So you think you’d like to live in a church…

Church before cross and star were removed

When I was a kid my parents had Arlo Guthrie’s record Alice’s Restaurant , a spoken folk song plus narrative set in a converted church in Massachusetts in the sixties, and I knew the full monologue off by heart. Despite that early exposure to the romance of living in a church, I never actually fantasized about doing it myself. In 2002 I was looking for a cheap property/house/decrepit pile in Vancouver, when prices were a lot lower around here & I had money from being hit by a drunk driver, suddenly there appeared on the market this small, run-down wooden church. On a lark I made an appointment to see it, but actually more for a friend rather than for myself. He didn’t show up for the open house, and two days later I ended up owning it, something I’ve regretted more than once. Hundreds of people have told me they always wanted to live in a church, but truly, I don’t recommend it. In fact I don’t recommend converting a church or any other non-house building into a living space, unless you’re quite obsessive. This is just not a project suitable for most people.

Even without altering a church’s basic structure, footprint, roofline or even any of the rooms, doors or walls, fixing up a long church building is much more ambitious than your average house renovation. For one thing, houses are built vertically for a reason—this means a smaller foundation, smaller drain tile perimeter trench, smaller roof, lower ceilings, fewer gutters… not to mention the fact that heat travels upward.

For another thing, houses contain storage! Cupboards! Internal walls to place storage units against! A little church, on the other hand, has none of those things. It’s effectively a chilly barn with an enormous roof that will bankrupt you to replace. My place could be considered livable now, if you don’t mind freezing for half of the year, but it has been an exhausting DIY repair, eight years and counting as of 2010. It has meant constant hustling for money to keep it afloat—in my case, the money was raised by renting it out for TV and movie shoots. Thank god for Vancouver’s status as Hollywood North and for all those TV shows I never watch. That industry has paid not just for my renovation but for many more in this neighbourhood.

And if you think decorating in a small space is hard, try having all your stuff visible in one big room. It immediately defaults to a sort of thrift shop or furniture warehouse fiasco. The only way to do it is to dramatically restrict the colour palette.

For more photos and information about the church and its renovation, see the Flickr set.

Below you can see the church as it looked when I moved in. The pool table and plastic faux-Mississippi-steamboat fans were the first things I disposed of. That is, after some unmentionable items and animal remains. Back then the star and cross were still on the roof (photo above), nailed straight into the shingles and creating major leaks.

Jesus may have been a carpenter, but the church handymen really weren’t.

First glimpse of the church during the open house

I took the above photo during the realtor’s open house, the first day I saw the place, and this is pretty much how I inherited it. It included the 1970s cheap green pews and the pool table. Notice the dark ceiling, the dark wainscotting the whole way down the room, the dark red douglas fir floor (oily and sticky), the after-market gothic reveal in the altar, and the jade trim. Below are the after photos.

Main room April 2007

Main room, 2005, looking down toward altar

This is the same room in 2006, a few weeks after the floors were sanded, bleached and sealed. In 2007 the altar area became a warmer alcove with a high-efficiency wood stove, below:

New sitting area with low carbon wood stove, in altar

The giant timber bamboo in the altar area, above, was brought inside as a party decoration when it was still green. A heavy snowfall had snapped the stems in the garden outside. After a month or two the bamboo turned the same blond colour as the ceiling and somehow I have never taken it back outside. I tried once but things were blank and austere without it.

Front hall, temporary office with pews

When first built in the early 1930s, the church was just a little 40-person church. Oddly, it was oriented sideways to the street, probably because there was still a house at the back of the lot, built back in 1902. The altar was at the east end; was that deliberate? I don’t know the exact yer the oldest part of the church was erected; there’s scant information in the city archives. But a few years later, in 1935, one side of the original church was knocked out, replaced by an I-beam, and a long extension was built down the length of the property. Now, even though the church seems as if it’s all one room, there are many signs of the fact that it is actually two churches joined together in a T. The ceiling trusses and floorboards run in different directions in the two sections, for one thing (you can see this in the photo further below, the one with the ceiling fans). And for another, there are two altars, one on the east side (now the bedroom), one on the south.

Photos above and below show the front area, once the tiny original church. This section of the church houses the front entrance, office (here you can see a temporary desk), and to the right are the master bedroom and bathroom. Above, I had shielded the house from the  front doors and nosy passersby with a hanging room divider made from British army snow camouflage netting. This has been replaced by a tall white rolling wardrobe that doubles as a privacy pony wall, an item that becomes necessary when your front doors are at street level. For more information on each photo, click on the image.

Below, you can see one of the only two original pews remaining from the earliest days of the church—they’re made out of the same Douglas fir as the building and have crosses carved into the ends. The greenish pews from the 60s were cheap and had no redeeming features, so l I broke them up and re-used he heavy, old-growth Douglas fir. I want to make an indoor swing with one of the remaining planks.

