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Leed by Example

Sacred view of earth stewardship helps monastery capture a top ‘green’ ranking

In the spirit of caring for the earth, a Benedictine monastery near Madison, WI., has become the newest example for churches and religious institutions of how to plan, design, build and operate facilities with the least environmental impact.

The new Holy Wisdom Monastery is an unassuming yet elegant structure that has received much acclaim. The monastery has received Platinum certification from the U.S. Green Building Council®. The monastery achieved 63 out of a possible 69 points under LEED-NC v2.2 – making it the highest-rated LEED-NC building in the United States.

The ecumenical monastery is home for the Benedictine Women of Madison and serves as a retreat center for women and men, a place of prayer and Sunday worship, and a hospitable environment for meetings, programs, tours, concerts and weddings.The structure replaced Benedict House, the sisters’ old high school they were struggling to use as a conference and retreat center.

The Benedictine sisters, who hold the distinction of being pioneers in creating the first ecumenical Benedictine community in the United States, are now pioneers in the sustainable field, with the completion of their nationally acclaimed “green” monastery building.
How did they do it?

The monastery’s leaders achieved their goals by insisting upon the adoption of technology, materials and systems that work in harmony with natural resources, and that prioritize space efficiency, recycling and conservation. Their determination has resulted in a religious structure that uses over 40 percent less water, 60 percent less energy, and that is easily expandable to produce 100 percent of its net energy needs from on-site renewable energy sources in the future.

The 34,380-square-foot structure might not look like a cutting-edge example of sustainability, but the elements are there and simply well integrated. The monastery includes an assembly room (chapel), an oratory and meditation chapel, a baptismal font, offices for the staff, meeting rooms, a kitchen, community and guest dining rooms, and a library. Seating can accommodate 400 in the assembly room.

Instead of taking the typical path of building in a way that negatively affects the earth, the sisters decided to work with nature rather than against it. The primary ways they achieved this are by:

– Diverting materials from the responsible deconstruction of Benedict House from the landfill

– Opting for as many earth-friendly materials as possible

– Choosing to install technologies and building products that cooperate with the site’s natural resources (daylight, breeze, rainwater, vegetation and seasonal changes)

– Setting the goal of, someday, being zero net energy, meaning they would generate on-site as much energy as they used

Initial decisions

The monastery – any monastery — is known as a place of spiritual seeking, prayer, reflection and renewal. In that context, the idea that mere building materials and architectural design can be used to deepen spiritual connectivity can be confusing.

The sisters thought otherwise. The choices they made were intended to foster the contemplative spirit that is part of everyday life at the monastery. The Benedictine women weave prayer, hospitality, justice and care for the earth into a shared way of life as an ecumenical Benedictine community. The impetus for their work with Wisconsin-based Hoffman LLC and its integrated team of planners, architects, engineers, construction managers, subcontractors and landscape architects was in line with the value to care for the earth.

“The building has the monastic simplicity the sisters desired, yet it is interesting and has a quiet beauty both inside and out. It was clearly designed to blend in with the natural surroundings and the existing buildings,” said Paul J. Hoffman, owner and president of Hoffman LLC.At the request of the sisters, the complex engineering systems required to make the building so sustainable are completely unobtrusive.

First came the decision to be prudent with the use of space, especially since less construction means more natural environment on the property. The sisters determined that their 60,000-square-foot conference center could be replaced with a building almost half its size and still accommodate all ministries and gatherings. Through careful discussion and analysis of facility uses, Hoffman design professionals were able to “right size” the new structure.

Parking lots, driveways and berms. Only 12.5 tons were sent to the landfill.

Another early decision was to call upon Hoffman to pay strict attention to incorporate the most environmentally friendly materials and products as possible.

Perhaps the most obvious symbol of this is the extensive use of bamboo in a monastery located in America’s heartland. Bamboo, a rapidly renewable resource, was used for flooring in the main chapel and in the gathering and dining rooms. The beautiful blonde wood-like plant also creates warm spaces as a ceiling material in the oratory and meditation chapel.

