Sector - Heating & Ventilation

Safe and sympathetic – electrical renovation in religious buildings

Churches are an important part of the British street scene, but how do we combine centuries of history with 21st century electrical requirements? Luke Czerpak of electrical contractors Eaton Electrical discusses the issues involved.

Churches and other religious buildings such as chapels and cathedrals are an important part of our architectural and cultural heritage as well as the social make up of our communities. Some date back centuries, constructed hundreds of years before the introduction of electricity, while others are new builds using modern designs, techniques and materials. As a result, ecclesiastical restoration projects often require a bespoke approach.

An important part of renovating any religious property from both a safety and an aesthetic perspective is the electrical system. In older religious buildings these systems are all too often outdated, and in some cases dangerous, presenting a complex challenge for electrical contractors.

Churches are an important part of the British street scene, how do we combine centuries of history with 21st century electrical requirements?

An old electric board

The electrical challenge

As a general rule, the older the building, the more of an unknown factor it can be when renovation begins. Churches and chapels present a significant fire risk for many reasons, including the fact that they are frequently constructed from older, more combustible materials, as well as other hazards such as burning candles and lamps. Even the church organ can present a fire hazard, combining lights, sheet music and timber all in close proximity. Other religious buildings such as mosques and temples tend to be more modern builds, but present fire risks in the form of items such as candles and ghee lamps and still need to ensure that they carry out regular fire risk assessments.

The difficulty renovating older religious buildings lies in the marriage of modern and historic. Very few churches, cathedrals or chapels were built with the need for electricity in mind. This means that any modernisation project is likely to require sympathetic wiring solutions which both complement the original style of the building and offer 21st century efficiency – which can pose a tricky challenge.

Churches, like any other building, need to consider issues around energy efficiency. For example, over 3,500 religious buildings across the UK, including around 2,000 churches, have switched their electricity from fossil fuels to renewable energy (or have signed up to do so), as part of the Big Church Switch, an initiative launched by charities Christian Aid and Tearfund. However, fitting churches with renewable energy devices can be difficult because of the fact that many are listed and will have to meet statutory requirements such as building regulations and listed building consent when any renovation is undertaken.

Re-use, recycle, renovate

Churches are often dark, cold buildings and so are expensive to light and heat. Light fittings are an important part of a religious building’s character and so it’s important to source fittings that are in keeping with both internal and external style, but which are efficient and suitable for modern electrics. It may also be possible to retain and convert original fixtures such as light fittings designed for candles, oil or gas. Similarly, old fuseboard may be capable of accommodating modern circuit breaker interiors. It’s a matter of looking around and seeing what can be safely and economically retained.

However, re-wiring is an important part of any renovation even when re-using original features. The aim is to keep this as discreet as possible – possibly by using void spaces such as a store room or the rear of panelling and skirting boards. To minimise their impact, cables could also be run into shaded areas with fixings for exposed cables running into mortar joints rather than stonework while new technology such as mains signalling reduces the need for cabling.

The right qualifications

One way of helping to ensure that any renovations are safe and sympathetic is to appoint a company with the relevant experience and the right qualifications. All new electric wiring should be installed in accordance with the ‘Requirements for Electrical Installations’ issued by the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET). In addition, electrical work should only be carried out by a contractor registered with the National Inspection Council for Electrical Installation Contracting (NICEIC), The Electrical Contractors’ Association (ECA) or The National Association of Professional Inspectors and Testers (NAPIT). This offers a guarantee of the quality of work. For example, the NICEIC carries out random inspections of contractors’ work offering peace of mind and financial protection (faulty work must be remedied at the contractors’ own expense), while the ECA and NAPIT both operate a guarantee scheme for members’ work.

However, it’s not just about getting the renovations done. Once the work has been carried out, it’s important to invest in a planned programme of testing and maintenance – to ensure both electrical safety and insurance cover. At Eaton we advise that all electrical installations should be inspected and tested once every five years – or more frequently if the system is older. With heritage properties such as churches, we follow the IET guidelines and advise having an inspection and maintenance annually.

Religious properties are amongst some of our most beautiful buildings; we need to ensure that they are looked after and preserved for the generations to come. This means that any restoration needs to be carefully planned and sensitively managed; combining the beauty of the old with all the advantages that modern electrical technology can offer.

Luke Czerpak is the Compliance Manager at Eaton Electrical and has been involved in many heritage projects including museums and art galleries, as well as National Trust and Landmark Trust properties.

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