Maintenance and Repair of Places of Worship

Ongoing, small scale, maintenance is the key to ensuring the long-term health of your place of worship. Regular maintenance reduces the risk of expensive large scale repairs.

Regular monitoring for tell-tale signs, such as blocked gutters, damp patches and slipped slates, can be easily done by the congregation and the community but it is good if one or two people take on the particular responsibility and know how to react to such problems quickly.

The value of maintenance research project

In 2019, Historic England commissioned research into the economic value of maintenance and repair on a sample of 30 listed church buildings across England; based on three successive Quinquennial Inspection Reports for each building. The research aimed to:

  • Estimate the repair cost for works to these buildings;
  • Estimate the cost for repairing issues when they had been first identified;
  • Establish whether prompt attention to minor repair and maintenance would have slowed the development of major repair needs.

The main findings of the research were that:

  • The estimated cost for repairing all defects across the sample at the time when they were first identified is approximately £6.95m.
  • Consequential damage accounted for around £1.8m of this total repair cost. Consequential damage is when a problem leads to another issue in a different part of the building fabric. For example, leaking rainwater goods causing saturation and damage to walls.
  • In addition, delayed repair results in a significantly increased cost liability. An example would be delayed repair to slipped roof tiles leading to the need for more extensive roof repairs. Across the sample, delayed repairs resulted in an increase of between 15% and 20% over and above the costs incurred if defects had been fixed when first identified.
  • It is clear that regular maintenance mitigates the potential additional costs associated with both delayed repair and consequential repair.
  • Roofs and rainwater goods are the main causes of defects and consequential damage.
  • Buildings of different ages generally have the same type of defects, suggesting that research findings are relevant for historic places of worship, regardless of when they were built.

Please note that the research findings are only based on the sample of buildings which were studied. Figures given are indicative and for guidance only.

We have responded to the research through a commentary on the main findings.

Read the commentary

Why does maintenance matter?

The biggest threat to the survival of historic buildings is water.  Clear gutters and downpipes allow water to drain away quickly so that it doesn’t have time to seep into the structure and get into the building. Water damage affects stonework, woodwork, internal fittings and decorations but it can be easily prevented.

Regular clearance of gutters, downpipes, drains and other parts of the drainage system is a significant part of a maintenance regime. We recommend gutters, gullies, downpipes and drains are cleared at least once a year after the leaves have fallen and before winter snow and storms arrive.

Where can we find help to plan and do maintenance?

There are a number of organisations, such as the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, that give practical advice on maintenance.  They offer face to face training and have developed a number of useful guides and prompts to help remind you to do maintenance safely. 

Maintenance days play a big part in engaging with the wider community. Historic places of worship are often important to local people even if they do not worship there so it is often worth making opportunities for volunteers to help with general maintenance and upkeep.  These events could be social and enjoyable and foster a real sense of care for the building and its grounds.

What about other regular checks we have to do?

Maintenance also involves the checks necessary to make sure your place of worship is a safe environment for worshippers and visitors. You should ensure a regime is in place to check the safety of:

  • lightning protection
  • fire extinguishers
  • electrical circuits
  • counter-balanced weights such as those holding up font covers, sanctuary lamps, or chandeliers

Your insurer may be able to offer advice about how often these should be done and where to find competent firms to do them.

Historic England recommends that lightning protection is considered for all churches, and tall or prominent historic buildings. However there is no system that will give absolute protection, and the significance of building needs to be balanced against providing an acceptable level of protection. For further information, please see our guidance on Lightning Protection.

Do repairs require permission?

The basic principle is that repairs should be done on a like for like basis wherever possible, and that applies to techniques and materials. Any repairs that affect the structure, internally and externally or fixtures and fittings are likely to require permission from the relevant authority.

This authorisation is necessary to ensure that any work carried out is undertaken by a qualified professional adept in working with historic materials and will ensure that the significance of the feature is not damaged or lost.

To check what permissions you may need please look at Listing and Permissions.

How do maintenance schemes help?

Many maintenance jobs can be done by volunteers but for some tasks employing a contractor makes more sense. This is especially true if you have don’t have volunteers who can cope with heights, or ladders or if the building is particularly complex or large.

If you need to employ a contractor then it is often cheaper to agree what work is needed with other places of worship and then invite contractors to tender so that you can get the best possible price for a high quality job. This can be an informal local arrangement but there are currently four area-based maintenance schemes in operation in England:

Even if you are outside the geographic areas covered these provide good examples of what is possible.

Remember, if a charge for VAT is incurred through maintenance work done by contractors it may be eligible for a refund through the Listed Places of Worship Scheme

Why are repairs necessary?

Historic places of worship suffer with age like all buildings. They can look substantial and resilient but, even if regular maintenance is carried out, materials can fail and repairs need to be carried out. For instance, stonework gets weathered over centuries, lead roofing is patch repaired for generations but then needs replacing and lightning strikes, arson, subsidence can all occur overnight. Even modern materials such as 20th century concrete decays.

Definition of maintenance and repair

Maintenance is the routine work that is necessary to keep the fabric of a building in good order.

When carried out on a planned basis, maintenance helps to limit the deterioration of fabric and prevent the types of failure which would otherwise occur over time. Inspections to assess condition, report any problems and decide whether repair or other work is necessary should be done on a periodic basis at defined intervals. There should also be rapid inspections after any severe weather episodes or unforeseen events. Maintenance falls into two main categories:

  • Planned preventive maintenance, such as testing building services, clearing debris from gutters and painting and decorating. This category of maintenance work needs to be done on a regular cycle and can be planned to maximise cost-effective use of labour and temporary access (e.g. scaffolding or mobile access platform). The appropriate cycle will vary according to the task, with some needing to be done several times each year and others every few years
  • Reactive maintenance consisting of minor repairs, such as fixing slipped slates, replacing broken glass and making temporary ‘flashband’ repairs to leadwork. Maintenance differs from repair

Repair is work carried out to put right defects caused by decay, damage or use. In contrast to reactive maintenance, repair implies work to return a property to a good condition on a long-term basis.