Build energy efficiency into your church—new or old.

Energy-efficient church architecture is coming our way—and just in time. With both the money crunch and the energy squeeze hard upon us, churches built in the 1980s will include several energy-efficient features hardly considered a few years ago.

You might expect this new energy-efficient church to be easily recognizable—that a close look at the lower pitch of the roof, the slant of the entryway, and the way the main sanctuary hugs the ground, would tell the tale. But, no; the energy-efficient church differs from others not so much in its design as in its technology.

The reason is because—or indeed—the only blatantly energy-efficient structure of any kind in the history of architecture may be the cave. One of the foremost church architects in the country, Henry Jung (American Institute of Architects), and successor to Harold E. Wagoner of Philadelphia, advises wryly, “The cave is the answer.” Then he hastily adds, “But only if you don’t care anything about design and function.” The energy-efficient church, like its cousin the energy-inefficient church, will in all probability look either as traditional or as innovative as a church board and its architect choose. But it will, nevertheless, somehow look like a church. That is what church architecture is all about—wedding the theology of a worshiping body to its practical needs in an aesthetic statement of masonry, wood, steel, and the new materials.

Since design is still the major consideration, architects, as always, make that decision first. “We design the kind of structure most appropriate for the needs and theology of a group of people and then we compensate to get the energy efficiency we need today,” says Jung. The term “compensate” indicates that architects are aware they must indeed provide energy measures. Using compensation available in today’s technology, the church architect can sensibly design arches, high ceilings, domes, or something altogether different.

It costs money, of course, to get both the best design and energy efficiency—but it is an expenditure well worth it to those concerned with Christian stewardship. A building erected in 1980 can be three times as efficient as one constructed 10 years ago. That is a timely savings; some churches are thinking twice about building at all. Building starts of all kinds are so much fewer that for the time being, activity in the area of church architecture has almost dried up in some areas of the country. But the situation is temporary. The F. W. Dodge statistical division of McGraw-Hill Information Systems Company predicts that church building will spurt up again, increasing to top speed in the sun belt states. Even now, there are more church building starts in Texas and other sun states as the population continues to shift southward. In these areas, religious building climbed steadily from 37 to 43 percent of the national total, the largest share of any building type for any region, according to F. W. Dodge economist George Christie. Nationwide, church building has climbed from 27 million square feet in 1970 to 35 million square feet in 1979 and it is projected to climb to 41 million square feet in 1984, when the slowdown eases off.

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That church building is still increasing is surely a reflection of the national interest in religious matters reported by the recent CHRISTIANITY TODAY-Gallup Poll. But it is a painful fact that from now on people who build churches must face a new set of realities, forced by oil and other energy shortages. The monetary squeeze on the Western world has set in motion a chain reaction that has catapulted through the church doorway. Energy and budgetary issues are both so real that every decision about the church design of the 1980s will be made in light of their consideration.

“We’ve been aware of these things for a long time,” says Henry Jung. “Architects have been working on energy efficiency for many years.” This awareness is now heightened by the present costs of fuel, up 300 percent, and followed closely by both operating and maintenance costs on any new building. The Architectural Record reported in early 1980 that the prices for all fuel-related products—asphalt, roofing, insulation—had risen between 15 to 18 percent above a year ago; concrete prices increased 12 percent in the past year; mineral wood insulation is up 27 percent; lightweight concrete blocks are up 11.5 percent; steel is up 11 percent; and hourly wages of building trade craftsmen are up 8–9 percent, for a total construction cost increase of 1.3 percent per month. With costs so high, no church can afford not to build energy efficiency into its final building product in order to recover those costs in future savings. There is even greater urgency if the church wants to leave money in its budget to help a needy world.

For churches that were built before prices skyrocketed and are less energy efficient, certain things can still be changed in order to correct inefficiency, and will quickly make up for the original expenditure, as Douglas R. Hoffman of the Office of Architecture, United Methodist Church, points out in his resource book for church boards. Such measures are increasingly within reach for all church buildings, new or old.

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The first point to grasp is what constitutes an energy-efficient church building. At rock bottom, all energy efficiency is a matter of heating and cooling. “Heat loss is the big issue,” says consultant Jon Mosby of Associated Church Builders in Palatine, Illinois. At a meeting last April, church architects evidenced their concern by inviting Douglas R. Hoffman, who edited The Energy-Efficient Church (Pilgrim, 1979; reviewed elsewhere in this issue), to speak at the Interfaith Forum on Religion, Art, and Architecture. Hoffman says that among the greatest causes of wasted energy are inefficient heating and cooling plants, and the needless heating or cooling of unused portions of a church building. These drains on energy can be corrected in many ways, and today’s technology is all on our side.

