Image of the exterior of the National Centre for Early Music showing the medieval church of St Margaret, Walmgate, and the new extension.
The National Centre for Early Music is based in the Grade I listed medieval Church of St Margaret, Walmgate, in York. © Historic England
The National Centre for Early Music is based in the Grade I listed medieval Church of St Margaret, Walmgate, in York. © Historic England


When planning alterations to an historic place of worship for additional use, you must base these on an understanding of the building’s significance, its history and its place in the community. Your plans should be based on local need to ensure the best chance for the sustainability of a new use.

Designing a project

The fixtures and fittings – pews, screens, monuments and liturgical features – of a place of worship often contribute hugely its historic character. When designing a project, you should allow for their retention wherever appropriate. Some degree of compromise around the additional use may be necessary to help retain the significance of the building. Plans to balance harm with public benefit should be in accordance with the National Planning Policy Framework (section 133ff).

Our making changes pages will help you to plan works to interiors, additions and extnsions and other types of work. The section on getting permission provides more detail on the consents you may need and the Ecclesiastical Exemption.

Low impact uses

Some additional uses have a low impact on the fabric of the building. This means that they do not damage building fabric, do not require large amounts of new services and retain most fixtures and fittings. This may include making an area within the building available for hire to the local community or making changes to one part of the building without affecting the rest.

Alterations which make the building suitable for concerts or lectures may be low impact if well planned. Many places of worship make natural auditoriums and can accommodate performance use with few alterations.

For closed places of worship, the form of conversion which is generally most appropriate can be termed ‘single vessel use’. The traditional place of worship basically developed as a place to bring a large number of people together in a single space. This sort of use created the open interiors, impressive proportions and long sight lines that characterise these buildings. It will usually be important for new plans to keep these features.

High impact uses

You may also wish to pursue a more ambitious scheme, such as creating café, shop or even office space. Such uses will require the addition of new services such as plumbing or equipment, or even the partitioning of space within the building.

Residential schemes for closed places of worship are likely to be high impact. We do recognise that in some cases, residential schemes are the only alternative to demolition.

There are many successful examples of such schemes, but you will need to plan changes carefully. Our making changes section will help you consider the guiding principles for such alterations as well as providing information on specific changes.

Please see the community case study and commercial case study for examples of different types of use.

New uses for closed places of worship

Historic England supports congregations in their efforts to keep their historic places of worship open and sustainable. We do, however, recognise that in some cases, where places of worship have closed, the significance of the building lies primarily in its landscape or townscape contribution.

In such cases, the high level of intervention required for conversion may be acceptable to secure a sustainable use for the building. If your plans involve high impact change, you will need to explain the reasons for this in your justification.

Conversion of closed churches

If you are working on the conversion of a closed place of worship, there are typical issues which you need to consider when planning a scheme.

There are some characteristic drawbacks of residential conversions. One is the extent of subdivision involved which can be highly visible on the exterior of the building. Others are the lack of public access to converted buildings and the pressure for change in the immediate setting (for example, churchyards becoming gardens).

In a lot of cases, particularly small nonconformist chapels of a more domestic character and smaller parish churches, you may be able to design a suitable single family dwelling. Use as a single residential unit is preferable to use as multiple residences. This is because it is likely to have less impact on the exterior and setting of the building and will require fewer alterations to bring in services.

Nevertheless, you should take care to find the best way of creating the private spaces needed in a domestic building and the right location for introduction of services. It may be that subsidiary spaces already exist in the form of meeting rooms, vestries, transepts or the areas beneath galleries. In places of worship designed with a clear eastward focus, it would be preferable to confine subdivision to the west end of the building.

Rooflights are sometimes the only external indications of conversion, but can be visually damaging. The need for them requires justification and their location must be carefully considered. If rooflights are required, we recommend conservation rooflights which do not stand above the plane of the roof.