The Great Green Question for Churches

Hype or sound economics? Experts weigh environment-sustainable building practices.

Years ago, Kermit the Frog lamented that it wasn’t easy being green. Kermit should feel right at home these days.

Today, we buy “green” paint for the walls, look for “green” ways to fertilize our lawns, and bring home our groceries in “green” shopping bags. And of course, leading the way is the green building movement, which encourages the use of sustainable products and energy-efficient designs. Being green is a major trend in all segments of society, including the church community.

On a Bandwagon

Many church leaders actively promote the concept of environmental stewardship, and it is easy to understand why. “When we trash the environment, we are not holding up our end of the bargain for taking care of God’s creation,” explains Steve Fridsma, an architect. “When you over-consume, it hurts the poverty line around the world. When consumers use less, we all win.”

In a similar mindset, the National Council of Churches of Christ Eco-Justice Programs website states, “The impacts of global climate change threaten all of God’s creation and will make it more difficult for people of faith to care for those in need. With expected increases in drought, storm intensity, disease, species extinction, and flooding, the impacts of global climate change will increase the lack of food, shelter, and water available, particularly to those living in or near poverty.”

On the other hand, the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works released a report several years ago stating that more than 400 prominent scientists do not believe that climate changes are man-made. “In addition,” according to the report, “many scientists who are also progressive environmentalists believe climate fear promotion has ‘co-opted’ the green movement.”

Economics Or Semantics?

What is the best course of action for churches considering a remodel or new construction, but also wanting to be good environmental stewards? After all, green building tends to be more expensive at the outset than traditional building. And with practically every product available today having the green label slapped on it—a term known as green washing—it is difficult for the average person to know which green approach makes sense and which is a waste of money.

Savings from even the smallest green practices could be better spent on funding the church’s ministry.

First of all, it’s best to understand what green building is. Fridsma admits that sometimes the concern surrounding green building isn’t always a matter of economics but of semantics. “Environmentalism often brings up images of tree hugging and Al Gore,” he says, which makes more conservative church members wary of green building practices.

Green building increases the efficiency in the way buildings use resources, including energy, water, and materials. Green building proponents believe using these practices will provide long-term benefits and savings in heating, cooling, and water usage, as well as provide an overall healthier environment.

“Unlike a lot of work within the development community, churches tend to be long-term holders of the property,” says Douglas Spuler, AIA, LEED AP (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Accredited Professional) and a principal at RNL Design in Denver. “When you start thinking in terms of ten- to thirty-year lifecycles, it begins to make the investment in a sustainable design economical. And because the church often holds on to a building for up to a hundred years, once you get past the first couple of years, you’ll start to see a payback. If you spend a little money now, you’ll see a lot back in the future.”

Payback Time

The biggest cost in green building, Spuler says, is with the mechanical and electrical systems. “If a project is going to cost more, it is because you are using a more sustainable, more energy-efficient mechanical system,” he says. But with careful planning that considers not only the needs of the current facility, but how the mechanical system can grow with the church campus, Spuler says the more efficient HVAC system will begin to save money on heating and cooling as the years go by.

“It’s all about the lifecycle of the church,” he says. “The initial investment will eventually pay for the mechanical system with the savings in utility bills.” It’s doing the little things, too, such as deciding to build a new building in order to best utilize natural light and heat or using operable windows that let in fresh air for better ventilation (not to mention allowing the people inside to enjoy a warm spring day without running the air conditioner).

Another approach is to consider using an existing building for a new church facility, Fridsma suggests, adding that part of the concept of green is using available resources. “These buildings already have parking and utility hook-ups,” he says, which provide some economic savings to the church. “It’s more environmental. It doesn’t add to sprawl. And that kind of approach to building is a metaphor for grace. You take an empty shell and bring it back to life.”

Fridsma’s co-worker, Jeff Remtema, stresses that with careful planning from the start, it is possible to keep costs in check while building green. “Hire a qualified team from the beginning,” says Remtema, ProgressiveAE’s director of sustainable building. A team experienced in green building will know the best practices to use for sustainable construction. Remtema points out that it is important to remember there is a difference between economical spending and going the most inexpensive route just to save money upfront.

It is also important to have clear environmental goals going into the project, he adds. “Have specific targets in place,” Remtema says. “Rather than tell the designers you want to go green, let them know you want to be twenty percent better on energy than code requires. That helps to keep costs contained.”

