Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Will They Hate You?
distributed 2/1/08 - ©2008

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by friends of Eco-Justice Ministries who prefer to remain anonymous. Their generous support helps make this publication possible.

On occasion, I talk with people from churches that are involved with a building project -- either an entirely new building, or a major renovation. The question that I pose in starting a conversation, is "Will they hate you, or love you?"

The "they" refers to members of the church 40 or 50 years into the future, which is when the next big building project might come along. I ask, "Will the church members of your children's and grandchildren's generation speak proudly of your foresight and wisdom, or will they curse you for saddling them with a building that doesn't work for them?"

The church structures that are being built now should be able to serve congregations for the next four or five decades without substantial modification. In 2050, how well will these church buildings be functioning? I'm not thinking about whether the foundations will crack and the roof will leak. I am interested in how environmental and energy planning will shape the ability of churches to be faithful and effective. Will they be able to afford the operating costs, or function at all?

Long before 2050, the world will pass the time of "peak oil". The production of oil and gas will decline, even as demand is rising. As a result, gasoline, natural gas, and heating oil will be dramatically more expensive than we see now. The price of electricity, will probably rise, too.

In the face of climate change, I fervently pray that the governments and other institutions of the world will take the hard steps necessary to cut the use of fossil fuels by 80 or 90% by 2050. We are seeing the first steps in the process now, and global stability requires that we meet those targets by mid-century. In 2050, "carbon neutral" will be the standard expectation for all structures. Buildings that do not meet that standard will be prohibitively expensive, and morally obsolete. Is that what we want for our "new" church buildings?

In several recent church construction projects that I've seen, green design has been a core principle, and the congregation loves the results. But in other churches, these don't seem to be front-and-center questions. Instead, making new buildings pretty, spacious and affordable seem to be the most pressing considerations.

This is an important matter of theology and ethics. We need to talk about our use of energy and other resources -- in our own congregations, and with other churches that are planning building projects. As people of faith, is our greatest responsibility to reduce costs now, or to give primary consideration to those who will follow us? These are both valid questions of stewardship, and they don't have to be mutually exclusive. Too often, though, the burden being placed on future generations is not being considered very well.

If you know of a church that's looking at a building project, please pass this issue of Notes along to them! And while my discussion is focused on churches, the same considerations apply to homes, schools and businesses.

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How does this work in practicalities? I suggest to churches with building plans that they do everything that is possible now to be green, that they make it possible to take future steps, and that they avoid horrible mistakes.

  1. How green can you be from the start? Try to design a building that will be carbon neutral on the day that you move in. It is immensely cheaper and more practical to design and build for those factors now, than it is to try to retrofit later.

    A "green" building will be appropriately sized, with flexible uses of space. It will have highly insulated walls, windows and ceilings. When the building is well designed, it is possible to install a much smaller heating and air conditioning system, and that will reduce both installation and operating costs. The heating system should be ultra-high efficiency, and might combine active or passive solar with a "ground source" geothermal system. Ventilation should allow the use of lots of outside air, and have fans to move air through the building.

    Lighting (as I discussed last week) should include lots of natural light from windows and "light tubes", and should have lots of options for selecting appropriate light levels. A green building will reduce water use in bathrooms, kitchens, and for landscaping. Water heating should be "on demand", instead of keeping big tanks of water hot all the time -- especially if the church is not heavily used through the week. A baptistry might use solar water heating, and allow re-use of the "grey water" in bathrooms or landscaping.

    Landscaping around the church should be appropriate for the climate -- both now and with anticipated climate changes. Planting should provide summer shade and winter windbreaks. Minimize the need for watering and chemicals.

    Space should be provided in or around the building for recycling and composting. (One major new church building that I know can't allow any recycling because there is no storage space!) Kitchens should allow for zero-waste preparation. (I heard of two churches where remodeling only provided "catering kitchens" -- food must be brought in pre-cooked, and disposable tableware is required.)

  2. How well can you allow for future adaptation? There are situations when it is "too expensive to do it now", especially with the installation of costly emerging technologies. Good planning, though, can make it easy and affordable to make changes in a few years.

    Planning ahead will mean that the building is located for maximum solar efficiency -- the big roofs face south! Insulation and ventilation are maximized. Roofs are designed so solar panels can be easily attached, and conduits for future cables or pipes are provided into utility areas. Heating and water heating systems are designed so that solar can be incorporated at a later date -- the plumbing systems will have attachment points, and floor space will be reserved to add hardware.

  3. What are things to absolutely avoid? Don't locate a new building where transportation will be long or difficult (don't encourage sprawl!). Don't design roof lines or building locations that eliminates solar panels. Don't build in lighting that will be obsolete in a few years. (Incandescent bulbs won't be available within a decade.) Don't skimp on insulation or windows, since fixing that later is very expensive and wasteful.

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The Church of England, in all of England, Scotland and Wales, has taken on the challenge of cutting their total energy use by 2050 to 40% of current use -- and that involves a lot of very old buildings. As part of that program, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, said, "For the Church of the 21st Century, good ecology is not an optional extra but a matter of justice. It is therefore central to what it means to be a Christian."

When churches remodel or build new buildings, those considerations of ecology, justice and stewardship must be seriously considered. Don't let your church, or a neighboring one, start construction without maximizing their "green" impacts.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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