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As published in Worship Facilities, Mar/Apr 2012

When God assigns us with a special mission, we can trust that our obedience will yield the tools to carry it out. The Sisters of the Community of the Holy Spirit (CHS) in New York City know well the importance of obedience, and the imminent blessings that follow it. For more than 10 years, the sisters strived to serve as good stewards of the earth, eating organically, shopping locally, recycling, and living in a sacrificially responsible manner. But, all the efforts they took were no doubt hampered by their large facility on 113th Street: three 110-year-old brownstones fused together. “It was inaccessible, old and just funky,” says CHS council member, Sister Faith Margaret, of St. Hilda’s former location on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

Year by year, the sisters’ lifestyle took on more green characteristics until their need for a smaller, more efficient home—one that could also better accommodate aging residents—could no longer be overlooked. The sisters approached a local university that owns large amounts of property in upper Manhattan, and the school agreed to buy the property and assist the women of St. Hilda’s House with locating a new home. It was soon found on 150th Street in the heart of West Harlem.

“The focus of our order is sustainability. We see it as a spiritual issue because Creation is a primary revelation of God, and it’s our responsibility to care for it,” says Sister Faith Margaret.

Starting fresh

With a new, much smaller site secured, the sisters sent their vision for a sustainable urban convent out for proposal. Fourteen architectural firms responded and the sisters decided on New York Citybased BKSK Architects for its track record of building green spaces.

Beginning the design process was simple, according to Julie Nelson, a BKSK partner. “They didn’t have to figure out who they were. Their established identity, mission and priorities already lined up with sustainable building and living practices.”

BKSK originally returned with a design larger than what the sisters needed and they weren’t hesitant to say so. “Their first priority was to build less,” says Nelson. “So, from that point we just edited to [the order’s] essence.”

Principled living, green-style

The building sits in context with its surroundings, but a modern design also sets it apart, reflective of its occupants’ participatory, yet separated, lifestyle.

The exterior system is a combination of brick, stucco and Swisspearl composite cement board panel, a highperformance, low-maintenance and UV-resistant material, according to Ted O’Rourke, vice president of operations with local ICS Builders, the project’s general contractor.

Standing in the main entrance, the chapel is to the left and living space is to the right. Generous ceiling heights and sustainable coconut wood floors adorn the public area, where the sisters often have dinner guests and welcome individuals seeking spiritual direction.

The new chapel is small, but has volume due to its double height. “It’s filled with natural light every hour of the day, and is very … gracious,” says Nelson.

The abundant windows also create two-way awareness with passersby. “We’re on the ground floor, praying with the community around us,” says Sister Faith Margaret of the chapel that is used four times a day for worship.

Green components in the chapel include motorized operable skylights that, when combined with the lower windows, provide excellent cross-ventilation, as well as floors made from Pennsylvania stone (a stone from France was suggested early on, but the sisters insisted on using local materials as much as possible), and white oak pews and cabinetry. Additionally, the altar, organ, cross and candlesticks from the original chapel on 113th Street were moved to the new location.

The first floor also houses the sisters’ refectory, a smaller silent dining room, and an Energy Star-equipped kitchen that contains the same stone and white oak as the chapel. These elements are repeated throughout the building to remind the sisters of the sacred space.

On the second floor are two guest rooms and office space for the sisters who provide spiritual counseling. The cork flooring and carpeting made from recycled content on this floor are both quiet and eco-friendly.

On the third and fourth floors there are 13 living cells or bedrooms, seven bathrooms, and a library and sitting room that open onto the lower green roof, which is actually the roof of the chapel. The cork flooring from floor two is repeated and each of the cells and offices are finished in blue and green. “The sisters each chose their own shades from a range of approved colors, and the result is a spa-like atmosphere. It’s very relaxing and feminine,” says Nelson.

The bedrooms also have high windows and ceiling fans, meshing with the sisters’ desire for minimal use of air conditioning.

The bathrooms are equipped with watersaving sinks and showerheads, dual-flush toilets, and much of the building’s hot water is solar heated. “This decreases the building’s carbon footprint by a huge margin,” says O’Rourke. “The system consists of 216 square feet of solar panels that produce 60% of the domestic hot water need.”

Green roofing, sustainable momentum

The lower green roof has a patio and six inches of soil that the sisters grow food in. “We’ve even had a few watermelons,” reports Sister Faith Margaret. It is primarily a place for quiet reflection and meditation. The upper roof, sitting atop the fourth floor, has a larger patio that the sisters use for outdoor cooking and dining, as well as three inches of soil for low-maintenance plants that assist in storm water management and in keeping the roof temperatures low in summer.

While beautiful and enjoyable, the roofs serve very practical purposes, too. Transpiration occurs when water is evaporated and the nearby air is cooled as a result. By incorporating plant life on the roofs of the building, designers engineered a natural— and free—cooling system.

Since some of the residents are elderly and all expect to be in residence at St. Hilda’s for some time, an elevator goes all the way to the top garden.

At present, St. Hilda’s House is not open to the community. “It’s our residence and our home base for outreach,” says Sister Faith Margaret. “We’re still figuring out everything it can be and how we can use this space to interface with the community.”

In that same vein, according to Nelson, the sisters have not yet been able to calculate the monetary savings of such a green and smart facility. “Ultimately it’s more a question of quality of life vs. cost savings,” she says.

“LEED status could have easily been accomplished,” says O’Rourke, “but they were more interested in maximizing sustainable components that would benefit the community than achieving certification.”

“They commenced this project from a standpoint of humility. [Sustainable living] is their life philosophy; it’s who they are. It’s not an add-on,” concludes Nelson.

And isn’t that the position from which all missions should start?

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Related Images

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COMPACT FOOTPRINT The design and construction team of BKSK Architects and ICS Builders faced the challenge of creating a structure with a multitude of functions and numerous green features— while working on a small, 3,300-square-foot site located along a busy street within a landmark district. The team also contended with zoning-related height restrictions. (Photo by Vanni Archive.)

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(Photo by Jeff Goldberg/ESTO.)

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DOUBLE VISION (above and below) St. Hilda’s House in New York City shelters the Sisters of the Community of the Holy Spirit (CHS). The urban, sustainable convent features two types of green roofs that include a pergola, sitting areas, and extensive shallow-root decorative and edible plant gardens. The rooftop is elevator-accessible for the convent’s older residents.

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(Photos by Jeff Goldberg/ESTO.)

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INNER PEACE - At present, St. Hilda’s House is not open to the community. “It’s our residence and our home base for outreach,” says Sister Faith Margaret, council member of the Sisters of the Community of the Holy Spirit. “We’re still figuring out everything it can be and how we can use this space to interface with the community.”

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The pared-down design is a 10,600-square-foot, four-floor building that occupies 100% of the lot and includes a two-story chapel, two green roofs and all necessary living, dining and office space for the seven residents. The $5.5 million project was financed by the sale of the former property.

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“[For the interior design] the sisters each chose their own shades from a range of approved colors, and the result is a spa-like atmosphere. It’s very relaxing and feminine.” —Julie Nelson, Partner, BKSK Architects, New York City, NY