Adapting to Accomodate

Posted by in July's Magazine

Edinburgh is teeming with churches, many have become surplus to the religious requirements they were originally built to meet. Whilst some have been bought by developers and converted into restaurants, luxury apartments, theatres, nightclubs and yes, even indoor climbing centres, others, still retained by the churches, are falling into disrepair. Many of these buildings are a liability rather than an asset – too big for present- day congregations, expensive to heat, leaking roofs, leaking money…

Whilst some buildings are more burdensome than beneficial, the land on which they sit is far from defunct. Churches occupy valuable land in prime locations throughout the city; land which, in many cases, has greater potential than its present day use. I’m not talking about financial potential, but rather the potential practical value to an area. With this precious land at their disposal, churches have an opportunity to make a difference. Why not adapt the space to better benefit both the congregation and the community?


Some churches have already done just this. Since 1994, Scottish Churches Housing Action (SCHA) has aided churches in their commitment to ending homelessness. Providing affordable housing is one effective response to this ongoing social problem. Housing Associations, who provide such accommodation, are crying out for development opportu- nities. They struggle to find city sites to build affordable housing on when competing with property developers with deep pockets.

Combining social housing with new more efficient church centres can provide two solutions through one action. Churches can restructure their properties to better fit their needs and simultaneously assist the community. The church does this by selling its land to a Housing

Association and in turn it buys back a smaller church facility. The rest of the land is then allocated to housing development. Project manager Jeremy Balfour explains, “The approach we take is tailored to each individual situation. It’s not necessarily about demolishing old churches, there may be land available, or building conversion may be possible. The key things are to make better use of church property and to secure the affordable homes Scotland desperately needs.”

Win-win venture
The United Reformed Church on Duke Street is one such church that has taken this initiative. A large Victorian building, with seating for 450 people, its maintenance costs were excessive. £250,000 was needed simply to repair its immediate defects and inevitably it would not be long before it faced another big bill. What’s more, the church and its congregation could not justify spending such a large sum on upkeep when there were local people in need of homes. In 2004 they magnanimously faced the facts that the space could be put to better use.

The Church sold the land to Port of Leith Housing Association. Minister, Leslie Morrison, explains “We had the option of selling to a private de- veloper, but that would have left us with no premises and no chance of finding anywhere nearby”. A study was carried out to determine the op- tions, and, after much deliberation, it was decided that a complete rebuild was needed. Whilst it is undeniably a pity to demolish a historic building, the logic behind the action is hard to ignore. In choosing to work with SCHA, the church was able to retain its historical presence on Duke Street and help others at the same time.

Assist Architects were commissioned to design a new building and did an impressive job, utilising the tight site space to realise its maximum value to the community. In place of an old deteriorating church now stand 18 modern flats, 4 mews houses and a new church centre. Assist also successfully preserved and re-used key pieces of the original stained glass. These are now an enchanting feature of the new church centre and a reminder of the churches’ past.

Three years on from its completion the success of this project remains apparent. Housing Minister, Mr Alex Neil, visited Duke Street recently and acknowledged it as a “fantastic community facility”. He went on to say that he is keen to see the Scottish Government work with the SCHA to free up more land and sites.

Although it is difficult for any church to give up its historical centre of prayer and worship, the upkeep of these buildings is endless, and in some cases, inevitably futile. The story of Duke Street Church demonstrates that this programme can be a win-win venture for all. The congregation is pleased that it has been able to help in this important development and recommends other churches, in similar circumstances, think of the homeless, think of Duke Street, and in doing so, think of a better solution. Jo Power

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