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Church life at net zero

04 November 2022

Seven per cent of churches in the UK are already carbon neutral; others are working towards that goal. Joe Ware looks at some examples

Eduardo Pérez Vidal/ Go Wild Films

Worcester diocese’s new-build vicarage at Webheath, designed to Passivhaus standards

Worcester diocese’s new-build vicarage at Webheath, designed to Passivhaus standards

THE reality of the climate crisis has been clear this year. We’ve seen record breaking heatwaves in the UK and Europe, devastating floods in Pakistan, and a drought in East Africa pushing millions to the brink of famine.

As temperatures in the UK breached 40°C for the first time, many churches opened the doors of their cool stone buildings, and provided a refuge for people fleeing the heat. Churches are also helping to tackle the root causes of the climate crisis as part of the C of E’s commitment to reducing its carbon emissions to net zero by 2030.


St Michael’s, Baddesley Clinton

THREE years ago, in the middle of winter, worshippers at St Michael’s, Baddesley Clinton, had to be evacuated from the church because of smoke coming out of the vestry cupboards. The old-fashioned heating system had given up the ghost in its attempts to keep the congregation warm. This was a wake-up call for the church leadership, who decided the current system was not sustainable.

Recently, a retired churchwarden, Graham Hughes, said: “It was a horrible winter, really cold. We had all the heating on and it still didn’t keep people warm. So we decided to make the change.”

The pews at St Michael’s, Baddesley Clinton, Birmingham diocese, now have electric heaters underneath

The church fitted electric under-pew heaters, which are designed to heat the space where people sit rather than try to heat the entire building. They also changed all their light bulbs to energy efficient LEDs, and switched over their electricity tariff to 100-per-cent renewable electricity. As they don’t use any gas, this makes them one of the first churches in the UK to reach net zero. To make doubly sure that they are no longer contributing to the climate crisis, the PCC pays for 2 tonnes of CO2 offsets every year.

“Considering we’re a 13th-century, little country church, we’re very pleased. It means we’re warmer; our bills have gone down; and we’re now net zero. It’s a no-brainer. Before, we needed to put the heating on three hours before the service started. Now, we just put it on 20 minutes beforehand, and everyone is warm.”

He said that their first quote from a consultant for the work came to £8500, but they realised that they could buy the heat pumps direct from the wholesalers, and hire an electrician to fit them. The total cost of the project came to just £3500.

“We’d really encourage others to follow suit,” Mr Hughes said. “There’s a quite a bit of help out there, and if you can’t find any, get in touch.”


St Andrew-by-the-Wardrobe, London

THE Grade I listed building was the last church to be rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of London, and also the last church to be rebuilt after the Blitz in the Second World War. It has now become the first carbon-neutral church in the City of London.

Recently, the post-Blitz 1950s heating system needed replacing, and so the church decided to take the opportunity to re-fit the church and make it sustainable. “The place was freezing. We needed a new system,” said the Archdeacon of London and Priest-in-Charge at St Andrew-by-the-Wardrobe, the Ven. Luke Miller.

St Andrew-by-the-Wardrobe, London

The church fitted new insulation, made sure that the doors fitted properly to cut down on draughts, and installed two new electric heating systems: an air-source heat pump and electric radiators. The air-source heat pump works like a reverse fridge, taking the heat from the ambient air outside and using it to heat the space inside. That keeps the church warm most of the year, and the electric radiators are then used if the weather turns really cold.

Mr Miller said: “We had to do some fund-raising to pay for the works, but we had great support from the diocesan property team. Because of the concern for the environment, the sustainability elements of the project actually gave us another string to our fund-raising bow.”

Going net zero was also an important part of the spiritual mission of the church, he said. “I’ve been influenced by the works of Fr George Congreve, who talked about how nature participated in the Fall. Nature is not how it should be, and is groaning and waiting for the redemption in Christ Jesus. Nature through its incompleteness points towards God the creator, but also the need for God.”


Newcastle Cathedral

FOR cathedrals, heating such large spaces can be daunting. In Newcastle, a city not known for its warm weather, the cathedral has made a number of changes to reduce its carbon footprint and make the building more welcoming.