Fridsma stresses that it is vital for churches to think beyond the political issues or the media hype of sustainable building practices. Instead, he recommends churches use green ideas as a way to expand their ministries, especially among young people. Surveys have shown that young people have high interest and trust levels in organizations that have environment–friendly practices; churches often struggle for ways to attract youth. Being green could be a factor to draw that group into the church.

Fridsma, Remtema, and Spuler all agree that the savings from even the smallest green practices could be better spent on funding the church’s ministry. “Ask for an energy audit of your church to find out ways you can improve energy use,” Remtema says. “Local energy companies will often do those for free.”

“There are a lot of spiritual reasons for going green,” Fridsma adds. “It’s so much more than building practices. It’s creation care.”

Going For Gold

That concept of creation care is largely responsible for the Harm A. Weber Academic Center, housing the Benjamin P. Browne Library at Judson University, a Christian Liberal Arts school in Elgin, Illinois. Judson’s School of Architecture wanted to build an energy-efficient building.

David Ogoli, assistant professor of architecture at Judson, says the new building helps further the university’s mission, which is to encourage students to be responsible citizens on a global level. “We want them to have a positive impact on society,” he says, adding that the building shows the school’s commitment to environmental concerns.

The 88,000-square-foot, energy-efficient building takes advantage of natural daylight and ventilation, which saves on use of the mechanical system. The facility’s integrated thermal energy recovery system minimizes life-cycle costs and at the same time provides a healthy indoor environment. School officials expect the system to cut operational fossil fuel costs by at least 50 percent by optimizing solar gains in the spring and fall.

“The building tries to maximize the use of the weather cycle,” Ogoli says. The building’s mechanical system runs naturally, with little or no mechanical intervention, for six or more months of the year. The system also cuts environmental impact, as it allows the building to release considerably less or possibly even zero CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) into the environment.

While the energy system is the building’s highlight, it is only one area where the school focused on green building practices. “With only a few exceptions, everything used in constructing this building was purchased from businesses in a fifty-mile radius,” Ogoli says. “And we were able to recycle ninety-five percent of our construction materials.”

He admits that this building cost more than a more traditional one, and that it required very careful planning and upfront studies to make sure all of the green ideas would be viable. “However, we believe that extra money spent at the beginning of the project will be recovered in five or six years,” he says.

Just as important, the building acts as a teaching lab for architecture students. Students are able to learn how green building techniques can improve the building’s efficiency. They can also see where there are still areas for improvement in sustainable building practices. “The balance between acoustics and green building can be made better,” Ogoli says, “and I hope that’s something we can learn to modify.”

Purely Economics

Whereas Ogoli sees the academic center at Judson University as a way of promoting environmental stewardship, Mark Beville, senior architect with the Aspen Group in Chicago, wonders if the motivation behind a lot of green building practices is based on media hype.

“The public sector is being pushed into sustainable building because of regulations,” Beville says, “but the private sector has no such incentive. For the private sector, the focus is on economic decisions.”

One thing that Beville has discovered is that many standard good-design practices—like orienting the building for natural light, traffic flow within the building, how it fits into the neighborhood, and ventilation—are pretty much the same as green building practices.

Other issues, such as cost increases of materials like steel, are leading designers to turn to materials like brick. “We’re looking at options to save money for the client, without the actual intention to be green,” Beville says. “Using brick, you cut down on other building needs, like drywall.”

Green building practices usually focus on life-cycle costs, asserting that the building will save money five or ten years down the road. “The clients I work with aren’t worried about life-cycle costs; it’s almost all initial costs,” Beville says. “There are people who want to know about heating and cooling and efficiency, but as far as maintenance issues, the clients rarely bring that up.”

Beville says there are many excellent, high-tech energy systems out there, but he rarely recommends them to his church clients because of the upfront costs involved. “Churches never have enough budget to do what they want to do,” he says, “so things like solar-powered energy systems never come up in the discussion. It’s probably not worth the initial investment on the life-cycle because technologies are probably going to change quickly.”

Another point to consider is greenwashing, which is what happens when consumers are led to believe a product possesses more environmental qualities than it actually does. Too often those who want to feel good about building green don’t investigate the products in depth. And it is more than just the label. For example, bamboo floors are a popular choice as a green flooring option; however, the energy cost of transporting the bamboo negates much of its sustainable attributes.

“You really can’t go wrong with most green building practices,” Beville says, “but it is also important not to get caught up in the hype. Don’t do it just because it is the politically correct thing to do.”

Sue Marquette Poremba is a freelance writer in Pennsylvania. She has written extensively on building and construction-related topics. To purchase the related download Creating an Earth-Safe Church, visit

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