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How to install glass doors in your church

You might have seen glass doors installed in the entrances to other churches and you might be thinking about installing them in your own church building. If so, then this guidance sheet is for you.

Section 1 gives you an overview and advice about the main things to bear in mind.

Sections 2 and 3 are intended to help you decide whether this is right for your building and will help you to further the mission of your church. It asks the questions to which the answers will help you to produce a really strong justification for your proposal and that’s essential when you apply for a Certificate of Recommendation and Faculty.

Section 4 deals with the practicalities of installing glass doors and will help you to formulate a clear brief for your architect or designer.

Section 5 is a collection of illustrated case studies: here you can see some examples of similar projects carried out elsewhere, with information about why that particular design solution was chosen. This will give you a sense of what is possible and how the finished result might look.

1. Introduction: why you should read this

The door to your church is its main point of contact with the outside world. What a church door communicates can be very different to what is communicated by any other building that members of the public regularly encounter. There are many people for whom churches are now unfamiliar places which they may not be comfortable about entering and where they may not immediately feel at ease. So parishes are often concerned that the entrance to a church does not actively draw people into the building and may even deter them from setting foot inside.

For that reason many of them want to install glass doors. It’s been done at plenty of churches across the country and often has made a big difference to the way the building is perceived. But it’s important to know what you want to do and why. Also it’s likely that you’ll be dealing with historic fabric and you may even need to make alterations to it. You’ll need to show that you’ve understood its significance and taken it into account.

If you’re applying to the Diocesan Advisory Committee (DAC) to carry out a reordering scheme then start by taking a look at the guidance on Statements of Significance and Need. Many of the general points there about background research and justification apply to the installation of glass doors as well. But, that said, because they come up so frequently they are something of a special case and deserve to be dealt with in detail. This advice sheet is a supplement to that general guidance to help you produce a strong application to the DAC. This is a big document because this is a surprisingly big subject. But if you can, it’s worth reading the whole thing because taking the time to produce a well planned, comprehensively justified scheme at the outset will save you a great deal of trouble later on. Remember that, no matter how good the design work or how extensive the supporting documents, every application will need to be discussed in full by the DAC. Every case has to be discussed on its own merits so there is never a straight or automatic answer to the question ‘Is this acceptable?’ That means time and effort invested in putting together a strong application are never wasted – far from it.

2. Why you might want to install glass doors

The needs you seek to address will be specific to your parish, so it is impossible to be prescriptive with advice, apart from one vital point: it is essential to have the rationale for the scheme clear in your mind when you apply to the DAC. For this reason it can make sense to work on the Statements of Significance and Need before you bring in an architect. This will help you to formulate a brief for him or her. Here are a few of the commonly cited reasons for installing glass doors:

  • They establish a visual link between the street outside and the interior of the church.
  • They make it clear that the church is open for business and accessible.
  • They make it possible to have the main doors open without letting cold air into the building.
  • They allow people to see what’s going on inside and make them feel that they’re free to come in and join any act of worship that’s in progress.
  • They make people feel less reticent about entering the church if they’re not regular worshippers or not used to the environment of a religious building.
  • They’re much less daunting that a big, solid, traditional wooden door, which may feel forbidding and be physically difficult to open.
  • Visitors feel actively encouraged to come inside: often people entering a church wonder if they’re really allowed to be there and worry that they may be trespassing or unwittingly behaving in the wrong way.
  • If a massive, heavy door slams behind you when you walk into a church you may feel trapped and nervous, but not if you can see back the way from which you’ve come.

3. How to get off on the right foot

The Statement of Need is where you explain the thinking behind your proposal in. There are no hard and fast ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ justifications, but it is vital to argue your case well, to be sure about what you want to achieve and what its benefit will be to the congregation and, perhaps, wider community. Know what the needs are that you wish to address before trying to apply any pre-conceived solutions. That way, even if the design that you eventually put forward proves contentious, the DAC can help to suggest alternative ways of achieving the same end. Here are some questions to ask yourself; the answers will help you to build a really strong Statement of Need.

