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A clear vision and great design at St Michael and All Angels

Posted on 2 August 2016

Written by:

Sophia de Sousa

One of the elements of our Empowering Design Practices project is to visit places of worship that have made physical changes to their building, and to speak to those involved about the process and impact of those changes. We want to learn from their experience to help others, and to consider the roles of design and community in their success.

Tucked away in Witton Gilbert, a village outside Durham, is the beautiful parish church of St Michael and All Angels, which has stood there for over 800 years. It sits surrounded by natural beauty, with a churchyard bordering on Witton Dean, parkland that rises from the river below.

Like many rural parish churches, St Michael and All Angels, has undergone a series of changes to the building over time. What stands there today, though clearly a historic place of worship, is not simply a building frozen in a particular moment in time in the past. Many generations have used the building, made changes to it and done their best to make it respond their needs and to reflect their approach to worship.

A clear vision
The success of the recent reordering at St Michael’s is rooted in a clear vision, strong leadership and collaboration from both the faith and lay communities. Their vision, for a quiet Breathing Space, a project to help people find health and well-being, emerged from an open and frank conversation about what and whom the building is for. The starting point was firmly rooted in an understanding of what that particular church and its context have to offer, what makes the place special.

What is so thrilling about St Michael’s is that the changes that they have made to their building have been done with such care and attention to detail. They demonstrate design responding cleverly to the values and needs of its congregation while providing new opportunities for their wider community use.

Good design matters
St Michael’s wanted to make physical changes to their building which are not uncommon in reordering projects. They wanted to improve accessibility, create a more flexible gathering space, and make the building more comfortable and welcoming with the addition of toilet and kitchen facilities. The launch of the Breathing Space project gave both motivation and opportunity to make those changes happen.

The clever expansion to either side of the existing porch, completed in December 2012, created significant extra space for a toilet, office, and utility storage cupboard. The stone used on the extension was sourced (from an old ice cream parlour in Sheffield) to blend seamlessly into the existing stonework.

The conversion of part of the vestry into a kitchen, with a serving hatch through to the side aisle, and the creation of loft storage space, tackled some challenging design questions about balancing the practical with respect for the faith practices and heritage of the building.

The kitchen hatch provides a practical link through to the side aisle, where pews were removed to create a flexible space for activities. The congregation, which is thriving at St Michael’s, were keen not to lose seating space for their services, so high quality foldable chairs were purchased to provide both seating for services, and flexible arrangement of seating for a range of activities in the aisle.

Top tips
We are grateful to the Revd Canon Caroline Dick and all of those at St Michael and All Angels, who so generously shared their story and what they had learned along the way. The tips they had for those embarking on a similar project were many. Here are just a few.