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Evangelicals Build with "Green" Technology

Several congregations and schools are setting examples of good stewardship by pushing for energy-conserving buildings. They find that caring about creation pays off financially.

Meadowlands Fellowship Church in Ancaster, Ontario, has a fairly typical building—at least at first glance. Its humble spire emerges from a spreading base, barely scraping the Ontario sky. Inside are spacious, well-lit classrooms and a 600-seat sanctuary where every Sunday large windows expose the heavens to a growing number of worshippers.

Underneath the property of Meadowlands Fellowship Church lie more than seven kilometres of pipes designed to capture energy from the earth to heat and cool the building.

But there is more to this structure than meets the eye. In fact the church's most unusual feature is completely out of view. Underneath church property lie more than seven kilometres of pipes designed to capture energy from the Earth to heat and cool the building. The building cuts consumption in other ways as well with energy-efficient lighting (sensors automatically shut lights off in unused rooms), waterless urinals and windows that provide lots of natural light.

Meadowlands, which calls itself Ontario's first geothermally heated church, is clearly an innovator, but it is not alone. Across the country evangelical institutions are finding creative ways to "go green" with their building projects. And they are discovering that the decision pays off in more ways than they had imagined.

For Meadowlands the decision to construct an environmentally friendly structure is paying off quite literally. The alternative heating and cooling system means a dramatic reduction in energy bills.

"We have no natural gas connection to the building, which means we burn no fossil fuels," says church member Henry Brouwer, who chaired a creation stewardship committee in the congregation, a committee that recommended the geothermal system and other ideas. Brouwer is a professor of chemistry and environmental science at nearby Redeemer University College.

Though the church paid approximately $60,000 more to go green, it was recently awarded a Commercial Building Initiatives Program grant (through Natural Resources Canada) for nearly $55,000.

The alternative setup will also save the congregation money on maintenance in the future. Yet for Meadowlands (part of the Christian Reformed denomination), choosing the alternative design wasn't about saving bucks; it was about being true to Christian principles.

"We wanted a building that would reflect our belief that we must be stewards of the creational resources," says Brouwer. "Building this way shows we care about the environment and we are concerned about being a witness to the community." Brouwer says outsiders are taking notice. "Not only are they impressed by the building—it is much quieter than a conventionally heated church—visitors commend us for doing the right thing."

Brouwer offers tips for other churches considering following suit. First, he advises thorough research.

Henry Brouwer helped bring in the geothermal system.

"Make sure you do your homework! Many architects and engineers are not familiar with the latest technology and find it easier to build using conventional systems. Don't just take their word for an answer if they tell you something can't be done. It's your church!"

While Meadowlands' efforts are impressive, the Canadian church leading the way on environmentally sound practice comes from the other side of the Protestant/Catholic divide. Last year St. Gabriel's Roman Catholic Church became the first church in Canada to receive the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) gold certification for its exceptional environmental performance and energy efficiency.

"Reducing costs was one of the reasons for building a 'green' church," explained Father Paul Cusack of St. Gabriel's. "But our primary motivation was to establish a link between the sacredness of the gathered community of faith and the sacredness of Earth."

Universities also set example

It isn't only churches that are going green. Christian universities are also designing facilities that reflect a growing environmental consciousness. Last year in Winnipeg, Canadian Mennonite University (CMU) opened Concord Hall, a new dorm building that features a host of energy-saving features. In addition to using a geothermal heat pump, the new dorm employs energy-efficient windows, parking lot controllers for lower winter plug-in expenses, and high-pressure sodium floodlights to minimize electrical output.

"The students are very supportive," says Longhurst. " … Caring for the environment is a very important topic here."

According to John Longhurst, director of communications at CMU, the design of the new dorm grew out of the DNA of the institution.

"CMU places a high priority on preserving the environment and conserving energy," he says. "We teach students about the importance of caring for the environment, about not wasting resources and about being mindful of the needs of poor people around the world. The new residence is a practical way for us to put our words into action."

It's a lesson the students have learned well. "The students are very supportive," says Longhurst. "They wouldn't have it any other way. Caring for the environment is a very important topic here." The students also run a bike co-op to encourage the use of bike riding over car transport—even in the Winnipeg winter!

Like Meadowlands Church, CMU has found that the decision to go green has paid off financially. Gordon Epp-Fransem, a CMU vice-president says "A professional study done on our behalf projected that over the long run we will save significantly." In fact, conventional energy costs have soared since the new dorm was built, making their savings even greater than those suggested by the study.

The school's decision to adopt the environmentally friendly measures also came with some hefty rebates. It received approximately $30,000 from Manitoba Hydro and is expecting a $50,000 cheque from the federal government.

Epp-Fransem advises others to adopt similar practices but he is frank about the challenges. "The people inside the organization and its supporters need to be highly motivated in favour of such outcomes. They need to be in line with the institution's missional mandate; otherwise, the reality of limited funds (since changes are initially more expensive) is difficult to overcome."

Not all schools are in a position to build brand-new facilities but implementing change to older buildings can still be done. Last year Vancouver School of Theology completed a 2 1/2-year renovation and transformed the historic Iona building into a modern paragon of sustainability.

Iona now includes a vast array of energy-saving technologies including double-paned windows, internal insulation, energy-efficient lighting, a control system that cuts energy use by 60 percent and low-flow toilets, showers and faucets.

Also in Vancouver, Regent College opened a new library in January. "Instead of putting in the regular Hi-Vac [fan-driven heating/cooling] setup we used a passive system," says Teck Ngee Ch'ng, vice president of administration. "Air is drawn in from outside and exhausted by a wind tower." The library was also built underground. This allows the earth to cool the facility during summer and insulate it in the winter.

The project reflects Regent's desire to protect creation. "We wanted to be more environmentally friendly," says Ch'ng. "The environment is very important to us here."

Growing trend

These examples of environmentally conscious churches and Christian universities are part of a wider trend. Faith for the Common Good, an ecumenical group based in Toronto, recently created a program called Greening Sacred Spaces to encourage churches to adopt more sustainable building methods. The program, says director Rory O'Brien, "grew out of an increased awareness by faith communities that the environment is in great need of attention."

… the desire to implement change is spreading.

Since the program began, O'Brien says, the desire to implement change is spreading. "In the past year we've worked with over 30 churches and it's growing every year." The trend, especially as it grows among evangelical churches and university colleges, warms the heart of John Wood, director of the environmental studies program at King's University College in Edmonton.

"It is encouraging to see that, after a decade or more of sound theological enquiry, caring for the creation is making its way into the discussion in our churches." Wood believes that the new challenge presented by the environmental crisis demands change.

"Contemporary environmental problems call us to think and to act differently than we have in the past. But there is nothing new to this challenge. The church has been addressing 'contemporary' problems since the very beginning."

For Wood, the mandate for action comes from our own resources as Christians. "The Bible is filled with examples and principles to help us face the environmental challenges of our day. We just need to draw on the depths of our heritage for the wisdom and courage to act faithfully in our generation."

Drew Dyck of Red Deer, Alberta, is currently studying in California.

Originally published in Faith Today, May/June 2007.




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