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Church Times Green Awards: Buildings

11 August 2017

In the first of a four-part series, Hattie Williams and Tim Wyatt report on shortlisted entries in this category

Andrew Eberlin

Snow picture: Holy Trinity, Bradford on Avon, pictured in the snow. The church was rededicated last December

Snow picture: Holy Trinity, Bradford on Avon, pictured in the snow. The church was rededicated last December

IN THE year that the Church Times launched its first Green Awards, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Al Gore and the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change, for their efforts to “build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change”. Ten years later, “inconvenient truths” continue to disturb and motivate.

While the Church has been criticised by some for failing to take a more radical stance on climate change, its national initiatives, including shareholder action, are complemented by action at a local level. In the weeks leading up to this year’s Awards, announced on 16 October, we look at some of the short-listed entries, starting this week with Buildings, where the judges sought “notable efforts that are making church buildings greener”.


Holy Trinity, Bradford on Avon

THE Grade I listed medieval parish church Holy Trinity, Bradford on Avon, Wiltshire, has undergone a £2-million floor-to-ceiling transformation to ensure that the building is greener, cleaner, and sustainable for future generations.

Among the new features are a floor made from recycled Bath stone, with underfloor heating; flood-protection measures; improved drainage; glass doors; a mezzanine tower room; kitchen; four lavatories; disabled access and facilities; lighting and sound systems; flexible oak seating; and a nave altar. The Willis organ has also been carefully dismantled and restored.

The church was closed for a year, until last November, to carry out the work. It was largely funded by the sale in 2013 of an Old Master — Christ Blessing, by Quentin Metsys (c.1465-c.1530) — which had been donated to the church in 1940 by a member of the community (News, 19 March 2010, 7 February 2014).

None the less, the escalating costs, including £80,000 on archaeology, were a shock, the Rector, Canon Joanna Abecassis, said. The amount of energy and vision required for a project on such a scale is not for the fainthearted.

“There was a lot of pressure to have solar panels and a biomass boiler,” she said, “but the roof was too steep for solar panels, and they would have been too visible. The possibility of getting energy from the nearby river didn’t work, and the biomass boiler technology was not appropriate; so we have two small gas boilers which could be converted in the future.”

Holy Trinity, Bradford on AvonRestoration: the Willis organ in Holy Trinity, Bradford on Avon, is dismantled by Harrison & HarrisonAlthough the underfloor heating was on all winter, the energy bills for the first six months were down significantly on previous years. “Before, we were heating the whole church two or three times a week for a service, and you would still be shivering,” she said. “It is not just cost; we are using significantly less energy, and people are more inclined to stay in a warm church.”

Holy Trinity has since gained Eco Church accreditation; uses Fairtrade products, such as tea; and has recently installed bird boxes for swifts in the tower. The community group Climate Friendly Bradford on Avon — some of whom are parishioners, — which campaigns to reduce carbon emissions in the area, are particularly pleased with the efforts.

There have been few grumbles from the 150-strong congregation. “A few sceptics thought that we were going to turn it into a happy-clappy, carpeted, trendy ‘modern’ church, which is not our style. It can be hard to take the congregation with you, but support is growing.”

Green should be part of mission, Canon Abecassis says. “I don’t think you can preach about caring, loving, and respecting God’s creation, and our being made in the image of God, if you don’t do anything about it. There are countries overseas who are devastated by climate change in a way that we are not.”

She arrived in 2010, shortly before the faculty to sell the painting was granted. The project manager, Jim Crouch, and the architect George Chedburn, of Chedburn Dudley, were briefed to maximise the input of the congregation and community from the start. Mr Chedburn went so far as to visit the chief flower arranger to consult on the type of sink used for the designated flower-room.

A big community venue was “sorely needed”; so the council were delighted with the result, Canon Abecassis said. “It is a hilly and cobbled town; so the accessibility of the church is proving its worth. The doors are open all day, every day, and we receive wonderful comments: the biggest compliment I have had is that the church looks like a 21st-century cathedral.”


Gloucester CathedralHead for heights: the Dean of Gloucester, the Very Revd Stephen Lake, blesses the panelsGloucester Cathedral

GLOUCESTER CATHEDRAL is taking green mission to new heights. Last November, it became the first ancient cathedral to install a continuous array of solar photo-voltaic panels on its 68-foot-high roof. The move was part of Project Pilgrim: a £6-million ten-year regeneration project, of which £4.5 million was provided by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF).

