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Success Story - St. Stephens Cathedral

Jim Elliott, Member of the Vestry

St. Stephens Cathedral, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania

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St. Stephen's leadership team - including lay and ordained leaders, architect and builders - worked to make their project a model of environmental stewardship.

Back in 1998, St. Stephens Episcopal Cathedral and its accompanying K-8 school were at a crossroads. The cathedral and school made up a full square block of urban Harrisburg, near the Pennsylvania State House. Five buildings made up the site, including the 177-year-old cathedral and its 158-year-old chapter house, as well as an unheated, four-story parking garage. What might be the future for this cathedral and school, with their aging physical plant in an aging urban neighborhood?

Jim Elliott, a member of the vestry of the cathedral, as well as a professional engineer, remembers: "We had an unused garage and questions about the future of our buildings. But we didn't start with a building planning process, but with a future planning process. We asked ourselves, 'What were our growth goals and our mission? What were the program upgrades we wanted? How, for the cathedral, would we approach the deterioration of our organ?'"

This planning process included the vestry (governing board) of the church, the board of the school, as well as the bishop. "We were very much aided," recalls Jim, "by a parishioner to whom we reached out as a facilitator, and who helped us to sort out our priorities, to undertake a needs assessment, and identify our growth needs. Among other things, we affirmed that we wanted to expand the school from 180 students to 300 to help it achieve critical mass."

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St. Stephen's recycled a substantial amount of its construction waste, preventing it from entering landfills.

When did environmental concerns come into the project? "Well, it was after this initial planning, when our goals were clearer, that we hired Vern McKissick as our architect, based on our knowledge of his work. Interestingly, the green aspect of our project happened after we hired him. In this regard, the turning point was when a parishioner said during one of our meetings, 'You know, because we are a church and school, it's not just what we do that matters, but how we do it.' That got our attention. We all knew that was right."

A boost to the process happened when St. Stephens was able to get Interfaith Power and Light, through the support of the Heinz Foundation, to do an energy model for them. The result: St. Stephens was able to determine appropriate thermal and window-glazing performance, lighting and control systems, and achieved a 22% reduction in energy consumption beyond the baseline building code standards.

"Some of the green strategies we employed," Jim notes, "were utilizing natural convection processes in cooling the sanctuary by using fans; working to make the Undercroft (the basement under the sanctuary) a welcoming place by changing the way we lit and vented it to reduce what had been excessive heat, and making it healthy by using low VOC linoleum. We converted the garage into our school and did a couple things to save energy and create an excellent learning environment. We placed classrooms along the building's sides to capture as much natural light as possible, because we knew that studies showed that children learned better in natural light. We also created an interior core area of this building, dedicated to activity areas, that is illuminated by natural light that is able to flow through interior windows from the rooms along the building's sides. On the school's top floor we wrapped the space with windows, created art activity areas, and made the space appropriate for parish gatherings. Now, everybody wants to have their meetings there and the kids call it the "Upper Croft." It's a place where the students and members of the parish meet and mingle in ways that didn't happen before."

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St. Stephen's replaced its old, single-pane windows with energy-efficient, double glazed replacements.

What was the best aspect of the project? "It may seem odd to say this. But for me it was our very first green planning session. We had 50 people show up on a sunny Sunday in May to talk about this! I knew then we were really on our way."

And the most challenging? "Going for LEED certification," says Jim, "no question. Now, I should point out that St. Stephens was the first church in the country to register with the USGBC, and so I'm sure their processes have improved since then. But our certification did take a long time. The energy modeling was onerous. And there were some things that were just frustrating given our good intent. For instance, there was an issue with the certified wood we bought, where the chain of custody of the wood was impossible for us to trace beyond our Pennsylvania supplier, and so we weren't eligible for a point towards LEED certification. I guess what I'm saying is that any church should think carefully about whether or not they want or need LEED certification because it is not a costless process, either in time or money. It may truly be very important to you, but you should just think it over beforehand."

What were some other challenges faced by St. Stephens? "After our planning, we did a feasibility study to estimate our fund-raising capacity. It was not going to be enough to get done everything we wanted. So we focused on upgrading the organ, providing the sanctuary with air-conditioning, making the Undercroft a wonderful meeting area, and renovating the school. We did not, as we had hoped, remove the parish house. We knew, too, that we would probably accrue some debt to finish the project. And our fundraising kickoff event took place on September 11, 2001!

"The key to our success was leadership, and a leadership based in faith, as demonstrated by our Dean Malcolm MacDowell. We were also able to achieve a consensus, even though some were skeptical at first and for a while. We did not proceed with the mindset that each and every green technology or strategy would have to pay for itself in some specified length of time. But we did assess our green investments overall. That meant many of our green costs, such as really good insulation, worked as a way to reduce our ongoing operating costs, especially energy use."

What advice would you give to religious institutions planning to undertake a green building project? "Start early in your process to build in the green consideration, "Jim asserts." It will be an expression of who you are, and that

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St. Stephen's used low VOC paint (which releases little or no noxious fumes, improving indoor air quality), Forest Stewardship Council-certified wood veneer, and recycled flooring products - all shown here - in their renovation project.

helps mobilize people. Also, hire the right professionals. After all, you're not going to be able to do everything, and so at some point your architect, your builder, and others become an extension of yourself. You need to have the trust that they'd act as you would. In this regard, spend a good amount of time pre-qualifying your chief hires, both as to their credentials, their green experience, references, but just as important your chemistry with them.

"For instance, the contractor we used hadn't done a green project before ours. But we were well satisfied about the quality of his work. Moreover, he showed us that he was sensitive to the historic nature of our properties. The green aspect of things was something he was sincerely interested in. He learned. He also trained his staff. And we went forward with him on the basis of GMP, or guaranteed maximum price, something I would urge everyone to consider.

"My major advice would be to get as many people as possible involved in your process, on committees, through gatherings where communication takes place. Take the view that you're undertaking 'evangelism through conservation' - that the green aspects of your project will become an important part of your institution's identity and help you attract others."


 
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