The challenge of heating historic church buildings

This week I was at a conference hosted by Stir to Action, all about churches and social enterprise. The event highlighted a key opportunity: one of the biggest hurdles for small start-ups is affordable premises, and churches often have under-used buildings. In some cases they are struggling to keep them open if membership has declined. In theory then, there ought to be all kinds of mutual benefits to churches opening up to communities and small businesses.

I recently moved into a co-working space along these lines myself, where the local business Do Wrk has installed office space down the side of St Matthew’s Church in Luton.

However, one of the biggest problems with old church buildings is their energy efficiency. They can be almost impossible to heat properly, with cold stone walls and floors. Lofty ceilings mean that warmth rises pointlessly into the empty rafters. To make matters worse, listed buildings can’t be tinkered with. In some cases it might be possible to insulate them, but many historic churches have historical significance and the heritage guidelines insist on ‘minimal intervention’. As things stand, the challenge of heating churches is a real obstacle to sustainability, and a challenge to the Church of England’s plans to reduce its carbon footprint by 80% by 2050.

Of course, one of the main reasons why churches have poor heating is that it’s been added on afterwards. Nobody expected them to be heated 700 or 800 years ago, and you just went to church in your coat. Medieval services were daily, short, and most people would be standing. Pews were only introduced once the Protestants started delivering sermons and the congregation had to settle in for longer. The idea that you should sit comfortably in church is a recent idea, though that won’t cut much ice if you’re trying to get freelancers in to use your co-working space.

One early attempt at heating gives us a potential approach – churches added a boiler, and then ran pipes under the pews. That creates heat locally where it is needed and doesn’t attempt to heat the whole church. Space heating approaches became more common after the Second World War. People were adding central heating at home, expectations for the indoor environment were changing and the church adapted. But in sustainability terms, heating the person rather than the space might be an idea to revisit – as demonstrated by this illustration from a study on the topic.

Central heating (a) vs local heating (b)

Underfloor heating can provide more even heat at the low level without losing quite so much of it into the roof, and that’s been a good choice for many churches. Heated pews or small electric heaters are sometimes used. The default for most churches is a boiler and radiators though, which is effective but wasteful.

If space heating is the direction we want to go in, then it would be a good idea to shrink the space that needs to be heated. In the building where the conference was held, St Ethelburgas in London, the main room had been divided with structural glass. There were a number of benefits to sub-dividing the building this way, but heating is one of them. Underused side chapels or wings can be screened off, reducing the amount of space to heat. Using glass preserves the beauty of the architecture. It may be possible to lower ceilings in some places too.

Some churches have taken a more radical approach, such as All Souls in Bolton, which I’ll go ahead and call building of the week. They have essentially created a new modernist community centre and business hub inside the old church. The historic building can be appreciated in new ways from the walkways and gantries, but the series of smaller spaces is much more manageable.

Of course, in some contexts the right answer might be to sell the building off or even knock it down. It upsets the heritage folks, but there are going to be some historic churches that really can’t be saved.

If you’ve seen something interesting done with a historic church that makes it more sustainable, drop me a note in the comments. I’m sure there are creative solutions for the vast Victorian red brick barn that is currently my office, and I’ll let you know if we come to any conclusions.



  1. IR radiant heaters seem to be the best way of making people feel comfortable in a large unheatable space.

    Orthodox still have to stand for Liturgy, which lasts about ninety minutes, so people keep coats on. It is so absorbing that you would not not notice the time passing, and there are icons and wall paintings and ceiling paintings to look at, as well.

  2. I’m not sure the medieval services were short but people were likely to be packed in those able to standing and those not sitting round the edge. So I suppose it was a bit like a penguin colony heat wise. I’m not sure we would be allowed to demolish our great I listed building and I certainly wouldn’t want to. The point is we are going to have to get used to colder building since RH doesn’t add up.

    We had a very expensive refurb in 2008. We have done the following;

    Put underfloor heating in.
    Put insulation in roof. Astoundingly either because it was listed or due to the fact we a charity we did not have to do this as part of the refurb. The chancel was a safety challenge and the guy kindly insulated it with a broken arm!
    We started on LED’s quite a long time ago, although this is a work in progress.
    The main problem is the sold stone walls and stained glass (we have some secondary glazing on the outside but failed to get a grant to add more and its very expensive).
    On the advice side especially on the refurb side if you do this use the building to the nth degree our is pretty much used 24/7.

    Generally for conferences (secular hire and some Christian).
    Marriage prep course and marriage course (now both fairly secular).
    Alpha courses (in past),
    Huge mothers and toddlers now all day Thursday by popular demand.
    Every Saturday evening we feed 120 homeless guests and 30 volunteers with a dinner part standard meal.

    PandGs Edinburgh

    1. I went to P&Gs for an event several years ago. It must have been shortly after the refurb, as I remember some rather smart modern features. Your point about maximising the use of the building is important. It’s often more efficient to keep the building heated to a low-to-medium temperature than to ramp it up for sundays, and I think church buildings ought to be as well used by the community on principle anyway.

  3. You think you have a problem, Jeremy. I work in York Minster, the biggest Gothic cathedral north of the Alps! I do believe, however, that there is a possible solution. At Baildon Methodist Church, Bradford, where I worship, we have installed very successfully far-infrared electric heating. These panels – that can be painted or otherwise decorated – heat the people, not the air; they work something like a microwave. Thus we do not lose valuable energy in heating useless high-level  hot air. I would be very interested should you research and evaluate this form of heating. Otherwise many churches will be bankrupted. Thank you for your ever-interesting comments.John D. Anderson

    1. Yes, York Minster must be a unique challenge! At least it’s large and historic enough to be able to pay the bills – or at least I hope so. The maintenance costs on a building like that must be eye-watering. Certainly a very different problem from the churches hanging on with a dozen dedicated folks in a building intended for hundreds though. Good tip on microwaving the congregation. That’s not something I’ve come across around here, but it sounds like the panels would blend in okay in a heritage context.

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