: Davis Duncan Architects)

An early example of a 20th-century Gothic church, the building was designed by Andrew Balfour (of Steele and Balfour) in 1902–3, and built of red ashlar, with polished dressings. The building occupies a prominent corner site with the hall to the north and the entrance door to the gabled front on Fotheringay Road.

In terrible condition and suffering from water ingress and rot, the church formed a unique partnership with Hutcheson’s Grammar School through which a significant programme of upgrading and extension was undertaken. The alterations provided Hutcheson’s with new music and computing department facilities. They also included a new multipurpose performance and rehearsal space and a state of the art lecture theatre. More importantly, the partnership has allowed continuing use of the building by the local congregation. Such arrangements are particularly suited to small congregations which would otherwise be unable to continue worshipping in their own church building.

St Teresa’s RC Church, Glasgow (project architect: Page\Park)

The impressive red brick St Teresa of Lisieux Church in Possilpark was designed by Glasgow architect Alexander McAnally and constructed in 1956–60. The congregation did not have the funds to build a replacement hall and instead sympathetically incorporated ancillary facilities into the nave. St Teresa’s is an excellent example of what is achievable with limited funds.

Built in a romanesque T-plan arrangement with a square-plan tower to the north west, the building is constructed with a steel frame and concrete casing and finished with a red brick exterior and cream dressings to the rounded-arched window openings. A modern construction in modern materials, it retains the traditional finishes, appearance and arrangement of ecclesiastical design.

Internally the main worship space, complete with original oak pews and a tiled floor, was adapted by Page\Park in 1995 to form a new multi-purpose space for use by the congregation. With a limited budget and a desire to preserve the architectural integrity of the original building, Page\Park’s solution was both simple and creative. Using timber reclaimed from the removed pews they created a single-storey barrel-shaped building within a building to accommodate the more general congregation activities. The project demonstrates that it is possible to modernise while conserving and safeguarding the historic nature of these buildings.

Further Information

Church Buildings Renewal Trust - www.cbrt.org.uk

Empowering Design Practices - bc-url.com/edp

National Churches Trust guidance - bc-url.com/nct-guidance

Historic Churches 2018


COLIN McNEISH FRIAS has been involved with church buildings for the last 30 years and is a RIAS Conservation Accredited Architect who is now part time with the young practice of Wham Architecture (www.whamarchitecture.com) which is supported by a network of his former students at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. He has also recently been appointed chair of the Church Buildings Renewal Trust.


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