Clare Bowen knew she wanted to buy the apartment as soon as she walked through the doors of the converted Victorian church in Queens Park, London. But it was the three large stained-glass windows and the high ceilings that prompted her to put an offer in immediately.
“One of the stained-glass windows shows the Easter story of Mary Magdalene in the garden,” she says. “It was put in after the first world war with the inscription, ‘He is not here; for he has risen’ in memory of all those who died in the war. It is very emotive.”
Bowen is one of many people across the UK to have chosen a home in part because of the rich history associated with it, and estate agents report growing demand particularly for converted properties, including old chapel buildings.
“Church conversions appeal to buyers looking for a property that offers space, beauty and distinctiveness,” says Charlie Taylor, head of Knight Frank’s Bath office. “The unusual architectural and character features such as high ceilings, stained-glass windows and wood detailing give them individual character which cannot be found in most homes.” Church or chapel conversions will not necessarily command a premium, he adds, and, as with any property, the location, condition and individual features must be factored in.
New projects coming on to the market include the chapel at the Galleries, in Brentwood in Essex, a complex that has been redeveloped from a Grade II-listed former Victorian hospital. The chapel is built from Kentish Ragstone, as opposed to red brick, and this helps to set it apart from the rest of the development.
“The building is pretty dramatic looking, with stone arched windows and beautiful gargoyles,” says Helen Moore, managing director at City and Country, developer of the Galleries.
“It was a former lunatic asylum and the design of the buildings reflects this. When the Victorians dropped their relatives off they wanted there to be grand buildings so they wouldn’t feel bad about incarcerating them. This rationale actually means this is a wonderful development to live in.”
While some may find this historical backdrop rather disturbing, the asking price of these apartments – £245,000 for a one-bedroom, £385,000 for a two-bedroom, and £950,000 for a three-bedroom property – reflects the developer’s confidence that others will be attracted by the site’s rich heritage.
City and Country is also working on a Grade II-listed former chapel linked to the Bristol General Hospital. Designed in an arts and crafts style that reflects local Jacobean and Elizabethan gabled manor houses, the building is faced with limestone and originally roofed with Cotswold stone tiles.
“The worst thing you can do with this type of building is to subdivide it horizontally – you would lose the volume and the light, says Simon Vernon-Harcourt, design and planning director at City and Country. “Where we can we like to include a mezzanine, perhaps to allow views of stained-glass windows through the apartment.”
Sebastian Verity of Knight Frank’s institutional consultancy team says that most people interested in buying and converting former religious buildings are attracted by the proportions, history and quality of the existing structure. “Certainly some chapels and other religious institutions offer spacious rooms with high or vaulted ceilings, often constructed out of natural materials,” he says.
However, while this can be an attraction for buyers it can also prove to be the most challenging aspect of any restoration or redevelopment. Not only are there significant costs attached to working with natural materials such as old timbers, which will increase if the building is listed or in a conservation area, but such large and distinctive spaces can present practical problems, such as how to accommodate a figurative stained-glass window into a residential home.
When it comes to the change-of-use process, the difficulty and intricacy of the project will vary hugely depending on the location, the size and type of structure, the nature of the previous use and, crucially, the attitude of the planning authority.
Buyers should also be aware of the implications if a property has recently played an active part in the community. “Loss of a ‘community facility’, through a change of use from institutional to residential, may be resisted by both the neighbours and the planning authority,” says Verity.
Sometimes the aesthetic benefits of religious and other institutional properties can be outweighed by the numerous challenges the structure presents an incoming buyer; be it in planning, conservation or construction terms, not to mention the day-to-day practical issues a purchaser will face when converting an institutional building to residential.
Katie Baldwin, from Savills’ Henley-on-Thames office, says it is usually downsizers or young couples who end up falling in love and buying this sort of property. “Converted chapels typically don’t offer the right proportioned space for families, with smaller than usual bedrooms and gardens.”
She adds that it is crucial a chapel is converted sensitively so that the design retains the essence of the building. “For example using like-for-like materials to preserve the integrity of a chapel, without which it will certainly lose its appeal and charm as a home,” she says. “Smaller chapels make perfect ‘lock-up and leave’ second homes, while bigger conversions with high ceilings are always popular with downsizing couples looking for smaller homes but generous living spaces.”
Savills has a former church on its books – Church Gate Hall, in London – priced at £1.325m, and a detached former Methodist chapel in Nettlebed, in need of modernisation, priced at £450,000. Savills is also marketing Chapel House in the village of Shurlock Row, Berkshire, for £1.35m. Originally a Primitive Methodist chapel with adjoining double-fronted house it is now a four-bedroom family home.
Roarie Scarisbrick, partner at independent buying agency Property Vision, says there are many examples where architects have been allowed to go wild with the interiors, and that these places always attract a lot of interest in the market but don’t necessarily fly off the shelf.
“By their nature, they tend to be quite inward looking, with no real outlook, and while huge volume is amazing to look at, it is not so much fun to live with it day to day,” he says. “Buyers’ practical instincts usually win over the allure of the wow factor, and don’t underestimate how many people are superstitious. Imagine the echo and the heating bills, and don’t even mention the ghouls that go bump in the night.”