Temporary office area, front of church

Hall and bedroom

Above is a view into the bedroom. The bed lies inside the church’s original altar which is in the form of a 5-sided cupola. The bed platform is just a reconstruction of the original altar stage, which had been removed by the previous owner.

Everyone wants to know if it feels weird to sleep in an altar. No, it doesn’t, but what should sleeping in an altar feel like? Should angels descend, or the wrath of god come down? It seems to be the church of restful sleep, at least when the raccoons are not mating and meth heads aren’t trying to jimmy doors open.

After wondering if the place had been deconsecrated, I did some research and found that there is, in fact, no such thing as deconsecration, or if there is, it’s not exactly an elaborate ceremony. When a church sells its building it merely removes all the altar and religious paraphernalia and its congregation,  and the place becomes a secular structure. Removing a blessing from a place is, after all, skating dangerously close to a curse. There is in fact a long tradition, going back millennia, of ex-churches being left behind and converted to other purposes, including commerce and the stabling of animals. Neighbourhood kids used to ask if the place is haunted, but if it is, I’ve never noticed it. If it’s haunted, it’s haunted by the ghosts of the many cats and birds and rodents who died in the crawlspace, and whose skeletal remains, uncounted numbers of them, I had to bury in the garden. And a raccoon. I have photos of all of this in a file called “church horrors” but they are way too disturbing to publish here.

First vegetable garden, 2008

The worst of the projects are now finished, including the grueling sanding of the ceiling, the removal of all the lath and plaster walls and their substitution with fire-stop drywall, insulation of all walls, ceiling and roof, refinishing of floors, re-roofing, pouring of a concrete slab underneath, minor updating of the kitchen and general repair and maintenance. It just needs a lot more storage now. For more photos of the process, see below or click on photos to go to the Flickr set.

Below, this is how the main room looked after the uninsulated plaster walls were replaced with insulation and drywall and then painted, but before the ceiling was stripped. You can still see the words “Glory to God” above the altar. The congregation had attached stick-on oak lettering in a bulbous, groovy 1970s font, and when the church moved out they removed the letters, pulling the paint and bits of plaster away with them and leaving this grey ghost lettering behind. The Scandinavian pendant lamps date from that era as well, and I’m pretty sure that at some point the church was very sing-along-with-Jesus and I’m guessing there were guitars. Probably a Hammond organ.

Before ceiling and floor were sanded

Below you can see the main room from the front area, which was the original smaller church. You can see how the trusses run in the opposite direction in the old and new areas. As I said above, you don’t figure it out right away, because you feel you’re in one large room, but the building is actually two buildings joined in an L.

First month living in the church

The ceiling doesn’t look nearly as dark in these photos as it actually was, thanks to the auto-contrast in digital cameras. It was a very dark brown, a colour I just refer to as “Anglican” now. A crew of boys and I spent a month up on scaffolds scraping it off (and that was just in the main part of the church—the older church ceiling in the foreground above was sanded a year later and took just as long). Now I know how Michaelangelo felt (see his poem at bottom). Working overhead does something very bad to your neck not to mention everything else. I’m still recovering from the damage to my shoulder joints. In the following photos you can see the process of scraping, sanding, and then bleaching the tongue-and-groove ceiling and the trusses.

Douglas fir ceiling, stages of sanding

Ceiling, before and after sanding...

Douglas fir ceiling, sanded

Douglas fir ceiling half bleached

At night, after the guys left, I’d bleach the newly sanded sections from the rolling scaffold, board by board with a brush. When bleaching wood you have to try to avoid lap marks. The bleach is a two-part mix of different bleaches. You have to work carefully and fast, and you have to avoid dripping it onto your face. Below you can see the ceiling when it was first bleached – it became so white it was almost green and I thought I’d gone too far. Luckily, the natural tannin darkens over time, somehow coming back through the bleached wood fibres. My conclusion, at least with Douglas fir, is that it’s best to go too far because the wood oxidizes darker for about year after sanding. My reason for bleaching the ceiling is that the extreme redness of the ceiling cast a pinkish, bloody tint on everything, and nothing looked right. The blond ceiling is easier to live with, more modern and less depressing in a grey climate.

Finished ceiling

Cross and star taken down from the roof, and plugged in.

The cross and star, which I removed from the roof while re-roofing to the disappointment of many neighbours, had created holes in the roof shingles and eventually massive leaks. When I replaced the roof, I didn’t put them back up because it seemed inappropriate for me to erect a cross, bad for the roof, and a fire hazard. Both of them were made with interior-rated Christmas tree strings.

