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Built with Intelligent Design
Meadowlands Fellowship Christian Reformed Church is one of the first churches in Ontario designed entirely to keep ecological impact to a minimum.

Photos courtesy of Meadowlands Fellowship Christian Reformed Church.

Huge sanctuaries with vaulted ceilings that cost a fortune to heat and light. Insulation-free stained glass windows with creaky wooden doors that let the weather in. Churches have never been famous for their environmental efficiency—but a church in Ancaster, Ontario, has decided to buck the trend.

Meadowlands Fellowship Christian Reformed Church

Meadowlands Fellowship Christian Reformed Church (CRC) recently completed work on its new building. It is one of the first churches in Ontario designed entirely to keep ecological impact to a minimum.

Henry Brouwer, chairman of the Creation Stewardship Committee that oversaw the building project, said: "We feel very much that we have to take care of God's creation by making the best use of our resources and our building. Christians should be at the forefront of these things, but too often we lag behind."

The 19,000 sq ft building consists of a central sanctuary seating around 600 people, surrounded by smaller rooms like the nursery, the library, bathrooms and the kitchen.

Seven kilometers of pipe are buried underneath the parking lot outside (pictured left), feeding the building's geothermal system which heats and cools every room. Indoor pumps circulate a mixture of water and ethanol through the pipes, where the constant temperature deep in the ground brings the fluid to around 12 degrees Celsius. The pipes then lead back into the building, providing warmth in the winter and air conditioning in the summer.

The result is three times more energy efficient than conventional systems. And although geothermal is also $60-70,000 more expensive, the extra money is worth it.

"One of the biggest energy uses is for heating and cooling," said Brouwer, who is also professor of chemical and environmental science at nearby Redeemer University College.

"We wanted to reflect the wishes of our congregation, who are concerned for the environment. They indicated they were willing to spend the extra money—in fact, there was no question. Their support has been excellent."

It helps that the system reduces Meadowland Fellowship's energy bills by 50 percent, and will pay for itself in less than five years. The church could also be eligible for a government grant of up to $20,000 towards its costs.

The electricity used to power the heat pumps (pictured right) will mean more consumption in that area, but electricity can be generated from a variety of sources. Environmentally speaking, this is better than natural gas—a finite fossil fuel which the building does not use.

"In the long-term, electricity is a wiser choice, and it's more stable in price than fossil fuel," Brouwer pointed out. "We didn't like paying more for the geothermal system, but it conserves natural resources and that's the incentive."

Brouwer added that choosing geotherm involved a struggle with the architect and engineers, who were more comfortable using traditional materials and didn't think efficiency was a high priority.

"They weren't really in favour of it," he said. "You need to develop a different mindset in order to use newer technologies and improve building efficiency."

But the geothermal system was only one part of Meadowland Fellowship's eco-efficiency drive. A tour through the building reveals countless others.

There are the huge windows that provide natural lighting, high up in the sanctuary and along the outside wall. When the sun goes down and electricity takes over, 15 watt compact fluorescent bulbs shine with less than a fifth of the power of traditional bulbs.

And that's only when they need to. Motion sensors everywhere, combined with light-sensitive photo cells, mean lights only come on when it's dark and people are present (or, at least, when they're moving—readers in the library will have to activate the sensors with a periodic hand wave).

The urinals in the men's washrooms don't flush—instead, they use a chemical trap which neutralizes the urine before it goes down a regular drain. This has the added bonus of reducing the smell.

On to the offices and classrooms, where many of the cupboards are made from local oak by a member of the congregation—with none of the environmental damage caused by shipping furniture from overseas.

Every door is insulated and every window double glazed, keeping rooms warm in the winter and cool in the summer.

The sanctuary itself, which seats about 600 people, is positioned at the centre of the building. With no walls exposed to the outside, heating and cooling the room takes up less energy. And the ceiling has high-grade (R40) insulation, preventing 10-15 percent of the room's energy from being lost.

Environmental efficiency is woven into the fabric of the building, down to the finest detail—like pouring the post-service coffee into ceramic mugs instead of throwaway styrofoam cups.

The entrance to the church, illuminated by natural light.

But there is still a lot of room for improvement, according to Brouwer. "We'd like to consider solar power in the future, but at the moment the cost is prohibitive," he said (fitting solar panels to a 19,000 sq ft church could cost up to $100,000).

"It would also be good to get into recycling—there's a new Hamilton-wide recycling plan and we'd like to tap into that."

These are just some of the points that Brouwer and his congregation want to improve on—but an environmentally friendly church can't be built in a day.

"You have to pick your fights," he said. "It was tough enough with the heating system. In hindsight, it might have been better to go with an architect who was more sensitive to those kinds of issues."

But nothing will stop Brouwer and the congregation at Meadowlands Fellowship CRC from looking at their brand new church with pride. What matters most, he concluded, is that "we tried to do as much as we could."

Suzie Chiodo is an editor and freelance journalist based in Niagara, Ontario. Trained in Britain, she has contributed to The Economist and various community papers in London. In Canada she has published articles in the Hamilton Spectator, Grimsby News, Beacon Magazine, The Design Exchange's Express newsletter, and has appeared on CTS TV's Behind the Story. She can be reached at Her website is:

Originally published on the website, Northern Exposure, June 2006.




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