Newcastle Cathedral, with its newly installed heat pumps and underfloor heating system

These include an electric air-source heat pump, which heats underfloor heating newly installed in the nave (there are back-up gas boilers for really cold days). They also replaced all the lights with LEDs. “It has massively reduced our lighting bill,” the cathedrals Chief Operating Officer, Kate Sussams, said. The works have been largely funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. “We couldn’t have done it without them,” she said.

The Cathedral is not yet net zero, as it still has gas boilers as a back-up in winter. The final step to go net zero would be to replace these with fully electric heating sources, powered by their 100-per-cent renewable energy tariff.

Although the project involved a great deal of new technology, much can be achieved, she said, through small and inexpensive changes. “We used TGA Consulting. They have been brilliant. They encouraged us to think about what we actually want the building to be used for.

“For example, we realised we could change our visitor flow to reduce heat loss. We had been having three doors open during the day. The prevailing wind is from the south-west, so you want to try and keep your west door closed to prevent draughts.

“Also, building a glass lobby by external doors can be really helpful, as it acts like an air lock. Some of these things don’t need massive funding, just practical, common-sense ways of operating your building. Don’t let architects drive these projects; try to think about how you use things first.”


St Cuthbert’s, Croxteth Park

THE 35-year-old St Cuthbert’s, on the Croxteth Park estate, has achieved Gold Eco Church status, through the scheme run by the Christian environment charity A Rocha. This is reward for a host of changes to reduce its carbon footprint, including improved insulation, double glazing, LED lightbulbs, and automatic motion-sensor light switches in the toilets.

They monitor their carbon footprint using the 360° carbon tool by Climate Stewards. They have an energy efficient gas boiler, which reduces gas use, but are looking into replacing this to reach net zero. They are currently waiting on a survey of the church to see if they are able to get an air-source heat pump or solar panels.

Neveah, of St Cuthbert’s, Croxteth, helps out in front of the community garden raised beds  

The Vicar, the Revd Laura Leatherbarrow, said that the wake-up call to act on climate change came three years ago. “We had daffodils blooming over Christmas, which was a sign something was not right. That was when Eco Church was coming out, and it felt right to go on that journey. We had a young lad called Aaron who asked us for a patch of garden to grow veg. It just seemed like God was talking to us at that time.”

With the help of the community, who sourced recycled materials, they created a thriving eco garden. It includes 15 raised beds, and allotments for disabled and young people to grow fruit and veg, as well as wild spaces with birdboxes and hedgehog houses.

“People were used to having pristine lawn from corner to corner, but now everyone loves this. We’ve had a big influx of birds, the wildflowers are glorious and it’s an incredible space for outdoor services, high days and holidays. It’s a great, rewarding space.”


Webheath and Barbourne, Worcester diocese

IT IS not just church buildings and church schools which will need to have their emissions reduced to net zero, but vicarages as well. In Worcester diocese, two low-carbon eco-vicarages have been created: one a new-build, the other a retrofit.

The new-build in Webheath is a Passivhaus: a rigorous energy efficient design standard which means buildings maintain an almost constant temperature. The walls are constructed of recycled concrete blocks, it has triple-glazed windows, and a heat-recovery system. The home also benefits from solar panels that produce electricity.

Although the inclusion of LED lighting keeps the vicarage energy efficient, the solar panels cannot always supply all of the necessary electricity; so the house occasionally draws on the national grid, through a renewable energy tariff.

The existing vicarage at St Stephen’s, Barbourne, suffered from eye-watering heating bills due to a leaky roof and lack of insulation. But rather than demolish and rebuild, a retrofit was carried out which retained the embedded carbon in the housing materials of the building, and avoided further emissions involved in the creation of a new structure. Insulation was fitted under a new roof, and an insulated skin fitted around the outside walls, along with LED lights and double glazing.

The Team Rector of Dudley, the Revd Hugh Burton, who chairs the climate-crisis task group in Worcester diocese, said that the vicarages have proved popular. “They are well insulated, and stay warm. In winter, they save a lot on energy bills, which is very useful.”

Sam Setchell, director of communications for Worcester diocese said they were keen to upgrade their other vicarage stock and share ideas with other dioceses.

“Our current plans involve finding our ten least efficient vicarages and changing these for much more efficient houses. There is also an ongoing conversation between dioceses as to how we can help and support each other, as we work towards being net zero. We’re always happy to talk to others about the things we’ve done or are doing, but also have much to learn ourselves.”

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