Start by taking a step back

What exactly are you trying to achieve by putting in glass doors? How does this fit in with your mission? What do you want to achieve by installing them that you can’t achieve any other way? Few things are quite as effective as having the doors open and a sign outside saying ‘Church Open’! It can be a lot cheaper, too. It’s really important – especially if your church building is historically and architecturally significant – to demonstrate to the DAC that you’ve thought globally about the matter and considered all options.

What does your church building communicate already?

If it is imposing and radiates solidity and permanence then it doesn’t make sense to try and work against its character and make everything dependent on transparency: it’s better to work with it on its own terms. Often the way in to a church is signalled clearly and powerfully by, say, a classical portico or a gothic portal. That sends out a strong message to worshippers and visitors when they arrive. Conversely, sometimes a side door is used instead of the main entrance, which may only be opened on special occasions. Yet not being able to get inside a church by what seems like the most obvious point of entry can be bewildering and off-putting. Make sure that what the architect intended to be the entrance is in use and that people are directed towards it by clear signposting, notice boards with up-to-date information and good lighting.

Have you looked at how your church building relates to its setting?

Does it open out directly onto the street or is it set back from it? Do people pass right by the entrance? If so, where are they going to or coming from? Is there a public space outside the entrance where people congregate? How might you capitalise on that?

It’s often imagined that glass, being transparent, is invisible but is it really?

Look again at buildings with big glazed areas. Glass has a presence all of its own: it picks up glare, especially the low afternoon or evening sun, and it also picks up reflections. If you install glass doors then what will they reflect? It might be something unsightly – say, an ugly building opposite or traffic on the road outside. In some circumstances a glass door can be visually as impermeable as a solid one. Glass surfaces can also pick up dust, dirt and greasy fingerprints.

How much will passers-by actually be able to see through the glass entrance door?

A lot of churches have quite dark interiors, so the effect is very different to, say, the window of a well lit shop. Also, church doors are often set back in an architectural surround that means they’re in shadow for a lot of the day.

The sort of glass doors you have to peer through at close range
The sort of glass doors you have to peer through at close range

The entrance may also be on a narrow street and have a shadow cast over it by surrounding buildings. Unless you’re also intending dramatically to increase lighting levels within the building then it may be unlikely that anyone passing by will be able to see very much without stopping and lingering. If you do increase lighting levels then that will increase energy consumption with implications for the running costs and carbon footprint of your church.

Find out whether there actually are through sightlines from the street to the interior of your church

Some churches are entered through a side door. Even if it were replaced in glass, all you’d see would be the opposite site of the nave, not a view of the full length of the building. Many churches have a porch and internal lobbies between the main entrance and the interior. Installing glass doors won’t make a big difference if, on passing through them, visitors run straight into something visually impermeable.

Reflections plus draught lobby behind equals goodbye transparency
Reflections plus draught lobby behind equals goodbye transparency

Others are raised up above the level of the street or set back some way from it. Think about how these affect the viability of making the interior of your church more visible to people approaching it. In some ways it’s like a sales pitch – you only get one shot and you need to make the most of it!

Are you committed to having your church open regularly?

It’s no good enticing people towards the building if they can’t actually get inside it. A locked glass door sends out just as negative signals as a locked wooden door. But if it really isn’t possible to have the church open regularly, what can you do to exploit the visibility offered by glass doors in a meaningful way? Some churches have an altar lamp and/or lighting to emphasise the sacred focus of the building. In some the door is set back in a spacious lobby so that even if it’s locked there is still a sense of being able properly to set foot inside the building and get a good view of the interior.

