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Unitarian Universalist buildings going green

Congregations increasingly applying green building techniques.
By Donald E. Skinner

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Unitarian Universalist congregations have long been concerned about the environment. It’s even mandated by one of the UUA’s Seven Principles: “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” But increasingly congregations are bringing that ethic home by “greening” their own buildings. From low-flush toilets to parking lots “paved” with grass, the use of renewable energy, and even “green” roofs, UU congregations are practicing what they preach.

When the UU Church of Fresno, Calif., completed its new building last year it included a 40-kilowatt photovoltaic solar system that generates 95 percent of its electrical needs. It also used recycled steel, has a dais made of bamboo, a renewable material, and the landscaping includes drought-resistant plants and a drip irrigation system. Its building was the first in Fresno to be LEED-certified (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), a voluntary standard created by the U.S. Green Building Council, an organization that encourages the design, construction, and operation of sustainable buildings.

The congregation first chose an architect dedicated to green practices and then raised $2 million for construction. “Building green has been inspirational for us,” said the Rev. Bryan Jessup. “It has increased our levels of giving. And when visitors come, our building helps demonstrate our religious principles.”

Buildings don’t get much greener than the new sanctuary of the UU Fellowship of Wayne County, Ohio. The building uses low-volatility paints and carpets, fluorescent lighting, cistern-collected water to irrigate plantings and flush toilets, and operable windows. Their durable new parking lot is covered in grass, but with a plastic grid underneath that supports heavy occasional use. Plus, seven percent of the building materials were recycled products, most construction waste was recycled, and electricity for the building comes from a wind power program.

When congregations think about going green one of their first calls is to the Rev. Katherine Jesch, director of UU Ministry for Earth, the UUA-affiliated organization that inspires and guides environmental action by congregations and individual UUs. Rising energy costs have made going green an easier decision, she said, but many congregations are already committed to that path for ethical reasons. “They want to do the right thing even if it costs a little more,” she said. “And there’s a growing awareness that many conventional building materials, including fabrics and paints, can be toxic to some people.”

The First Unitarian Society of Madison, Wisc., had a different challenge when it decided to build green. It needed a larger worship space, but was committed to respecting the integrity of its original 1951 building, which was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and is a National Historic Landmark.

The congregation built a 520-seat auditorium that will become its Sunday meeting space. It includes ample space for socializing on Sundays and at other times, something the original 290-seat space was lacking. The new construction also includes a library, kitchen, classrooms, offices, and two courtyards.

The new building, adjacent to the existing one, has a roof covered with a planting of sedum, a succulent plant that absorbs many times its own weight in water and will reduce the water that flows into storm sewers, said Senior Minister Rev. Michael Schuler. The building also includes dual-flow toilets, waterless urinals, geothermal heating and cooling, high-efficiency glass, and carpets and fabrics that don’t give off petrochemical fumes. Rather than vinyl flooring, which is derived from petroleum, the new building features linoleum, made from linseed oil. The property has rain gardens to capture runoff. New outdoor lighting projects all of the light down, onto the parking lot or other surface; typical exterior light fixtures often project or reflect upward, making it difficult to even look up at the night sky besides being hazardous for motorists and others.

The congregation had to give up some parking for the construction, but that was acceptable, said Schuler. “We wanted to encourage people to find alternative ways of coming to church and we are also committed to this area of downtown Madison where we have a strong social justice presence. If we want to honor our environmental principles then we don’t need to build more surface parking.”

The congregation also made a commitment to use union labor and minority contractors as much as possible. Ninety percent of the building materials that were dismantled in converting old space to new were recycled, he said. The congregation is also developing an environmental curriculum focused on the project.

After Paint Branch UU Church at Adelphi, Md., lost part of its building to a fire, it rebuilt and added a geothermal heating system that replaces six standard furnaces. The congregation raised nearly $50,000 for that purpose. Rev. Jaco ten Hove (now settled in Bainbridge Island, Wash.) said it was estimated that the higher costs would be recovered within 20 years through lower utility bills, but since energy prices have risen in recent years, that savings has likely been reduced. The Maryland church also added reflective roofing to deflect sunlight, better windows, high-efficiency light fixtures, and elongated tubular skylights, or sun tubes, to provide natural light to windowless bathrooms.

It was a long-term member who suggested near the end of a congregational meeting at Paint Branch that geothermal be included. “It came out of the blue, but it just felt to the congregation like the right thing to do,” said ten Hove.

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