A note on the neighbourhood:

The church building is located in Strathcona, Vancouver’s oldest neighbourhood. Originally this area was called the East End, and it was once the city’s downtown centre. Now it’s called the Downtown Eastside (DTES) and is Canada’s poorest postal code despite being only a 10 minute walk from Vancouver’s current downtown. Strathcona is a small community inside this larger neighbourhood. It renamed itself after its elementary school, probably to shed the East End’s stigma. It’s a hidden oasis of Edwardian and Victorian houses just east of Main Street, only blocks away from all the abject poverty, homelessness and drug use. The whole DTES is marked by both intense poverty and intense gentrification. The battles between a humane solution on the one hand and profit on the other are heating up. To read about the way unregulated property speculation is making Vancouver unaffordable for almost everyone, read Unaffordable (That’s What You Are.)

To see other converted churches, start here.

Thank you:

This building could not have been saved without the work of Andrew Carlisle, Randy Schuks, Vladimir Moukhanov, Simon Whippy, my parents and aunt, and all my friends especially Jonathan, Fiona, Brian, Geoffrey, Sarah and many others.


After sanding the ceiling I can attest to most of these symptoms:

Sonnet from Michaelangelo to his friend John of Pistoia
on painting the Sistine Ceiling

I’ve got myself a goiter from this strain
As water gives the cats in Lombardy
Or maybe it is in some other country.
My belly’s pushed by force beneath my chin.

My beard toward Heaven, I feel the back of my brain
Upon my neck, I grow the breast of a Harpy;
My brush, continually above my face,
Makes it a splendid floor by dripping down.

My loins have penetrated to my paunch,
My rump’s a crupper, as a counterweight,
And pointless the unseeing steps I go.

In front of me my skin is stretched
While it folds up behind me and forms a knot,
And I am bent like a Syrian bow.

And judgement, hence, must grow,
Borne in the mind, peculiar and untrue;
You cannot shoot well when the gun’s askew.

John, come to the rescue
Of my dead painting now, and of my honour;
I’m not in a good place, and I’m no painter.

written between 1509 and 1512
(translator unknown)

21 comments on "So you think you’d like to live in a church…"

  1. I’ve mulled over the idea of a church/chapel a number of times, but never thought it would really work as a domestic space. I think these photos prove me wrong. The colours and tones are great and the internal space looks warm and ‘non-cavernous’. You should be really pleased with the result!

  2. Oh MY GOODNESS! When you mentioned you lived in a church in your email, I was really intrigued! I don’t think you give yourself enough credit – the place looks so great! I know how you feel, I bought a fixer upper too, although as a decorator I can appreciate the challenges a church would present. But I love the concept of repurposing old buildings; I’m in love with barn conversions. So, I was wondering….would you allow me to use these photos for an installment of Pure Green Living? I know you’re super busy, but you won’t have to do anything. I’ll take care of it, I just need the pictures and your permission. I think people would get a huge kick out of it, and it would show how original you can be when being green. I know you don’t necessarily think of it as green, but you did save an old building from being torn down, and all those materials from going to waste! Think about it and let me know.

  3. Thanks, Pure Green. Please go ahead and re-post the photos. Actually, this restoration has been as green as I could manage, which is partly deliberate and partly the natural result of having to do a renovation without a normal budget. I’ve made heavy use of reclaimed wood, fixtures, appliances and any other used materials I could scrounge. The bathtubs, toilets, sinks are all vintage, a friend gave me a dishwasher, and pretty much everything else has been bought at salvage yards. I’ve used low-VOC paint in most of the building, which was more expensive but being better quality it covers well. Most of the insulation is the recycled blue-jean batts, which are fire-retardant and pest-resistant. I traded a lot of the removed materials for either labour or other materials, and what couldn’t be re-used (plaster and lath) was disposed of properly. I had to wash and treat all the wood understructure, which had been exposed to a lot of damp, with a safe, environmentally friendly, inert boron solution, which doubles as total protection against insects and is completely environmentally safe – it’s what’s in emergency eye wash. The worst waste was the removal of 4 rotten layers of roofing and the inner plaster walls. Both of these absolutely had to go (the interior walls and ceiling were not insulated). The only toxic things I’ve used were the highly protective floor finish, which is water based and actually not all that bad, and some tough oil enamel exterior trim paint, but otherwise it’s been pretty non-toxic around here. The addition of a very high-efficiency furnace and the most efficient Danish woodstove you can buy have made the place much, much cheaper to heat. The main problem now is the weird yellow stained-glass windows, which I’m debating removing. The glass is much thinner than regular window glass and the leading has rotted away. I may just have to put plexi covers on all the arched round windows at the front of the building, but it seems like such a shame and always looks funny. Anyway, I’ve tried.