If you want to make your church building more accessible then it’s vital that it’s accessible to everybody

Have you done an access audit on your church? Any proposals to alter the entrance will be checked by the DAC for conformity with the provisions of the Equality Act, which sets out the requirements for ensuring that a public building is accessible to disabled people. You can read more about that here. But if you don’t have time to read all of that right now, then here are a few key questions that you need to ask yourself:

  • Will people in wheelchairs be able to reach the door? Are there obstacles – say, a small flight of steps – that need to be bridged?
  • Will a person in a wheelchair be able to open it? Might you need power-operated doors?
  • Don’t forget about other groups of disabled people, such as partially sighted people – considerations for them will also shape your project.
  • Don’t forget to take into account other people who, though not disabled, sometimes have to overcome entirely avoidable obstacles when accessing buildings, such as parents with pushchairs.

4. How to come up with something that works

Once you’ve worked out the concept behind your proposal and the justification for it then it’s time to start thinking about the nuts and bolts of your design. It’s strongly recommended that you discuss your ideas with your QI architect, as he or she should have a good idea of what is feasible. Here are some of the points you’ll need to consider and might want to raise with him or her.

What will happen to the existing doors if you install glass ones? Do they open inwards or outwards? Could they be kept intact (say, by holding them open with stays) or will they need to be altered or even removed? If the latter, then it’s important to look at their relation to the architecture and history of your church building. Whatever you find out, you’ll need to set it out in the Statement of Significance.

The removal of historically significant doors can be contentious: the DAC and external consultees may object and it should not be contemplated without very strong justification, i.e. that it is essential to the continued existence of the church and that there is no viable alternative. That said, a compromise may be possible. Could you keep the existing doors intact and install glass doors/a glass draught lobby behind them and stay them open when the church is open? Could you alter the existing doors by installing glass panels? Similar solutions can work where the door is not historically significant in itself but is placed in a significant door case. In these situations a fully glass door would look incongruous but a wooden door with glass panels may allow you to achieve your aims without running any risk of that. This can be achieved either by adapting the existing door or by installing a good quality new one.

You might need to remove or alter other fabric to achieve through sightlines from the outside to the inside of your church. There might be a draught lobby – a structure usually made of wood and glass surrounding the entrance with opening doors to stop cold air blowing through the outer door into the interior when people are entering the building – or other historic fabric and fittings in the way. Again, it’s important to look at the significance of the fabric and the impact of any alterations that you need to make.

Consider safety, security and privacy: are there any really valuable items needing high security on display? They’ll be more visible as a result, so what measures might you need to take to safeguard them? And what do you do if there are times when you don’t want people to be able to see in the building – say, for an event like a funeral or if it’s being used for pastoral work? Also, if children are likely to pass through all-glass doors, you and your architect should think carefully about how to avoid creating finger traps on the hinge side between the edge of the door and its surrounding frame or glazing.

Every last bit of heat is precious in a church in cold weather! Glass doors leak more heat than solid doors so you’ll need to find some way of compensating for this. But the DAC advises against using the sort of warm air curtains that you might know from glass-fronted shops because they waste energy. How are you going to make sure that your glazed entrance is thermally efficient? Quite simple measures, such as installing automatic door-closers, can help to achieve this. Electronically-operated power-opened doors need maintaining; to avoid potentially making a rod for your own back you might want to think about whether you can commit to this before deciding to install them.

Don’t forget about the junction of the doors with the floor as this can be a major source of draughts: it can sometimes be difficult to achieve a draught-proof junction between the straight edge of a glass door and an uneven historic floor surface. But think carefully before proposing to plane or relay the floor: it may have an historic patina and texture that are vital to the appeal and significance of the building.

Glass doors need to have some sort of logo or pattern applied to or etched onto them to signal their presence so that people don’t accidentally walk into them. These are known as manifestations. They have a visual impact, so they need careful consideration. But it’s possible to make a virtue out of a necessity and they can be a good opportunity for creating interesting new work of art. For instance, they can provide an opportunity to develop and exploit a logo for church, as shown by the examples below.

