Programming Church Repairs

Martin Ashley


The care and conservation of cathedrals, churches, chapels and other places of worship is almost invariably complicated by their size, the high cost of scaffolding and repair work, and the time it takes to raise the required funds. It is therefore necessary to prepare a 'forward plan' which establishes the priorities for the repair and conservation of a building's fabric, and sets out a programme for the work. Each element can then be costed, budgeted for and co-ordinated with other expenditure necessary for liturgical and pastoral purposes.

If properly planned, repair and conservation works can actively contribute to the life and use of the building, and should not be seen simply as competing for limited funds and resources. The aim should be to incorporate into the projected cost plan not only those works which are necessary for the operation and maintenance of the building but also for its enhancement. This will ensure that the opportunity is taken to improve the presentation of the church, and maximise effective use of funds and the fund-raising potential of the works.

Programming should be carried out from the basis of a thorough inspection of the building and its condition, with the results set out in an inspection report, together with recommendations for prioritising repair and conservation works. To make such recommendations, it is important that the architects, surveyors and engineers are trained in historic building conservation and are highly experienced in this type of work, as this is a specialised field and mistakes can be expensive. (The Cathedral Architects Association, the Council for the Care of Churches, and the Ecclesiastical Architects and Surveyors Association, can advise on suitability and training requirements.

A thorough inspection report may also recommend further specialist advice on such aspects as heating, lighting, acoustics, fire precautions, bells, organs and archaeology. The report will identify the needs of the building fabric, and prioritise recommendations for repair and conservation works over the following five years (in the case of ,quinquennial' inspections) or ten years (in the case of 'decennial' inspections).

Quinquennial inspections are generally frequent enough to catch problems before significant damage occurs, and allow a reasonable time interval for fabric committees to organise fund raising, undertake programmes of work, and to spread the expenditure incurred. A decennial report is more appropriate to large minster churches, where the scale of the works and costs, the time required for fund raising, and the time required for inspection of the building itself are all substantially greater.


The survey should be pre-planned as much as possible. A meeting to obtain maintenance log information and arrange key access is essential, as is a site meeting with the maintenance contractor, whose ladders can be used to obtain high level access to wall plates, windows, roofs, valleys and eaves.

After the roofs an external tour of walls will assist interpretation of defects found during the subsequent interiors inspection. It seems natural to start with the spire and tower roof, and then progress down through the belfry and other chambers in the tower, gaining access to the nave roof void, then down and out via the nave, aisles, transepts, organ loft, chancel, sanctuary, side chapels, presbyteries and vestries. Interiors can be surveyed in any reasonable sequence. The churchyard is easily returned to later, if one runs out of time or daylight, and is usually surveyed last. A typical parish church will take a full day to survey. Larger churches and chapels take a few days, and the great cathedrals and abbeys require months to inspect due to their sheer scale and complexity.

The specialist appointed needs to understand the history of the building, as the chronology of construction and restoration of a building will often provide clues to persistent problems such as cracking in masonry and failure of timber structures. The building's own archive, local historians, county records and the Public Records Office are all excellent sources of information.

Through the survey process, the inspecting architect or surveyor should come to understand the building so well that its maintenance needs become self evident. In effect the building will tell you what its own repair priorities are. This is to some extent an intuitive and holistic process, and mastering it represents the very pinnacle of expertise. There are familiar problems where the cause is relatively easily understood, but there are also intractable problems where the symptoms are clear but the cause is not, particularly where there are several interdependent possible causes.

1 Severe problems are regularly found in the most inaccessible places. It is important to get into these awkward spaces, with assistance and proper safety precautions.
2 Defects are quite often the result of historical alterations or repairs, which have been carried out to lesser standards of workmanship, disturbing the integrity of the original construction.
3 Severe defects are commonly those which are not easily resolved, and where the solution has been fudged in the past, frequently several times over. Previous repairs may have dealt with the symptom rather than the cause of the problem, such as repairs to the plaster without resolving the source of the dampness.
4 It is surprising how often fine buildings have appaling arrangements for draining water from roofs and walls, have difficult and dangerous arrangements for maintenance access, and have poor fire detection and compartmentation.