  4. You did a great job on your lovely church. We have been restoring and converting a 1892 Methodist church in Covington, KY It is across the river from Cincinnati. We have loved every backbreaking minute of it. Our son lives in it off and on and we spend 2 mos a year working on it. We are taking it off the market as I love the building too much to sell it. 10 yrs in Calif and I have missed historic buildings and do it yourself attitudes.

    Aileen May
    Dana Point, CA

    1. Thanks, and thanks for the tip on Design Traveller. How can I never have heard of it before? And how can this blog be on it? Details?
      PS Sure, come by anytime! I’ll email you.

  5. You scraped all that wood? Yeoman’s work. I am refinishing a fir floor that can’t be sanded using the big drum sanders because of face nails that can’t be set and decided to try and scrape it with a card scraper after seeing the painting Floor Scrapers by Gustave Caillebotte. I gave up after about 2 square feet.I’m going to try planing it now. THis floor is also very dark red and darkens very quickly in sun exposed parts leaving lines where rugs are. Does this happen still after you have bleached it? DO you have lines where your rugs are? I’d like to mimic what you did so anymore info on bleaching and finishing processes and products would be greatly appreciated.

    thanks, noah

    p.s. hope you compensated those boys well.

    1. I love that painting too. I know how you feel. In order to sand my floor I pulled over 2000 rusty carpet staples out of the wood. I would work on it every night after work. What they don’t show in the Caillebotte painting is the amount of wine you have to drink to survive those jobs. And I blasted music to keep myself awake. As for your questions, wood will always darken differently under a carpet but I find that if you bleach the floor enough, all areas remain light enough that the distinction between the protected and unprotected areas is less noticeable. Also, I used a water-based finish on the floor and those can lighten rather than darken in sunlight over time, so the areas under my carpet are not that far off the colour of the uncarpeted areas. The only problem you may encounter with bleach is that you could get some rust rings around the nail heads (this could happen with a water-based finish as well), but that could look cool, sort of vintage/heritage. Or you could seal the nail heads somehow, after bleaching. There’s only one bleach to use: proper 2-part wood bleach. In Vancouver it’s distributed by Mohawk Finishing. You can change the strength of the mix by changing the mixing ratio of Parts A and B. I used a strong mix on my ceiling because I knew the wood would darken again over time, and it really did. I bleached it until it was almost a white-green. I was a bit panicked about that at first, thinking I’d actually gone too far, but after a year it has oxidized to a really golden pine colour with a touch of orange. 2 or 3 shades darker at least. Just beautiful. So don’t be afraid to go too far with fir (watch it with maple and other hardwoods though). I did the same with the fir floor, which is under a water-based finish (the ceiling is completely unsealed. Yet they match). I’m really happy with it. I now bleach all wood that comes in here – it’s like a compulsion, but I’ve never regretted it. The honey colour is much better and more cheerful than the dark muddy red of Douglas fir.

      Those boys seemed pretty happy with the payment (and it was in cash) and in addition I fed them lunch and dinner. Not sure they would have stayed around for that job otherwise. Despite working overhead we actually had quite a good time, listening to spanish language radio on the local co op radio station and practicing Spanish and English respectively. They worked way harder than the local teens I’ve hired. They said that in Mexico and Guatemala the homeowner never works alongside labourers (probably not common here either) and they preferred that. I was trying to save money by working with them but they appreciated it, which seemed odd at the time but I guess I get it. Frankly many of them were middle class kids just trying to raise some dough. Maybe having a woman on the job raises morale too. Carlos, their foreman, came in one day and said “you handle that belt sander very well – one hand!” But of course they were all working at least twice as fast as I was. We all got very strong doing that job, but they had ridiculous stamina. Sadly for everyone, Canada’s revolting new visa policy for Mexican citizens has made it impossible for any of those guys to work in Canada anymore.

  6. Hi Nicolle,
    I didn’t make the bleach mix myself. You can get it commercially. It comes in a package with two separate bottles – one contains sodium hydroxide (caustic soda) and the other hydrogen peroxide. You mix them just before starting. WEAR AN ORGANIC VAPOUR MASK. And the toughest gloves you can find. Ask for these things at your local wood-finishing place. Good luck! Lindsay

  7. Hi there,

    I am producing a new TV series following people who have taken unconventional buildings and turned them into gorgeous homes.

    I would love to chat and possibly feature your home.

    Hope to hear soon,

  8. I bought a church in 2006, and have been living in it ever since (ten years now). I absolutely love it! I did very little remodeling, just redecorating. I’m not saying there was no work involved, there was, like new storm windows, exterior maintenance, etc. but it has been totally worth it. The structure was built in 1903.

Leave a comment