Insulation is a top priority. “I call it passive solar,” says William E. Burroughs of Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, a consulting engineer on church construction. “We insulate the walls and ceilings very heavily. Roofs get around as much as R-30 insulating batting, especially in attic spaces. Walls get R-19 insulating batting.” Designations such as R-30 describe the degree of thickness: the colder the area, the thicker the batting, Burroughs explains. Consultant Jon Mosby adds that a region as cold as North Dakota can take as much as R-38 in the roof. Although a church building constructed before 1960 will invariably have uninsulated walls, necessary insulation can often be piped in “after the fact.” But a word of warning: studies are revealing evidence that certain forms of pumped-in foam insulation may produce long-term carcinogenic effects—a possibility that is still being verified. Meanwhile, Hoffman’s book suggests other measures to regain efficiency. The principle behind the use of any insulation, says Hoffman—whether for new or old buildings—is to reduce the temperature difference between inside and outside.

Doors and windows are a close second priority after insulation. “Some people want to eliminate windows altogether for energy efficiency,” says Mosby. But if you like windows, Mosby and Burroughs both recommend double or triple panes with tight hardware and double latches. “Double-hung windows aren’t tight enough to keep out the cold. I avoid them,” says Mosby. Hoffman suggests that members of church boards could team up to caulk older windows and interior shutters of various kinds, so as to hold in the heat and discourage the cold to a greater extent, or to shield from the heat in warm climates. Another innovative example in the use of windows is seen in architect Gunnar Birkets’s IBM office building in Detroit. Birkets introduced natural light into the building by using reflectors of stainless steel along narrower-than-usual glass ribbons, so that more daylight bounced into the interior, minimizing reliance on electric light.

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Since any means of admitting natural daylight eliminates expensive artificial lighting, some church architects introduce skylights for economic as well as aesthetic reasons. Birkets also designed Calvary Baptist Church in Detroit, where he used interior mirrors to enhance the incoming natural light.

Wherever interior lighting is needed, costs can be reduced by switching to fluorescent lights. And light can be adjusted to different levels—called “task lighting”—depending upon the requirements of the work being done. An encouraging note is that current illumination standards have been cut back considerably. Walter F. Wagner, Jr., in an article in the March 1980 Architectural Record, advises that we can reduce consumption 50 to 60 percent by using common sense; 2 watts per square foot—or even 1½—can suffice.

Close in importance to insulation and the increased efficiency of doors and windows is a well-regulated heating/cooling system. Correct choices here make a difference in energy consumption. It is important that every new church have a unit with automatic thermostat setbacks that, for instance, will readjust for internal temperature that is set at 68 when it is already 65 outside.

“We recommend economizers,” says Mosby. An economizer triggers a mechanism to heat the building on cold days, to bring in fresh air from the outside on moderate days, and to avoid the expensive condensing unit for cooling on hot days except when the automatic sensor says it is really needed. Architect Burroughs recommends electric heat pumps as well, to recycle heat already in a building for use on those merely cool days that are common in many areas. On other moderately warm days—not hot ones—circulating fans can operate at reduced speeds, acting much like the old ice cream parlor fans that are once again popular. These fans can keep air moving at less expense, and reduce the temptation to turn on costly air conditioning units. By contrast, Douglas Hoffman recommends that automatic stack dampers be used on cold days to close the stack in the chimney when the burner stops, thus preventing warm air from going up the chimney. This device should be carefully approved and inspected though, he warns.

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All planning of floor space should be heat sensible, and compatible with the heating/cooling system. During planning stages you can elect to place hallways, corridors, and closets along outer walls, especially on the north, and cluster together internally the rooms that require the most heat. During construction, many builders choose to install (at additional expense) larger ducts that will permit more direct air flow and greater efficiency.

Most of these energy-saving features will be almost invisible to the untrained eye. And yet, without them, buildings will be either too cold or too hot, and definitely too expensive.

Some energy features, however, will be observable to the trained eye. For example, from the outside you can determine whether a building is placed wisely on its site. Southern exposure usually gives the best sun and light. Doors that open into the north winds should be avoided; some buildings have neither windows nor entrances on the north side. If entrances on the north side are unavoidable, they should have double chamber entries to keep out the wind.