The survey report must accurately identify problems, draw realistic conclusions and make practical recommendations without overstating the extent or urgency of repair works required. Recommendations should give high priority to defects which constitute a safety hazard, or significant risk to the building fabric or its contents.

The top ten priorities for recommended works might be as follows, not necessarily in order:

  • Risk to safety in use
  • Fire risk
  • Structural safety
  • Water ingress
  • Damage to historic fabric (including any unique elaboration, decoration, or artefacts in particular)
  • Building security
  • Risk of dry rot
  • Active structural movement
  • Accelerating decay of building fabric
  • Improvement in use (including disability access improvements)

The prioritisation of work will be influenced not only by the immediate priority of a problem or defect but also by other considerations such as the grouping of works into packages, fund raising potential of packages, and also user priorities. This last factor must not be underestimated. The church community will have views on when certain works should be undertaken to meet their own requirements for the building. Morale-boosting works with visible impact such as heating and lighting improvements and redecoration may help to avert the conflict which sometimes arises between the perceived needs of 'the living church' and of the church as a monument.

Some priority headings have gained increased importance in more recent times. High profile fires in major buildings have raised the priority of fire detection and compartmentation works. Increased expectations for environmental comfort, audio-visual installations and electronic security have increased priority for improved electrical and heating services. Improved disability access in particular is now a priority requirement in all works programmes, and major funding bodies usually require evidence of suitable provisions before grant aiding proposed works.


Inspection report recommendations will usually put works into an initial priority programme order, to which cost plan and cash flow analysis can then be applied by the Fabric Committee. Priority headings can vary, but at their simplest for quinquennial report purposes these include:

1 Urgent work (safety risk, risk of fire, structural risk)
2 Work required within two years (water ingress, dry rot, damage to interior, security)
3 Work required within five Years (structural movement, accelerating decay)
4 Desirable work (improvements in use, cosmetic improvements)

'Good housekeeping' maintenance works tend to be distributed through the priority order according to urgency. The list can also identify elements which may be carried out by volunteers.

Some funding organisations require more sophisticated lists of priority headings according to the fund's applications. It is difficult enough to prioritise works under relatively simple headings, and too many headings quickly become unwieldy, so it is preferable to prepare a further 'post-inspection' report which summarises the principal findings of the inspection report and provides detailed costings of recommendations.

Available funding, together with the time constraints of fund raising, obtaining consents, and competitive tendering will dictate a magnitude of works achievable over the survey interval period. Little is achieved without fund raising, and works need to be assessed for fund raising potential and 'income generation. Potential funding bodies set down eligibility criteria, towards which packages of works can be assembled. Packages can include associated smaller work items to attract grant assistance awarded to the larger structural works.

Work packages are best programmed to take advantage of scaffolding and temporary site set-up arrangements. For example, Phase A works to a Lady Chapel might include repairs to the roof carpentry, lead roofing, stone pinnacles and parapets, rainwater goods and lightning conductor. Phase B might include stone walling and windows, glazing repairs and rainwater goods from lower lifts on the same scaffolding. Phase C might be internal repairs, re-servicing and decorations Such phases also provide identifiable appeal fund packages. Phasing will deal with the most urgent problems first, which tend to be at high level.

Recommended Reading (updated 2010)

  • Christopher Brereton, The Repair of Historic Buildings: Advice on Principles and Methods, English Heritage, London, 1991
  • The Council for the Care of Churches, A Guide to Church Inspection and Repair, Church House Publishing, London, 2006
  • Faith in Maintenance, The Good Maintenance Guide, SPAB, 2008
  • Graham Jeffery, The Churchwarden’s Year: A Calendar of Church Maintenance,
    Church House Publishing, London, 1994

Useful websites

Guidance on maintaining places of worship:

Guidance on understanding historic buildings:

This article is reproduced from The Conservation and Repair of Ecclesiastical Buildings, 1998


MARTIN ASHELY Dipl Arch RIBA was consultant architect to the restoration of The Queen's Chapel, St James's Palace, and is inspecting architect to Dorchester Abbey. He is an architect member of Guildford Diocesan Advisory Committee, and regularly lectures on the philosophy and principles of historic building conservation.

Further information


Churches (general)

Conservation principles




Advisory bodies and associations


Church repair contractors

Survey/maintenance access
Site Map