Empowering Design Practices

Project date: 2014 – 2019

Empowering Design Practices is a five-year action research project to support and explore how community-led design can help empower those who look after historic places of worship to create more open, vibrant and sustainable places.

This five-year collaborative research project is the largest project in the Design and Communities strand funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). It explores how community-led design can help empower those who look after historic places of worship to create more open, vibrant and sustainable places that respect and enhance their heritage. Working within this context, the project aims to develop tools, resources and training to support community-led design practice and research to support any community-led design process for the built environment. The project is led by the Open University in partnership with The Glass-House, Historic England, Heritage Lottery Fund, Historic Religious Buildings Alliance, and others.

Understanding community-led design in historic places of worship
EDP is exploring the current landscape of historic places of worship and communities leading change within them through a combination of desk research and interviews, building visits and workshops with groups. We hope to understand what values inspire and hinder the wider use of historic places of worship and what benefits and impacts community-led design practices can bring.

Developing new practices
Working with live projects, we are co-designing new practices and providing hands-on support to communities to help them lead projects to transform their historic places of worship. In this work we draw on a variety of design and other creative research methods to investigate how inclusive design processes can support a diverse spectrum of people, organisations and places.

We are working with groups involved in the following places, along with many others:

St John’s United Reformed Church, Stourbridge, West Midlands
ISRAAC Somali Cultural and Community Association, Sheffield
Bow Church, Bow, London
St Peter’s Church, Chester


Building national capacity for community-led design practice
Drawing on learning from the project and the practices of partners, we are developing open educational resources and training for students, communities and the professionals and support bodies who work with them.

Empowering Design Practices is collaboration between the Open University, The Glass-House, Historic England, National Lottery Heritage Fund, Historic Religious Buildings Alliance, working with consultants Becky Payne, Stephen Smith and Leo Care/Live Works. The project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Mid-term impact review
In May 2017, the Open University contracted an independent consultant, Ashley Jay Brockley (previously Gemma Burford) of Green Spiral Consulting, to conduct a mid-term impact review for the Empowering Design Practices research project. The objective of the work was to review the impact of the project on local groups, organisations and institutions that have engaged in project activities, and to inform the development of a framework for capturing and evaluating impact in the long term. The review covered project activities delivered up to the end of August 2018.

The study used the following data:

  • Feedback forms, debrief sessions and e-mail communications, recording the views of 153 people from 45 community groups who benefitted from 6 different types of EDP activities
  • Phone interviews and site visits at 8 places of worship recording the views of 18 participants and community leaders who benefitted from 4 different types of EDP activities

The above data, provided evidence for the following:

Direct impact on people, communities and their projects:
The study identified a number of direct impacts on people and practices, such as for example that people were able to work together more collaboratively, change their perceptions about their buildings or projects and what is possible to be achieved, and acquire new skills allowing them to engage in design more effectively.

Direct impacts leading to socio-economic benefits:
The study also identified a number of cases where approaches, outputs and ideas from the EDP project led to wider socio-economic benefits, such as creating better connections with other organisations, and securing funding from external sources to carry out adaptation or refurbishment projects.

For more details see the full report

The mid-term review focused on people who look after places of worship. Future impact evaluation will include other beneficiaries such as students participating in live projects, professionals attending EDP activities or using EDP methods or resources, learners taking the EDP online course and researchers themselves.

For updates on project activities and outputs check the EDP website and Twitter.

EDP Resources
The EDP project has been producing a number of resources (films, case studies, guidance, tools and an online course) drawing on research in community led-design and the experience of working with over 45 groups around the country looking after historic places of worship.

These resources are primarily designed for groups who look after historic places of worship and wish to work with their community in order to design changes to their buildings that will help better serve their needs and aspirations. However, these resources are also relevant to any community group wishing to lead a placemaking project in their locale, as well as to design professionals (architects), community development practitioners, students and academics.

The explore these resources, visit the EDP website