Church maintenance, repair and replacement

Former Trustee and Grants Committee chairman, shares with us the importance of good maintenance and repair of church buildings:

“We construct buildings to create spaces protected from the extremes of weather. Even as the building envelope performs this role, its function causes degradation. Some materials and building elements have a short lifespan while others survive longer, but all have to be maintained, and even with the best maintenance virtually all will need replacement.

 Sometimes there is confusion about maintenance and repair; it may be thought that conserving a material will obviate the need for replacement. In reality, even well-maintained building elements will degrade and eventually need either replacement or protection. So looking after a church building properly means you have to think short, medium and long term – quite a tall order !

Maintaining a building properly, and ensuring its detailing is functional and effective does prolong the life of materials. If materials are critical to the way the building handles weather, poor maintenance will accelerate decay and lead to problems that otherwise might be avoided.

The life of the roof.

The materials of roofs are a case in point. Roofs must cope with wind, rain and snow, and if coverings begin to fail, the resulting decay of the supporting timberwork may cause serious problems through tile/slate slippage. Neglect of localised problems can lead to the loss of a part or an entire roof.

Clay roofing tiles – whether plain flats, pantiles or other profiled tiles – are generally accepted to last 30-60 years. Slates are even longer lived, but roofs made from slate and tile depend on the nails, nibs, and pegs which fix them onto battens, and these can fail more quickly. Stone slates are heavy, making failure of their fixings more likely (pegs were traditionally oak but sheep’s teeth were sometimes used in North Yorkshire), and restrict the life of the roof to something like 80-100 years.  Endurance will depend on exposure and the quality of the original materials and the workmanship: although not a church, in North Lincolnshire about 20 years ago I came across a wing of a country house roofed in the late C18 with Westmoreland slates relatively small and very thick, fixed with lovely stout cut copper nails into oak battens, which the owner assured me had never been re-laid.

Other major areas of failure are abutments and ridges, especially where the ridge capping has been weathered with cement rather than lime, or where the lead by the coping has been eaten through by lichen acid attack. Clever detail which stops or slows the damaging lichen can lessen such failures.

Oak shingles are said to last longer than Western Red Cedars (having a life expectancy of about 30-50 years), although from experience there is good reason to believe they often last longer.

Metal roofs can be very long lived, depending on the type of metal and the detailing. Lead is proverbially robust, and with care and suitable conditions can survive over a hundred years, but copper is susceptible to wind damage, and usually lasts only decades. Lead is also used for weathering slate and tile roofs, partly because the materials have similar lifespan.

Metals roofs are currently prone to theft. For this reason stainless steel, which is potentially very long lived, may be preferred to lead for susceptible buildings.

So far as I know no roofing material can be effectively conserved. When a tiled or slated roof needs replacement, it may be possible to salvage some items so long as they are still good enough condition to last another 80 years or so. However old and new tiles must fit together properly so there is no risk of leakage.

Gutters and downpipes.

The next most important elements for church maintenance are the water-handling systems: the gutters, downpipes and ground drainage.  They must effectively take water away from buildings but can be prone to blockage, damage and worse. Tree roots can penetrate drains leading to serious failure. Where there are recurrent problems, it may be possible to modify or reduce part of the system.

With climate change leading to more extreme rain events, it may be necessary to increase capacity; certainly this should be considered every time replacements are made. Overflows can be added to discharge water clear of the building; warning devices installed to indicate blockages in hoppers or downpipes; access can be improved to make maintenance easier; even pipes can be positioned away from walls to allow painting and to reduce damage to walls through leakage.


Wall materials also have “sell-by” dates. Depending on its geological type and role it plays as a building element, stone is likely to have a life of more than 60 years (but usually well over several hundred years). On top of this, some stone types can be conserved to increase their lifespan; but others must be replaced. This is especially true where the stone is used for important weathering elements such as parapets, string courses and hood moulds.

Similarly most brick is durable, though much depends on the firing and clay type used. Brick chimneys may deteriorate as a result of flue gases, and both brick and stone can be damaged by using the wrong mortar.

Glazed Windows.

After roofs and walls perhaps the next most important element of a church are its windows. Glazed windows are not always as robust as many people believe, and this is especially true of leaded windows. Life expectancy of the glass depends on its chemical content and the survival of decoration on how well it is fired. The life of the lead depends not just on the type of lead ‘came’ but on the design and construction of the supporting ferramenta, and the exposure of the window to wind pressures.

If ferrous metals embedded in window stonework begin to rust, the stone may split apart. Internally, the survival of glass decoration will depend on the building’s environment, and in particular on whether condensation is a frequent or a rare occurrence. It is usual for glass panels to last over one hundred years before repairs are contemplated. Decisions should be based on a good understanding not only of the glazing but of the environmental conditions, so specialist advice should always be sought.

Services and systems.

One of the most important elements of maintenance is often overlooked; the plumbing, electricity supply and heating services. Perhaps two-thirds of moisture problems can be traced to leaking pipes (the fresh water supply is continuous, and under high pressure).

Although electrical equipment is often considered to have a lifespan of 15 years or so, advances in technology, the updating of regulations and the demands to reduce energy use often renders systems obsolete rather more quickly. All installations must comply with the requirements of statutory bodies and insurance.

The expectations of light, sound and visual systems are also increasing, and an aging population may have greater demands.

Heating installations are also governed by fashion, but many Victorian systems are still giving good service. However, those giving advice on energy reduction are sometimes unfamiliar with traditionally constructed buildings (which resist heat loss if well maintained) or with the challenges of occasional heating in a church. Good heating engineers will design based on a good understanding of the fabric, the way the building is to be used, and what is making the users feel uncomfortable. In parallel, replacement of roofs present opportunities to improve the thermal resistance of the covering by including new insulation materials but this needs great care and knowledge to avoid damage to the structure.

Forward planning.

It is generally possible to predict when any particular building material or element is likely to require replacement, and doing so allows forward planning of financial and material resources. Records of previous Faculty permissions mainly convey enough detail about the work done (and when) to predict future replacement schedules.

It would greatly benefit every church to carry out a “Maintenance Plan” and have a “Materials/Elements Replacement Audit” as part of the quinquennial report. This Plan does not have to be elaborate or of great length and is likely to be similar from church to church. As well as the fabric of the building, the Audit and Plan should include services, insurance, fire measures, trees, churchyard items and the like. Every church architect or surveyor should be familiar with the materials, detail and life expectancy of the churches in their care, and be able and willing to help.

Like us, buildings can be mended; like us, each may have characteristics that make them more or less robust. Unlike our bodies, however, our churches cannot mend themselves so their carers must be observant and vigilant. Just as we must consult medical specialists, building custodians may need to seek expert advice to help them prolong the lives of the buildings. In return, we can hand on our unique church heritage for generations to come.