Houses of God...or not?! Approaches to the Adaptive Reuse of Churches in Germany and the United States

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The adaptive reuse of buildings becomes more and more important in a time when social, economic and demographic patterns are changing rapidly and concerns for the sustainability of buildings and resources are growing. As our society grapples with these issues, older buildings are often left behind and deemed inappropriate for continued use. Thus, the only options become demolition and new construction or changing the purpose of the building, thus adaptively reusing it. Churches have come under siege in the past few decades due to demographic and cultural shifts in our society, causing shrinking congregations and declining financial support. Unlike other building types, the adaptive reuse of churches often causes controversy, which can be attributed to the different ideas people have about the proper new use for a church. These varying ideas can be ascribed to the different ways in which people value churches and how they view the connection between the building type and its “sacred” use. More than other buildings, churches are wrapped in a complex set of values. When it comes to adapting them for other uses, it is therefore important to take into consideration all values attached to the buildings, their use and their symbolic character. This research paper explores the adaptive reuse of churches in Germany and the United States. In order to understand the context for the adaptive reuse of churches, a discussion is provided on religion and preservation laws for each country. Then, preservation practice and values are discussed in regard to churches. The second half of the paper focuses on the adaptive reuse of churches, looking at how churches approach dealing with their redundant buildings. Finally, the paper proposes five different reuse types and assesses case studies according to the values involved. An analysis of the case studies shows that a sensitive adaptive reuse that respects both the building and old and new uses is best achieved when all values are considered and stakeholders are involved in the planning process. A values-centered approach stands out as a recommended approach for adaptively reusing churches.


Masters final project submitted to the Faculty of the Historic Preservation Program, School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, University of Maryland, College Park, in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Historic Preservation. HISP 700 final project, May 2011.