Glass doors have to be held in place: they’re heavy, so they need a substantial supporting structure and they’re mounted on clamps and hinges. These often tend to be made of bright, polished metal, as do the handles. All this needs to be carefully and sympathetically designed if the surrounding fabric is of architectural and/or historic significance so that it doesn’t have an adverse visual impact. While frameless glass and stainless steel components are widely used because they allow for maximum transparency it is possible to use more traditional designs and materials.


Church doors are often used for displaying notices. But sticking posters and notices to glass doors makes a mess and defeats the object of the installing them. Is there an alternative prominent location where they can be displayed? If not, how are you going to provide one and where?

5. Some case studies

Here are some illustrated examples of projects involving the installation of glass doors and draught lobbies at historic churches. This will give you some idea of what can be achieved. It’s important to remember that there are no standard solutions – any such proposal must always be guided by the specific needs of your parish and the design must be a considered response to your building. For that reason, these examples are not offered as templates to be followed. But they do show that there is room for manoeuvre even in architecturally sensitive settings.

St Mary Woolnoth

This church stands right in the centre of the City at the intersection of two major streets. It is just yards from Bank – one of the busiest traffic junctions in central London – and right in front of the main door is an exit from one of the largest interchanges on the Tube. Naturally the church, which is always open on weekdays, wanted to make the most of this highly advantageous position. St Mary’s is an exceptionally important work of architecture and this is the most important draw for visitors after mission. Built in 1716-27, it is one of the best preserved of Nicholas Hawksmoor’s churches and is listed at Grade I. Great care in design and top quality of execution were crucial to the success of the scheme. The glass doors were fitted behind the wooden frame of the original, outward-opening external wooden doors. They are substantially smaller then the opening but the gap in between is glazed rather than solid to minimise the visual impact. Frameless glass is used – the absence of any supporting structure also helps to reduce the visual impact – and the door furniture is meticulously detailed. The doors carry engraved manifestations of winged cherubs’ heads, a decorative device typical of the time to be found inside the church. Behind them is a good quality historic draught lobby – an asset to the building that deserved to be retained, although its doors really need to be stayed open for the interior to be seen from the street.

Clerkenwell Priory Church

The west door of this church, which is set back from the street behind a building dating from the post-war reconstruction, is approached via a route which takes the visitor on a double dogleg though a series of internal lobbies. These house a display on the history of the church and the Order of St John. When the church is open someone sits on duty in the innermost lobby of the church. It was felt desirable to keep the doors to the lobby open as closed doors looked forbidding and did not allow the person on duty to see visitors approaching. However, this would have meant that there was no protection from draughts. The panels of these raised and fielded doors were removed and replaced with glass. The edges were bevelled to match the original panels. While the Grade I listing of this church chiefly reflects the significance of its history and large quantity of medieval fabric, the post-war reconstruction was done by a notable architect and is good quality – it was important to show sensitivity and to get the detailing right. The DAC suggested that the lower panels be left solid as to make them more resistant to kicks and knocks. In the end they were replaced in glass, but nonetheless appear to be holding up well.

St Giles-in-the-Fields

This church is a prominent building right in the centre of London on a busy thoroughfare. While it is set back from the street, the space between the entrance to the church and the gates to the site is occupied by an open-air cafe, making it a natural place for people to linger. The next step is to get them through the door of the church, which is always open during the day. Rather than being glass slabs the main doors consist of glass panels set in a wooden framework which is reminiscent of and may even survive from the original doors. They are set well back behind the original, inward-opening outer doors, which are stayed back when the church is open. Given the exceptional significance of this Grade I-listed building, one of the best preserved 18th century churches in London, tact and sensitivity were essential. The entry takes you into a lobby and stairwells leading up to the galleries, typical for a church of this date. While there is a direct sightline through it to the churchyard – a public space – and the vestry hall beyond, visitors have to make a right-angle turn to get into the worship space. For this reason all the three entrances from the lobby into the church were treated the same way as the outer door.

