A Deeper Shade of Green
Increasingly, American churches see the light when it comes to sustainability and environmentally conscious architecture, design and construction for new and renovated worship facilities. And they’re finding that green practices are a lot cheaper—and can be a lot easier—than some think.
“This has improved in recent years, but churches still see themselves as occasional voluntary participants rather than leaders in sustainable construction,” says Jeffrey Harris, principal at Penndel, Pa.-based WPH-Architects for Ministry. “For conservative Evangelicals there is a negative association of the green building industry with liberal politics and liberal churches that needs to be addressed. The church needs to understand that this is not primarily a political issue but rather an issue of stewardship.”
Not all churches fully embrace the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards because the entire certification process can be cost prohibitive. Yet, while churches lag the green-development efforts of private developers and the public sector, many churches’ labors are substantial, LEED-certified or not.
“It’s encouraging to see churches take [green design and LEED principles] seriously as they consider new facilities,” says Tip Housewright, a principal at Dallas, Texas-based architecture and design firm Omniplan.
Omniplan has worked with churches on master planning and design since 2001, and two of its Dallas-area projects represent one of the primary tenets of sustainability—re-using existing structures.
On one project that opened in March 2006, 2,500-member nondenominational Fellowship Bible Church, Omniplan designed the complete retrofit of an out-of-business movie theater. Complementing re-use, the structure is within 100 yards of a Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) station, enabling members to take mass transit to church.
While most churches choose not to seek full LEED accreditation, a few do. Christ United Methodist Church in Plano, Texas, is currently building a new sanctuary that will be the first LEED-accredited church in Texas. In Ada, Mich., Keystone Church became the first LEED-accredited church in the United States with the 2004 completion of its facilities.
Keystone committed to LEED certification from the beginning, establishing the parameters before raising funds for the $3.7 million, 31,500-square-foot facility. That early commitment allowed the congregation, started as a home church 14 years ago, to make a statement to its community as well as encourage members to embrace an environmentally conscious lifestyle, Pastor Gene DeJong says.
Integrated Architecture of Grand Rapids, Mich., designed the new Keystone buildings and focused on positioning the building to take advantage of natural light, as well as locally produced and recycled building products. The church’s pre-cast concrete shell was made in nearby Grand Rapids, while the floors and narthex are concrete, as well, with insulation integrated through the roof, wall and flooring systems.
Strategies for Churches Large and Small
Integrated Architecture Design Principal Mike Corby points out that smaller churches may better integrate themselves within a community by collocating in existing facilities. Similarly, CDH President Bill Chegwidden and Director of Sustainable Building Design Gary Gabriel point to high-performance, multifunctional buildings, where, in the case of a church facility, the structure is used more than three times a week for a few hours at a time.
Lighting and HVAC controls and attaining the highest energy efficiency possible also create avenues for sustainability that churches of any size can travel. Energy modeling software that’s increasingly more sophisticated—such as the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Target Finder tool, at www.energystar.gov—enables churches to evaluate return on investment before embarking on a new building program or renovation.
With any building, churches can minimize glass on south and west exposures to reduce heating and cooling costs; provide overhangs on glass where possible or recess exterior doors, as well as add rain protection canopies to prevent leaks; plan for day lighting and shading early in the building’s design; add additional roof insulation with reduced HVAC tonnage and electrical load on the roof; and incorporate high-reflective roofs with higher R-values (a measure of an insulation’s resistance to heat flow).
While more efficient HVAC and other systems can be more expensive initially, they pay for themselves over time—especially considering that energy-usage costs will equal construction costs within 20 years on a building that could function for a century or more.
“They’re paying for (energy efficiency) over the life of the building,” Chegwidden states. “After that, it’s fishes and loaves, furthering the ministry.”
Some churches are considering producing their own energy or using alternative energy sources. Long-term, Keystone would like to try photovoltaic solar cells as an energy source, DeJong says. Plano’s Christ United Methodist Church (CUMC) already takes advantage of the Texas wind belt as a source for 35% of the church’s energy use.
For CUMC, it’s just one piece of a green legacy the current congregation wants to pass down to future generations. Among many other things, the church also plans to divert 75% of construction waste from local landfills and recycle it for other uses, as well as use construction materials that have 20% recycled content.
“They realize their sanctuary will serve thousands of people for decades to come,” says Jerry Halcomb, founder and CEO of Dallas-based HH Architects, the company that worked with CUMC on its master plan. “In 50 years, they want their grandchildren and great-grandchildren to look at the sanctuary and say, ‘They did a great job in building this building that serves God, and they did it the right way.’”
The broader point, though, is that whether you’re a church like CUMC or Keystone or a small church in a rural or urban community, there are steps you can take. And the surrounding community will be watching.
“A lot of people are thinking ‘if you can’t do LEED, you can’t do green,’ but you can always do something,” says Clay Gandy, CEO of Green Arch Design in Greenville, S.C. “It’s going to be a big outreach opportunity for churches.”