Over eight weeks, 150 solar panels of a 30,000 kWp capacity were fixed to the slope of the nave roof on frames, to lessen the impact on the historic fabric. The panels are dark and less reflective than others, and therefore invisible from the ground, and yet generate enough energy to power 25 per cent of the electricity of the building — the equivalent of seven semi-detached houses.

The project manager, Anne Cranston, who previously worked for an environmental charity, said that, although the carbon footprint of the cathedral was unchanged, running costs were down, and it was now on the path to become Eco Church-accredited. “It has given a focus and momentum to the staff and congregation,” she said. “Next year, you will be able to see live read-outs of the solar panels within the cathedral, which we will be able to make more of for our visitors.”

Proposals for the project first emerged in 2011 as part of efforts to support the Church of England’s national environmental campaign Shrinking the Footprint. Project Pilgrim was formed to “inspire” the community to consider sustainable-power generation and the use of renewable resources, and to address the felt need to redevelop the cathedral green, entrance, and Lady chapel.

Gloucester CathedralVerdant display: green light is projected on to the tower of Gloucester Cathedral to celebrate the launch of the panelsThe cathedral architect, Antony Feltham-King, had noted in a survey in 2009 that the pitch, high parapet, and modern fabric of the 18th-century nave roof — which was repaired in the 1950s — might be compatible with solar panels. He later carried out a study of all viewpoints of the cathedral, including distant hilltops, before the consultation, to ensure that the panels would not be visible.

The cathedral Friends, the Fabric Advisory Committee, Gloucester City Council, English Heritage, the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, and the Fabric Commission for England were involved in the consultation. “People were very happy to express the concerns: mainly, the visual impact and the historic fabric,” Ms Cranston said. “This meant there were no objections later on. People have been incredibly supportive.”

The application was approved in 2015. A specialist company, MyPower, in Cheltenham, was selected through a competitive tender the following year to install the panels, which were to connect the cabling to the crypt (the biggest hurdle), at a cost of £100,000 — half of which was raised through a public-sponsorship campaign.

The Dean of Gloucester, the Very Revd Stephen Lake, who blessed the panels, said that the cathedral had “married the ancient with the modern” in the service of the environment. “If cathedrals are to be ‘sacred space and common ground’, then it is missional to be leading the way in care for creation.

“This project is the beginning of a commitment to ‘be the greenest cathedral we can be’ . . . but tunes in with the divine plan, and has a firm foundation in scripture. Our churches ought to be, and can be, beacons of sustainability to encourage wise stewardship and individual and corporate response to the gift of creation.”

View a time lapse video of the installation here: www.gloucestercathedral.org.uk/project-pilgrim


ST WENNPioneer: St Wenn’s, St Wenn, in Cornwall, which now shares a biomass boilerwith the neighbouring schoolSt Wenn Parish Church

ST WENN’s, a tiny village church in Cornwall whose average Sunday congregation numbers 20, had a problem.

Some kind of heating system was needed to make the medieval church more usable, and the people were keen that it should be environmentally friendly. But the cost of installing a biomass boiler, which burned pellets of compressed organic matter instead of gas or oil, could not be sustained by the small congregation.

The solution came from Stephen Chidgey, a villager who had recently completed an eco-makeover of his home, a converted barn. Knowing that the school next door to the church also wanted to overhaul its heating, he proposed a shared biomass boiler, sitting in the playground between the two buildings and piping hot water to both.

Mr Chidgey said that he was not even a churchgoer at that point, and had only got to know the parish priest, the Revd Elke Deeley, after his partner had died shortly before.

“The school needed the heat Monday to Friday, nine to four p.m., while the church wanted heat in the evenings and weekends,” he explained.

The biomass boiler was not just a green option: it was also the best option, as St Wenn’s isolated location in rural Cornwall meant that there was no mains gas line to fuel a boiler, and bottled gas would have been prohibitively expensive.

ST WENNDuring the work: pipes are laid inside St Wenn’sBut it was still a huge undertaking. Truro diocesan advisory committee (DAC), which needed to sign off the scheme, was wary, as it involved removing the pews in the church, laying underfloor heating pipes, and then building a new, levelled-out floor on top. But after Mr Chidgey managed to persuade the diocese that his plan could work, and the school won funding through a British Gas scheme, the village — churchgoers and non-churchgoers — got to work.

