We believe that as architects we have a duty to our communities. We believe that architecture should have a strong social purpose and see ourselves not just as designers but as enablers committed to making this a reality.

Community funded projects are, by their very nature, fundamental to this belief with the potential to be so much more than the sum of their parts. But these projects are often tricky to navigate. Funding, long term affordability, management can all be minefields and many don’t get off the ground as a result, with communities all the poorer for it.

Over the years we have worked with numerous church groups on community projects. They’ve had land or property in need of restoration and together we have found ways to squeeze the most out of these assets for both the group itself and the wider community. Innovative thinking and creative design ideas have often revealed previously unrealised potential that has the capability to not only breathe new life into the existing community but to secure huge benefits for future generations as well.

For us there are four hard and fast rules that we apply to each one of these community funded projects to guarantee that it not only gets off the ground but that it is a genuine long term success:

  1. Retain the freehold

Making sure that the church holds onto the freehold interest of the site is the first vital component of each community project. While selling the freehold to an outside investor would provide a quick injection of cash, that’s it, it’s then all over. The space is lost for good and is of no value to future generations. Meanwhile, developing the site while holding onto the freehold gives the church control, allows it to earn money from it over a long period of time and gives future generations the chance to enjoy and benefit from it.

  1. Retain the floorspace used for charitable purpose

Again it would be far easier to sell off a portion of the space that is being used for charitable purposes. It would again result in a quick injection of cash that could be much needed. But our belief is that each community project must retain the amount of space it gives over to charitable activity. In fact, we try our best to increase the amount of space for this. Ultimately the work and activities that go on in this space are what a community project is all about. Get rid of this and you lose the very essence of what you want to achieve. The key here is to find alternative ways of generating an income that don’t involve selling off this asset.

  1. Church Trustees remain in full control

While many will assume this to be a given, it is something that can often slip as the project progresses. To get this kind of project off the ground there will invariably be a lot of people involved and many will start jostling for control. This will spell the end of a successful community project. From the start, everyone must agree that the trustees are the ones that have the last say, they are the client and it’s their views that matter most. It is also vital that you have approval from the trustees’ legal and professional advisers. Without this, you will get nowhere and the project will invariably stall.

  1. Keeping the charitable and ethical mission paramount

Everyone involved must agree that the project’s charitable and ethical mission is the number one motivation for everything being done. It is the driving force and the whole reason for doing the work in the first place. On these projects it can be easy to get distracted by other motivations – money of course, but also creativity, design and even kudos. These are undoubtedly important factors but the charitable focus must remain the main motivation for what you are all doing. This belief will be what ultimately unites the many people working on the project and will keep everyone pushing in the same direction.

How does this approach work in the real world?

As Adrian Newman, Bishop of Stepney once said; “For all the challenges of property in London, there is an equal and opposite opportunity: land and buildings are historic assets offering huge potential for mission.”

And never has this been truer than with one of our most recent projects, the regeneration of Clapham Baptist Church. This was a typical scenario where we were approached to update an existing church building and plot. But it soon became apparent that we could in fact do so much more for the long term financial security of the church group and its mission and benefit the community for years to come.

As well as updating the church halls, we looked at the opportunity of the land value and its associated residential rental values. In light of what we found we took the unusual decision to add six new flats to the site, while still adhering to our ethical rules of retaining the full freehold for future generations and not diminishing the floor area currently used for the charitable mission. The flats will provide new secure housing to a co-housing group of eight young renters on modest incomes at 90% of the market rents in the area. By adding the extra floor for the flats, the leaking roof is replaced and we estimate that the rental income the church currently enjoys will treble as a result of this development. What could have been just a simple renovation job, has become so much more, with far reaching benefits for the local people now and for the future. We’ll keep you posted on how this particular project unfolds…..