…for Historic Church Buildings

Sustainability is an urgent issue – we are increasingly facing the consequences of man-made global warming, and the resulting climate crisis. The Church of England, for example, has formally recognised this crisis and set an ambitious target of reaching net zero carbon by 2030

But it is also a profoundly theological issue, and one of direct missional relevance. Increasing numbers of people within the broader culture see sustainability as the number one issue facing our world. Churches that embrace sustainability often find links strengthened both within their church family and with their wider communities.

If your church building is of modern construction and of limited heritage interest then you can often apply the standard approaches we might use to retrofit our homes, such as improving insulation levels, draught proofing, double glazing and so on. However, applying those standard approaches to a listed building often risks destroying the very thing that makes it special in the first place. But even if your church is of historic interest, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do – we just need to approach them differently. For example, there are now multiple examples of grade 1 listed churches and cathedrals which have installed photovoltaic panels on their roofs.

The accompanying video introduces a great tool called the ‘Practical Path to Net Zero Carbon for our Churches’. Developed by Catherine Ross, the Church of England’s Open and Sustainable Churches Officer, along with others, this fantastic document aims to address this question of how to reduce our energy use and associated carbon emissions while responding to the specific context. Building on the findings of the church energy audit programme, this provides graded recommendations to improve sustainability.

Some 50 suggested actions are graded into five categories:

  • First, there’s category A. Where do we start? – These are simple actions that nearly all churches can benefit from, whatever their intensity of use. They are relatively easy, have relatively fast pay back, and include such simple things as basic maintenance of the building itself, fitting LED lamps, and switching to 100% renewable energy tariffs.
  • Next comes category B. Where do we go next? – These actions are more aimed at churches with medium energy usage which are used more than once a week; perhaps half of churches should consider them. The actions typically cost more than in the first section, and/or require more time and thought; some require some specialist advice and/or installers. Examples include considering alterations such as insulation in existing roof voids, creating a draught lobby, and creating separately heatable smaller spaces, all where appropriate.
  • Then there’s C. Getting to zero – These are bigger, more complex projects, which only busy churches with high energy use are likely to consider. While offering substantial reductions in energy use, they also require substantial work, and have both a longer payback, but also themselves involve a greater carbon cost. These include further insulation of the fabric, new LED lighting systems, and installing photovoltaic panels, all where appropriate.
  • Next comes D. “Only if….” – These are actions undertaken at specific times (such as part of a reordering) or in very specific circumstances, and typically require professional advice and other input. Examples include adding insulation during a reroofing project, changing heat source and installing electric vehicle charging points.
  • Finally, there’s E. By exception – This last list includes a handful of frequently discussed actions which are typically NOT recommended, because of the risk of harm to historic fabric, etc.

Church buildings, of course, come in all shapes and sizes and, crucially, they vary significantly in intensity of use. This calls for quite different measures in different places, and the genius of this document is that it successfully addresses a very wide variety of such situations. The beauty of the graded structure is that it allows you to start with the ‘A’ items, and over time to progress through the list, selecting those actions that are most appropriate. Clearly a short document can never hope to be the last word; rather, its role is to encourage churches to make a start, and then to provide a framework for ongoing improvement.

Best Practice Notes

Another valuable resource that has recently been published are two best practice notes for sustainability in historic buildings. There are two notes, one for quinquennial inspections, and the other for bigger project works. Both are aimed, in the first instance, at architects and surveyors, but they will also be of use to churches to help in discussing sustainability with your professional advisors. 

These documents have been developed jointly by the Church of England’s Church Buildings Council – Catherine Ross again, with Nigel Walter and others – and they are available for free download from the Ecclesiastical Architects & Surveyors Association.