“The parish has been incredibly supportive; it has become a community project. One was a plumber; we had a couple of farmers, several retired guys. Some don’t even go to church, but they rolled their sleeves up, because they all thought it was a community project.”

Using volunteers for much of the work was not only a way to save money, but also give the village a stake in renewing St Wenn’s for the next 800 years.

Before, the temperature inside the church sometimes dropped down as low as two degrees during winter and the medieval building was riddled with damp. Now, all that has changed.

“This damp, musty smell has gone. The pillars used to have green damp about three feet high — that has all gone.”

And with a levelled floor and modern, flexible seating, the church has never been so busy. “The school now use the church for art, drama, singing, music, and assemblies, and there’s clubs in the evenings that go in there. It’s become an extra community resource,” Mr Chidgey.

He has found himself drawn back to church, and has joined the DAC to advise other PCCs in the diocese on installing environmentally sustainable heating in ancient churches. “I suppose what we did was pretty pioneering,” he says. “Most weeks, I go out to one church or another where their old oil-fired boiler has packed up and the infrastructure needs replacing.”

With his first-hand experience, and in the knowledge that there are opportunities to benefit from government subsidies for renewable energy — which have entirely covered the heating costs at St Wenn’s — he said that he often tells them: “You could use a biomass boiler, too.”


HOLY TRINITY, TULSE HILLRecycled: old tractor tyres used for the foundations of the new church hall at Holy Trinity, Tulse HillHoly Trinity, Tulse Hill

BALES of straw, old tractor tyres, and pea shingle grave are not your ordinary building materials; but for one church in south London — Holy Trinity, Tulse Hill — they were exactly what fitted the bill.

The parish wanted to build a community hall without a huge carbon footprint, and to involve the community. The answer, the Vicar, the Revd Richard Dormandy, explained, was straw.

“It just coincided with a number different aspects of our Christian ethos,” he said. “One of them was obviously the environmental angle. But another one was the whole emphasis on being able to take complete ownership of this building and do it ourselves. That is something that, as a church, is in our DNA.”

By sinking 22 recycled tractor tyres and 130 car tyres filled with gravel into the ground as a foundation, and then constructing walls on top out of straw bales, Holy Trinity has been able to avoid almost completely using any concrete in the construction of the hall, saving an estimated 70,500 kg of carbon dioxide — the equivalent of running an average car for 38 years.

They also slashed the cost: conventional concrete foundations would have cost them about £110,000; their tyre method came to £25,000.

HOLY TRINITY, TULSE HILLLearning: Barbara Jones (left), one of the UK’s leading experts on straw-bale construction, teaches volunteers at Holy Trinity, Tulse HillBut more important to them than the environmental savings was the ability to bring the whole community on board. Mr Dormandy said he was inspired by Amish communities in the United States, who famously erect barns without any modern machinery by enrolling the whole village in the construction.

“We were hoping this project would bring young and old, men and women, across the community together.”

With assistance from a specialist team, building with tyres and straw bales can be done by volunteers. Girls from the adjacent secondary school have done 40-minute stints most weeks; some of them would, it was hoped, be inspired to become architects or engineers, Mr Dormandy said.

Once the hall is finished in 2020, the community who helped build it will then fill it with clubs, classes, and wedding receptions: “In what is basically one of the most deprived parishes in England and Wales, we are able to serve the people with something that is really good and not going to cost them the earth.”

The hall might be rising slower than it would if normal techniques and materials were being used, but it is serving the church’s mission instead. Parishioners have gained qualifications and even jobs through volunteering on the project, and others with learning disabilities are thriving, having been given opportunities to take part.

“One of our volunteers said, ‘I never knew church could be like this,’” Mr Dormandy recalled.

HOLY TRINITY, TULSE HILLPlans: what the hall of Holy Trinity, Tulse Hill, is expected to look like once finished in 2020, with, inset, a sketch of the initial proposalHoly Trinity is thought to be the first church to put up a straw-bale building in Europe, and Mr Dormandy admitted at times that the prospect had overwhelmed him. “There have been many moments where I have felt out of my depth. There have been lots of times when I have had to persuade myself to keep going, because it has been quite hard.”

Building a large two-storey hall on a slope on top of London clay has added further complications, but Mr Dormandy said his parish was blazing a trail for others to follow. One church in Hampshire has already been in touch about copying Holy Trinity’s idea.

Mr Dormandy said: “When I realise that we have done this extraordinary thing . . . it’s very exciting, it’s fantastic really.”

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