A modern model for church building

25 August 2017 | By Stephen Cousins

A double-height space and pitched roof mark out the church on its tight urban site

The Diocese of London has embarked upon a radical 21st century model for church development. Stephen Cousins visited St Luke’s Church in Millwall to see the results.

If you think churches have to be cavernous stone buildings, with vaulted roofs, wooden pews and silent congregations hidden behind closed doors, think again.

The Diocese of London, the London arm of the Church of England, is on a mission to redefine ecclesiastical architecture for the 21st century, by delivering new hybrid buildings that combine church spaces with offices, or residential units, cafes, training facilities and other community functions.

This innovative approach was devised by a specially appointed in-house team to make church construction more commercially viable and socially inclusive in the capital, where rising development costs have made traditional approaches less viable.

The team

Client London Diocesan Fund
Phelan Construction
Phelan Architects
Project manager
Academy Consulting
Yates Associates
Structural engineer
Eckersley O’Callaghan
QS/principal designer/party walls
Martin Arnold

St Luke’s Church on the Isle of Dogs is the second of three projects currently on site. The £4.3m scheme is being built by main contractor Phelan Construction in Millwall – a short walk from the gleaming towers of Canary Wharf – in a deprived area characterised by large amounts of social housing.

The development features a ground-floor community centre, a first-floor church and nine residential units – to be offered for private sale to help the Diocese of London recover its initial investment in the church.

The design, by Hackney-based Phelan Architects (no connection to the contractor), aims to combine traditional and contemporary influences and materials. A glass and anodised aluminium curtain wall wraps around the church hall at the front, while the apartments to the rear are clad in handcrafted bricks bonded with lime mortar.

High-tech features include a slender timber spire that doubles up as a streetlight, and a bell on the roof – retained from the old church – that can be rung by the vicar remotely, using an iPhone app when he is out and about.

Stephen Hoad MCIOB, head of capital projects for the Diocese of London, says: “The existing model of the church, focused on large long buildings with a crucifix plan, costs a fortune to build and is typically only used on a Sunday, making it quite impractical and unsustainable as a business model for today's society.

Design for St Luke’s Church – the original white render has been replaced by hand-crafted brick

“Our new churches are very open and transparent – the extensive use of glass to enables people to see what is going on inside – and the inclusion of  community uses creates a Monday to Sunday enterprise.”

Hoad was appointed two years ago by the diocese to head up a new strategic development team tasked with kick-starting historic projects that had stalled and identifying new opportunities to expand the Anglican Church in London.

“Many schemes had been running around internal committees and become too much of a risk,” says the former building surveyor, who has 17 years’ experience in construction. “My construction background and skillset enables me to look at things differently. This game is all about how you manage risk, create good relationships and work with people to get projects over the line.”

A practising Christian, Hoad is clearly passionate about his role and the opportunity to help the church extend its reach in London. He is also keen to prove he is a “good steward” of church funds and able to make positive use of donations from parishioners.

To the rear of the church nine brick-clad apartments are taking shape

The first new project to get to site under his remit, and the first capital project to be delivered by the diocese in around 40 years, is a 930sq m block in Tottenham Hale. It comprises a church hall, nursery and cafe on the first two storeys, as well as six storeys of apartments above. The shell-and-core contract, carried out by residential property developer Bellway, is due to complete this month.

The St Luke’s Church project came next and is comparatively small in scale, which made it difficult to find a developer willing to take it on as a joint funding partner. Instead, the London Diocesan Fund (LDF), a limited company set up by the diocese, decided to pay for the scheme upfront, supplemented by funds from the local parish, and tendered for a contractor.

Overcoming local opposition

Under a separate contract with the  parish, the LDF assumes full control over the building’s commercial services and the off-plan sale of residential units, which are currently likely to be purchased by a registered social landlord (RSL). Post-completion, the parish will take a long lease on the church hall as end user.

“Following the sale of the flats we expect to break even. It is a great success story for us, to get a brand new church in an area where so much new development is going on,” says Hoad.

St Luke’s is being built on the site of the original church, built in 1868, damaged during the Blitz and finally demolished in 2014. It has required the patience of a saint to get the project to its current state. The scheme was first proposed in 2003 and over the years has experienced delays related to funding and approvals, and two separate planning applications.

“Our new churches are very open and transparent and the inclusion of community uses creates a Monday to Sunday enterprise.”

Stephen Hoad MCIOB, Diocese of London

The planning process was onerous, facing strong opposition from local residents, which might seem strange given its small size and the amount of development on the Isle of Dogs.

“The planners were all over this for lots of different reasons,” says Anne Markey, director of Phelan Architects. “There was a lengthy list of conditions. Residents were not too happy with the scale of development, which is bound on all sides by roads or other properties. Some were concerned the community-use elements would be reserved for the Anglican community.”

As if that wasn’t pressure enough, the LDF typically views capital projects as high risk, says Hoad, so all aspects had to go before three different internal committees to ensure that church money was being wisely spent.

The tender with Phelan was finally agreed in 2014, only to be renegotiated in January 2016 and in the intervening months the scheme went through three rounds of value engineering. The timber frame and glass plank facade was revised to a simpler Schüco curtain wall solution, and a special roll-down acoustic screen in the church hall, designed to separate the chapel from the hall for prayer, had to be omitted.

“The contract was sitting around for so long we had to deal with a lot of obsolescence,” says Hoad. “For example, the bricks were discontinued so we had to find a replacement and get the planners to approve it. I’ve been trying get the best result with an extremely tight budget control; there’s not much fat on the bone.”

Despite these challenges, the church will still feel like a church, with a generous double-height space, pitched roof, two galleries, a chapel area and timber finishes. The flats are all double aspect, with generous balconies and feature a higher spec than the housing authority standard originally planned. The flats are entered via a semi-open corridor, covered by a roof, that separates the church hall from the resi block to prevent disturbance from noise.

North elevation of St Luke’s Church and adjoining property

St Luke’s is targeting BREEAM Very Good – it has 44 solar photovoltaic panels on the roof intended to supply power to the church and the apartment, two areas of green roof, cycle parking and lots of natural daylight.

But what would St Luke, the patron saint of artists, physicians, surgeons, students and butchers, make of the Diocese of London’s fresh take on ecclesiastical architecture?

“The model of what a church building will look like will be very different moving forward,” says Hoad. “We have an array of different projects planned. Schemes will include elements of commercial, and a large amount of residential intended to cross-subsidise the costs of construction.”

A project in Finchley, to convert an office block into two-thirds church and one-third offices, has now started on site. The diocese also worked with a consultancy to develop temporary “pop up” churches – built with shipping containers or modular construction – to establish a presence in an area. After around five years, when the congregation has grown to around 40 people, a permanent church would be constructed and the structure moved to another site.

In a similar vein, it has secured a mooring for its first “floating church”, near the London Stadium in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. The barge will operate for 12 months, before seeking a more permanent presence.

These innovative ideas could provide a springboard for projects elsewhere in the country. “London is better resourced so we can break ground and perhaps help educate some of the other dioceses. It’s a totally different way of looking at things,” he concludes.

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