Additionally, all contractors were required to abide by an indoor air quality management program that allowed only no- or low-emitting VOC (volatile organic compounds) materials in the form of adhesives, sealants, paints, coatings, carpet systems and composite woods. As a result of this effort and follow-up indoor air quality testing, the monastery’s users have an exceptionally healthy indoor environment.

Devotion to Design

Materials aside, it is the attention to the systems required for lighting, water usage and heating and cooling that can reduce the impact to the environment. In this, the Benedictine sisters directed the integrated Hoffman design and construction team to investigate and recommend the most appropriate technology as possible.

Typically, heating and cooling a building ranks as the number one ecological offender and often makes up a large percentage of the energy bill, too. Instead, Hoffman oversaw the selection and installation of geothermal wells.

Today, 39 wells extend 300 feet into the earth to meet the monastery’s heating and cooling needs with a ground source heat pump system.With the earth acting as a huge radiator, heat is transferred from the earth into the monastery through the HVAC (heating, venting and air conditioning) system. Fresh air is provided with energy recovery units. This system provides the desired comfortable indoor temperatures with energy-efficient results. In the summer, the system works in reverse to cool and dehumidify the indoor air.

Another energy-saving feature is the monastery’s extensive use of daylight for illumination instead of electrical lighting. The sun’s rays both light the structure and Provide a secondary energy source.

The monastery roof is fitted with an array of photovoltaic cells (solar panels). The cells produce 13 percent of the facility’s energy needs. Sunlight is turned into electricity for the monastery and the power grid. Plans are to add more panels in the future so the facility can generate 100 percent of its own energy needs on-site.

Indoor lighting, a key recurring expense, required design considerations, too. With clear advantages of maximizing daylight, the monastery was fitted with more than 370 windows – each with customized glazes depending upon their location and the sun’s position during the day to optimize daylight and provide exceptional views.

The specialized glass, developed by Andersen® Windows, provides views, reduces glare and delivers daylight. The windows in the structure contain a newly developed glazing on the south, east and west sides of the building to reduce solar heat loss/gain and manage glare while an existing Low-E4® sun glazing was used on the north side where glare issues are reduced. This eliminated the need for expensive window coverings and shades that would cover the spectacular views of the prairie and Lake Mendota, with the city of Madison in the distance.

Thanks to the customized windows and solar tubes that invite daylight into a hallway and food serving area, natural light is felt throughout the monastery. Artificial light is used at a minimum and every regularly occupied space has a view to the outdoors.

The benefits of the sun’s light was not restricted to indoor spaces as the parking area features solar light fixtures that collect energy all day long and give back illumination at night. Other signs of intentional environmental care are present there as well. Specially designated parking spaces are reserved for low-emission automobiles and car- and van-pool vehicles.

The negative effects of sun on a building – the so-called “heat island effect” that can also force a heightened level of air conditioning – are lessened thanks to reflective roof surfaces and two vegetated or “green” roofs. The green roofs feature prairie forbs and grasses. The gardens feature numerous planting trays – each 8 inches deep with soil – that can easily be exchanged as needed.

Natural ventilation sets a sacred tone, too. While many church sanctuaries shut out the world outside with nonopening windows, and often obscured windows, Holy Wisdom offers something different. Operable windows including clerestory windows near the peak of the assembly room’s 39-foot-high ceiling — give occupants the opportunity to breathe fresh air when outdoor temperatures are pleasant and to naturally exhaust warm air Through the clerestory windows.

On days when the outdoor climate is comfortable, the building control system sends emails to the monastery’s occupants informing them that they can open their windows if they wish and operate with natural ventilation which saves on energy consumption.