Another visible energy feature is landscaping. Architect Jung’s cave suggestion partly explains the tendency to berm up, or pack dirt, two to three feet around the base of a building to add insulation. Vegetation carefully placed around a building can also reduce wind force, especially when evergreens are planted next to windows. Small trees and shrubs near basement windows further blunt the force of winds.

If sun is the problem, sun belt dwellers can arrange to be shaded from the overhead sun, while still allowing the low winter sun to shine in. Louvered shutters that may be opened and closed as needed can provide shade when the sun is low in eastern and western skies, and yet admit daylight. A short roof overhang can do the same thing.

Tinted or reflective glass, while expensive, also saves energy in hot climates by reducing the load on cooling equipment. In older buildings, though, the cost to replace with this type of glass is high, and should be balanced against estimated savings.

Exterior wall coverings should be selected with care for best energy efficiency. Traditional brick works well; or, as in the Birkets IBM building in Detroit, metallic silver covering the south and west reflects light and heat, while charcoal black covering the north and east walls, absorbs them.

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Gazing at the exterior of the church building, you may or may not perceive any of these features of energy efficiency. Churches built since 1976 are likely to utilize many of these energy-saving devices, and churches built from now on are likely to have an increasing number of them. But can anyone tell by looking which walls are insulated? Which roofs? The answer is, not entirely. Architect Burroughs says both A-line and mansard roofs insulate well. While the mansard gives a more contemporary look, some churches want their buildings to look more traditional or colonial. But whether colonial or contemporary, Burroughs increasingly is recommending a floor plan where, for the same square footage, greater heating efficiency can be achieved. Almost any shape or design can accommodate energy efficiency.

Indeed, church designs that incorporate energy efficiency are just as innovative as ever. “Any design is still possible,” architect Jung assures. “The secret is to compensate. If you like high ceilings, put circulating fans up there to recycle the heat so it doesn’t escape. New indoor malls are doing this. Churches can too. It costs dollars to recover that heat, but you can save and reuse the energy you already have.… Don’t rule out a feature you really want.”

But Jung doesn’t really think we’ll be seeing many Gothic arches these days. A shift in certain design concepts can be traced not so much to energy use as to the way the church views itself. The most visible and obvious changes are related to theology. Changes in worship concepts and in the view of community have radically affected design patterns. Four years ago CHRISTIANITY TODAY reported this shift in a conversation with a Chicago architect, Richard A. Smits. Smits testified to the trend away from linear alignment of the church interior where everything happens up front before a spectator audience. Trends include moving the choir closer to the congregation, and seating the congregation in a semicircle facing in, toward the focus of worship. This arrangement is called “centrality,” differing from “linear” worship. The linear church worshiper makes the long pilgrimage—on foot or with the eye—to the mysterious Presence at the front. By contrast, the circular concept of worship portrays it as a community affair with the worshipers’ shared experiences of God of central significance.

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Two implications are suggested by this shift. For some worshiping bodies, it is that the emphasis has indeed moved from God toward man. But church groups with a more evangelical theology will offer an interpretation that declares God in Christ is as central as ever, but that the experience of the believer is also important, and consistent with Protestant theology.

These considerations about the role of theology as it relates to church design still take priority in a discussion of church architecture—even though the issue of energy efficiency has come to occupy a necessary prominence. Architect Jung advises that he always reviews design concepts with a church board in terms of their liturgy, and explores many factors: the emphasis on the spoken word, the placement of the sacraments, the participation of the clergy, the emphasis or deemphasis of the clergy. When they are at the planning stages for their building, says Jung, a church group must go back to basics. Church boards need a clear understanding of their own theology first of all, and then of their program, and their budget. Such dialogues between architect and board force a church to define itself more clearly, and thus to be more effective in the work of Godwhen the new building is finished. “I want to see flow charts, circulation charts, and be sure the congregation has done its homework,” Jung explains. “Homework” implies counting the cost and even deciding to forego certain extravagances in order to provide energy necessities that are more practical.

When the homework is completed, the church architect is able to participate intelligently in planning for the purposes of that body of believers as he imagines and designs a structure that will both represent their faith and insure responsible stewardship of the world’s resources in the 1980s.

As the congregation and the architect talk, pray, and imagine together as a team, they will produce yet another innovative structure that can speak the name of God into a new decade. Exercising their mandate to be good stewards of the earth and of their talents, Christians will find themselves cooperating together ever more faithfully and wisely in seeking to build an energy-efficient church.

Carl F. H. Henry, first editor of Christianity Today, is lecturer at large for World Vision International. An author of many books, he lives in Arlington, Virginia.

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