St Michael, Camden Town

The glazed entrance to this church was installed as part of an ongoing programme of works to turn around a building that by the start of the last decade had got into a really bad state. It addresses both a practical need and the mission of the parish. As designed by G.F. Bodley – a nationally important Victorian ecclesiastical architect – the church was intended to have a tall tower, which would have incorporated a lobby in the base. Money ran out before it could be built, however, so there was only a single set of doors separating the interior from busy Camden Road outside, to which it stands end-on. They could not be left open for long periods and when they were there was a risk of pigeons flying in. Yet the church’s location and also the transient nature of the local population (which means there is a high level of ‘churn’ in the congregation) made it essential to exploit the footfall. A glass draught lobby was erected behind the main entrance. This meant that the outer door – an integral part of the historic fabric of this Grade II*-listed building with good original ironwork – could be left intact and stayed open. The lobby has solid glass walls and contemporary door furniture and manifestations, but it is suspended from a crenellated wooden canopy with a painted and gilt finish based closely on similar features to be found in Bodley’s work. It has opened up oblique sightlines into the church from the street outside. While they do not reach all the way to the high altar they do allow for tantalising glimpses of a numinous and beautiful interior.

St Pancras Old Church

Here glass doors were installed as part of a lobby erected behind the main west entrance of the building, which has wooden doors with attractive ironwork dating from one of its Victorian restorations. The lobby is deep enough to allow the doors to be opened fully. The entrance looks straight out onto Pancras Way, but the building is set back some distance from it. Also, it opens not into the main body of the church but into a parish hall-like area beneath the west gallery. For this reason there are no direct sightlines to the interior for passers-by, but the doors still fulfil a useful function by showing that the church is open for business and that there is life inside. That message is reinforced by a sandwich board by the entrance saying ‘Church Open’. The parish has a logo based on a consecration cross which is carved on a 7th century altar stone inside the building – one of the most ancient Christian relics in England. This not only appears on the sandwich board and on the notice boards flanking the entrance gates but is used as a manifestation on the glass doors.

Rochester Cathedral

Inner glass porches were installed at the two principal entrance points as part of a scheme to improve access and interpretation that was grant-aided by the Heritage Lottery Fund. One of the entrances is through the side door in the west front. This is a magnificent entrance to the building – it is a medieval showpiece of national importance – but involved negotiating a forbidding-looking Victorian draught lobby. On warm summer days the vergers would open the doors of the central portal, a tour de force of Romanesque sculpture, providing views into the building. It was noticed that footfall increased considerably. However, visitors had to negotiate a short flight of steps down into the nave. That made it inaccessible for wheelchairs but a ramp would have had to be so long that it would have caused excessive visual intrusion, while the limited change in levels didn’t really justify installing a lift. The second entrance was through the north transept. This is of strategic importance as it provides level access, meaning it can be negotiated by wheelchairs, so was chosen to be the location of the welcome desk. But every time it was opened it admitted a blast of cold air. So there was a clear case for putting in glass doors at the two entrances to help make the cathedral more inviting, but given the immense significance of the fabric the utmost sensitivity was essential. The existing outer doors in both locations were designed by J.L. Pearson, a nationally important Victorian ecclesiastical architect, and are oak with excellent ironwork; there was no question of removing them. Both draught lobbies were intended to be as transparent and inconspicuous as possible. The glazing abuts the masonry with an oak sub-frame fixed only into the mortar joints between the stone (some alterations were necessary below floor level for the north door to allow for more substantial foundations; although transparent, the structures are still weighty objects). Non-reflective glass was used to cut down on glare and reflections but regular cleaning is essential to remove handprints, greasy marks and the dust that collects on the roof. For this a cherry picker usually deployed for relamping light fittings is used. The door furniture is either bronze or patinated stainless steel and the manifestations are stick-on vinyl. The door in the north transept has an automated opening mechanism. It was initially assumed that the outer doors would need to be shut in winter to keep in heat, but the new draught lobbies provide such effective insulation that this turned out to be unnecessary, even in the bitter winters of 2011-12 and 2012-13.

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