Converted churches, Part 1: common problems

converted church in london, via locationworks

I’d really like to see a decor makeover show for converted churches, because it’s not easy to make a church liveable, and there are many church-dwellers who could use a guide (I include myself). And not the makeover shows we’re used to, most of which make interiors worse, not better. Locationworks, which lists English properties available for rent to TV and movie shoots, has a large collection of photos of churches that have been converted into living spaces. The spaces are not styled for magazines – they’re just photographed as is, sometimes even with unmade beds – but it was interesting to be able to so many spaces all together. The mistakes are almost more instructive than the successes. There are problems that almost everyone comes up against: cavernous moody spaces, the lack of natural divisions for kitchen or bedroom or living areas, lack of storage, and the simple fact that anything you put in a church gets way too much competition from the architecture. Church walls are usually punctuated by arched windows or alcoves, making the addition of storage or the division of space difficult without butchering the existing features. The curve or slant of the ceiling makes it hard to add banks of storage along walls without things looking really awkward and after-the-fact. But then if you try to make everything match the architecture and its era, including the furniture, you get some fairly eccentric results (below). And if you choose the opposite option and plonk modern furniture, it can look as if you’re just camping out temporarily in a giant cave (above). Some churches are more challenging than others. Based on looking at locationworks, the rule seems to be that the smaller, simpler, more rustic, barn-like or poverty-stricken the church, the easier it will be to live in it. Larger churches often require vertical division into either two or three stories, depending on height. Conclusions based on all these photos? It’s better to avoid black leather furniture, glass dining tables, frosted glass, black metal and all of the other 80s loft cliches. It just doesn’t work. But then neither do many other styles.

converted church in suffolk via locationworks

Above, a former Suffolk chapel with eccentric, custom-built art-deco storage and furniture. Below, a church in London where churchiness becomes pretty impossible to avoid, so they just went with it with a …. harlequin theme? And they seem to have commissioned a bed with a gothic arch. This is a church in which I’d probably have added another floor, to split it up a bit and try to defeat the gothic Rocky Horror/Hunchback of Notre Dame effect.

London church with harlequin bed via locationworks

London converted church via locationworks

Below, a beautiful building in S.E. London, but done up in a sort of 80s loft style.

church in SE London

Then we have this 18th century church in Lincolnshire, with a rather surprising interior, reminiscent of a hotel in Colonial Indochina?:

18th century church in Lincolnshire via locationworks

Linconshire converted church

Lastly, the church below is a case in point that the smaller, older, woodier the church, the easier it is to achieve a liveable, pleasing effect, even when the space is split vertically:

converted church, England, via locationworks

converted church, via locationworks

Part 2: converted churches in England, Belgium, Australia.

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12 Responses to “Converted churches, Part 1: common problems”

  1. John Hopper Says:

    Must admit that the last one works best. The idea of living in a church/chapel is appealing, though looking at some of the awkward messes above, I’m not sure if it is truly practical, but as you said, maybe the humble chapel works better than a high church.

  2. Converted churches, Part 2: Belgium, England, Australia | Ouno Design Says:

    […] are three converted churches which seem much more successful than most of the examples in the last post. Above is a 19th century chapel in the Flemish village of Bazel which has been converted into 2 […]

  3. Elina Says:

    I think that the thing about churches is that they all sooo different!
    Im about to take the challenge myself, and coming to conclusion that everyone makes it personal and for themselves.

    I wish there was more photos around, but then don’t want one designer to find ‘IT’ and have people converting them like crazy the way they do with barns for example, or warehouses, etc

  4. LB Says:

    Write in and let us know what happens! And I know what you mean, though churches are all so different I’m not sure anyone could dictate an “IT” look and make it stick. My church, which only has 14′ ceilings and is mostly wood, is a cinch compared to most of the churches here, which is why I’ve tried to be as non-mocking as possible. Though in a couple of instances I was tempted. I must say I do think black leather in a church is a total no-no.

  5. INSPIRATION: repurposing old churches « Salvaged Grace Says:

    […] there are some design challenges: deciding whether to break the open space into rooms, working around beautiful ancient windows and […]

  6. Jennifer Says:

    I love that you have this blog! we are currently about to put an offer on an old 1882 brick and stone church. It is sos os original it doesn’t even have plumbing! I agree with you that there should be a make over show about converting churches into homes, ours will be a home and business, but there are so mnay churches and old schoolhouses that have had such HORRIBLE diy renos it just destroys the beauty and character of the place,
    I have shared this link on my twitter and tumblr, and facebook.

    Thank you!

  7. Troy Says:

    I am currently converting a brick church in a remote town in NSW Australia,

    The conversion is easy compared to getting planning permission to convert the building. Local council has been very supportive but State planning regulations treat it as a new building. Interesting items we didn’t consider are things like fly screens for doors and windows, very hard to find anyone who would even think of making some, we have ended up doing so many jobs ourselves.

  8. LB Says:

    I completely understand! Nothing in a church is to code; you have to either convince them to grandfather every little thing, or you figure out a way to comply, usually at high cost. In Vancouver we don’t have to install bug screens but we have a million other requirements that make fixing old buildings very difficult. The whole code is more or less designed for builders of new tract houses and condos.
    Custom work is prohibitively expensive.

  9. shelly and marty Says:

    we bought a 1897 church in a small town in minnesota USA. it has been two years and the conversion to our home has turned out GREAT!!
    We put in 2 bed, 2 bath, laundry room, a VERY large kitchen and of course 18 foot ceiling living room with loft.
    I would like to know OTHER PEOPLE who have done the same thing in their area. I can find nothing on the web about this subject about other projects attempted or finished. HELP = there must be others. email me: just2cold AT gmail DOT com

  10. LB Says:

    Here are some more conversions:
    And here is my own conversion:
    Do you have any photos of your conversion anywhere? Flickr? I’m sure people would like to see…

  11. Troy Says:

    As i sit here waiting for the Carpenter to arrive to put up the mezzanine, its good to see another Church converter post, ill put some pictures up on flicker this afternoon.

  12. Doug Bean Says:

    We converted an old Methodist church–built in 1898. The conversion went well. Had to deconstruct what the former owners had done, but we like the finished product. Definitely unique!

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