Assessing Significance

A good understanding of the significance of your building, its contents and setting will help when you start considering changes. This applies whether your building is an existing place of worship or a former one.

Image of the Saltaire United Reformed Church in the snow
Saltaire United Reformed Church in the snow © Historic England
Image of the Saltaire United Reformed Church in the snow
Saltaire United Reformed Church in the snow © Historic England

Statements of significance and need

When you apply to make changes to your place of worship, you will need to write statements of significance and need. The guidelines below will help you to assess the significance of your building and its surroundings.

More information on assessing significance can be found in our advice on conservation principles.

The Statement of Significance describes the building as a whole and as various elements. It'll summarise what each contributes to the character of the building, especially those areas or elements that you're planning to change or remove.

This information will help to put your proposals in context and enable decision-makers and advisory bodies to understand the impact of what you want to achieve. It may also help them to suggest alternative, less damaging, ways to meet your needs.

The Statement of Need sets out the reasons why you want to do particular things. This includes how they'll benefit the community and why you need to do them in the way you're proposing. It'll also explain what other options you considered and why you rejected them. For example, as well as explaining why you need a new kitchen facility, it'll also explain why the kitchen should be placed in the location you've chosen.

If you're proposing a major reordering or extension, a space audit may also help you to understand fully how your building is used.

Find sources of information to help write the statements.

Who values the place?

Your building may well be significant because of the way it brings a community together. Explaining how your community values the place of worship will be helpful when you're having discussions with external bodies unfamiliar with the building or its users.

This is also important if you're considering new uses for a former place of worship. The importance of the building to its community needs to influence its future.

Understanding fabric and development

A good understanding of the building’s fabric and its development over time will help you to plan appropriate changes to the interior and the historic fabric. Particularly in relation to old buildings that may have developed over centuries.

Past changes to places of worship and their furnishings may be of historic interest because they illustrate changing styles of worship and architectural design. There may also be an association with an important historical figure or event.

Newer places of worship are more likely to have been built in only one or two phases and may be the work of a single architect.

However old your building is, it will help to assess the following:

  • The architectural and historic interest of the building
  • The aesthetic qualities and interest of its design and character
  • Its archaeological interest
  • The fabric - in other words, the materials used to build it
  • The furnishings - identifying the age, rarity and quality of the internal furnishings and fittings
  • The building’s footprint, including its external composition and internal plan form
  • Its spatial qualities and decorative schemes

Where the building is by a well-known architect, you may find it useful to compare it with other examples of their work. This may show whether your building is typical of their work or has unusual features.

It's also often helpful to set the building in a regional and/or national context (for example if it's an unusual building or one of a series of buildings with similar qualities).

Consider setting and context

The area around a place of worship is known as its ‘setting’. Your place of worship may lie at the heart of an historic landscape or may be the focal point of a town.

When assessing setting, take account of important things which would ideally be preserved or even improved by new work or changes. This will include things like important views of and from the building, grave markers, churchyard structures and landscape features. Our good practice advice note on setting may help you.

Your place of worship may be very old and it is likely that the immediate surroundings are as well. The area around the place of worship may contain graves or the remains of other, older, buildings. Learning about these can increase our understanding of how people used the site in the past.

You'll need to get archaeological advice at an early stage. The county archaeologist is usually a good source of advice, but Church of England parishes should also seek the help of the diocesan archaeological consultant.

Sources of information

There are a number of useful resources available to help you write these statements. Other resources include the Historic England online tool for creating Statements of Significance, the Methodist Church’s information leaflet, and Church Build. The Church of England's online faculty application system has a built-in facility to help you create Statements of Significance.

You may wish to look at the following to help you find more information about your place of worship:

Other readily available published sources of information include the relevant county volume of The Buildings of England (often known as a ‘Pevsner’, after the founder of the series). The Victoria County History can also provide detailed historical information for some parts of the country.

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