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On the second day of the conference, it was my turn to present and the topic was “The Future of Buildings.”  I don’t know exactly how this title came about, but it was a result of our discussion with COIPL Executive Director Betty Goebel.  We wanted to talk about buildings in the most global fashion, and to include religious facilities, residences, and other building types.  I asked myself “what do I wish everybody know about buildings and energy performance?”

The first key point was that buildings consume more energy, and produce more greenhouse gases, than either of the other two major economic activities in our modern world – transportation and industry.  In fact, buildings account for approximately 48% of energy use.  In short, buildings, and how we design them, really matter.

The second point was that all the religious facilities in the United Stated comprise approximately 4% of the non-residential building stock, but use only 2% of the non-residential building energy.  So, although we earnestly desire that every religious building be as energy efficient as possible, and contribute the minimum amount of greenhouse gas, doing so will not substantially alter the environmental problems we face.

Rather, faith based communities should do all they can to conserve energy for two other reasons.

  1. Conserving energy frees financial resources that can be dedicated to mission.
  2. Exercising stewardship in our own houses of worship sets an example for others to follow in other arenas of their lives.
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I recently had the privilege of attending, and presenting at, the Colorado Interfaith Power and Light’s Creation Care Conference in Wheat Ridge, CO.  COIPL, as the organization is called, is an interfaith organization that attempts to call people of all faiths to action on behalf of the environment.  COIPL specifically focuses on issues related to climate change and global warming.

COIPL is a fascinating, and much needed, organization.  In our efforts to market sustainable building design to individual churches, we have encountered a surprising variety of attitudes toward the environment.  Some churches seem to have no interest, some worry that worship of Nature may be substituted for worship of God, and others are interested if there is a reasonable return on investment.  Only rarely have we encountered a religious organization that perceives Care of Creation as fundamental to its mission, or that views carelessness about Creation as a violation of religious covenants.

I like the term Creation Care, as it implies respect not just for all people, but for animals, plants, and even the inorganic matter that nourishes them all.  The Jewish community would prefer the term “Repairing the World,” representing both social and environmental awareness. Whether we call it Creation Care or Repairing the World, it is wonderful to see faith based communities working to become more sustainable and even working together to achieve this goal.

In our continuing effort to assist clients achieve the most high performing, energy efficient buildings, we recently studied the energy consumption in area churches.  The study compared energy consumption at twelve churches over the period from June 2009 to May 2010.  The churches range in size from 7,400 square feet to over 75,000 square feet and are between five and well over seventy-five years old.  A number of churches also house some type of full-time educational program, such as a day care, preschool, or day school.  In these cases, data was included in both the overall group as well as in a separate category.

Data from a 2003 Department of Energy Survey indicates that congregations in the United States spend between $0.25 and $1.30 per square foot annually on energy.  While consulting with Xcel Energy, we determined that a precise update of this data to define an accurate range of energy costs for local area churches is not available.  However, our interpolation of energy cost inflationary data suggests that all of the churches in our study would fall within an updated range. Based upon usage during the study time frame, the average congregation in the study spent $1.07 on energy with a range of $.39 to $1.91 per square foot per year.

Most of the churches expending less than $1.00 per square foot have worked to control their energy costs through efforts such as installation of improved lighting and lighting controls, careful monitoring of peak electrical consumption, and improved HVAC controls.  These often low cost and simple solutions can provide significant savings to a congregation.  However, there are other simple solutions we’ve utilized throughout our 20 years of sustainable design that could also be applied to church facilities, including improving the performance of the building envelope by sealing leaks, adding insulation, and replacing poor performing windows.

We are always looking for more churches to participate in the study.  If you are interested, please don’t hesitate to contact us!