Attention to water conservation is also part of the design. Potable water is conserved inside and storm water is returned to the earth outside.The parking lot has pervious pavement sections to help manage storm water. Some rainwater from the roof is captured in rain barrels for use in plant care.Storm water runoff is reduced to 13 percent below pre-project levels. All kitchen and lavatory faucets are the low-flow variety and low-flow toilets and waterless urinals provide further water savings.

How Firm a Foundation

Guiding the design and construction of an admirable “green” project is not the first time the Benedictine Women of Madison took on a daunting environmental project.

The prairie that sweeps up to the monastery on all sides displays God’s work in nature. Once in need of conservation, the restoration of 95 of their 138 acres of monastery land became a top environmental priority of the sisters some 40 years ago.They devoted themselves to reviving the property, including a 10,000-yearold glacial lake, while providing a spiritual experience for the volunteers they recruited to help. The effort represented a sort of partnership between the Creator and the people who came armed with wheelbarrows, hoes, and bags of seeds of native plants, grasses and flowers.

“The plants, the water, the birds and the wildlife are God’s gifts to us. People are inspired by their experiences here,” said Sister Joanne Kollasch, one of the three Benedictine sisters. “They discover a spiritual connection with the land.”

And they share that lesson with others.

But the sisters did not stop there. Their monastery at the time was an aged structure that – even if renovated – would not align with their commitment to good stewardship of the earth. Still, they faced the dilemma of whether any new building could achieve their goals.

They soon found out it could.

Ecological spirituality – while a relatively new term – has roots in early Christian thought and practice.The principles involve a shared spirit of reverence for all creation and a sense of oneness with the land, the days and the seasons. At the monastery, the ecosystem is viewed as a living model of preservation to be experienced by all who visit.

The genesis of this pre-dates the building industry’s attention to the environment today. The Benedictine Women of Madison are motivated to be good stewards of the earth through seeking God and following the Gospel and Rule of Benedict.A 6th century monk, Benedict of Nursia wrote a guide for community life that captured the spiritual yearnings of people at that time, and that still inspires people today. The “Rule of Benedict” quickly became the foundation for monastic communities across Europe.

A commitment to a balanced life is the backbone of Benedict’s message.

In the same way, the Benedictine sisters’ call is to affirm that message and offer to the world this and other dimensions of monastic wisdom: community, hospitality, prayer, care of the earth, justice, stability and listening.

Mission Critical

Once the need to build became apparent, the sisters formed a Design Committee for the monastery that included experts on sustainability, landscaping, and liturgical requirements. A key member was one of their administrators who had once worked for a construction company.He served the monastic community well as the owner’s representative. Having worked with the sisters for many years, he was trusted to make the best day-to-day decisions for them.

The project achieved many of its goals, too, because of Total Project Management Vision Taken to the Power of Green® (TPMg), Hoffman’s integrated project delivery method whereby all planning, design and construction are consolidated for better management and maximized efficiency. This process incorporated sustainability from concept through completion and provided a single source of responsibility for the project that increased accountability and streamlined the project. Every member of the team believed in the goals and had a strong desire to achieve the full potential of the project. They found innovative ways to employ strategies that enhanced sustainability at little or no additional cost to construction.

The total project cost of $246 a square foot ($209 a Square foot for construction only) includes design, furnishings, construction, LEED certification and responsible deconstruction of Benedict House. According to Hoffman, the sisters’ Total Project Manager, the total project squarefoot cost is below that for Madison-area LEED certified and non-certified buildings that include similar spaces and functions.

The sisters continue to educate others about care for the earth while working to raise the remaining $1 million of the $2-million campaign for the new monastery, costing $8 million. They also intend to build an endowment to sustain the community and enhance the learning opportunities for teaching responsible, holistic, sustainable solutions to others.

Sacred ambiance for religious structures often takes decades or even centuries to become apparent. The prayerful and spiritual approach used at Holy Wisdom Monastery has achieved something inherently divine from the first day its doors opened.

“It’s not the thing to do, it’s the right thing to do,” added Sister Mary David Walgenba.

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