LDS Church unveils green meetinghouse prototype

med_Farmingtonsolarpanelsclose_27Apr10This week the presiding bishop of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints unveiled the first solar-powered LDS meetinghouse in Farmington, Utah. The building is one of five green prototypes being developed for LDS chapels in Utah, Arizona, and Nevada—and the building program will eventually expand across the US and around the world. The official press release cites other environmentally-friendly building innovations in the Farmington facility, including high efficiency heating and cooling system that can interface with the solar power equipment, xeriscaped grounds,  plumbing fixtures that cut water use by more than 50 percent, and Low-E Solarban 70 windows that block 78 percent of the sun’s heat energy. The parking lot will even feature special parking spots for electric cars.

This is not the Church’s first foray into environmental building and design. The Salt Lake Tribune reports:

Employing “green” technologies is not new to the LDS Church. Indeed, Tuesday’s news conference highlighted past earth-friendly efforts such as the geothermal plant built in the 1980s to power a California meetinghouse and the fact that rainwater has been collected since the 1950s at Pacific Island church buildings.

I suggested last week that the LDS Church hasn’t really developed a unique environmental vocabulary, and indeed the publicity surrounding the new meetinghouse is framed in terms of the larger Christian notion of stewardship. But the LDS do have a robust tradition of frugality and practicality, and this innovation fits comfortably into that history: the new meetinghouse is 30 percent more efficient than any existing model, and it will provide all its own electricity, saving about $6000 per year. The green prototype cost $1.64 more per square foot to construct than a standard meetinghouse, but that extra cost will be repaid through energy savings.

The Tribune also reports that the new meetinghouse features a change in the traditional chapel design: standard LDS chapels have pews arranged in horizontal rows, but the new meetinghouse will have pews arrayed in a fan shape to foster a more intimate connection among the congregation.

As encouraging as I find the environmental innovation, this architectural change is more intriguing. Most LDS meetinghouses are built to standardized specifications which have been described by one observer as “eminently practical, and largely hostile to both aesthetic sense and the articulation of a sacred space.”  Mormonism developed in the context of New England Puritanism, and it adopted the plain, unadorned style of Puritan meetinghouses even if it did not share the doctrinal ideas behind that austere aesthetic.  LDS meetinghouses are functional and comfortable, but, in contrast to LDS temples, are mostly devoid of stained glass, religious art, or icons. (There are notable exceptions, mostly in meetinghouses that were built in the 1930s and 1940s.  The building I attended as a child in Southern California features a large and lovely stained glass image of Christ behind the pulpit, together with scriptures from the New Testament.)

Solar-powered meetinghouse in Farmington, UT

Solar-powered meetinghouse in Farmington, UT

As Church membership grew exponentially during the mid-twentieth century, it became prudent and practical to standardize building design, and in a culture as fiscally cautious as the LDS there was never a doubt as to the outcome of the battle between economics and aesthetics.  While the new meetinghouse appears largely similar in architectural sensibility to standard LDS buildings, the change in chapel layout suggests that more architectural innovation may be coming. Perhaps we are now in a new historical moment in which aesthetics and economics can happily cohabitate.

44 comments for “LDS Church unveils green meetinghouse prototype

  1. This is certainly not the first project the Church has done that is friendly to the environment, but it is nice to see the Church finally making a public announcement of it (and getting lots of public attention). Sustainable environmental practices are in keeping with LDS Church doctrine, despite what many Church members seem to believe.

  2. I’ll just add that the new City Creek Center that the Church is building in downtown Salt Lake City is the largest green project of its kind, and the new LDS Church History Library is also a “green” building.

  3. So much could be done to make existing buildings greener without spending a dime. Perhaps the first would be to change the unwritten order of the dress code, so that men don’t wear long sleeved shirts and suits on hot summer days. Church buildings are cooled to make things comfortable for people who are overdressed. Change that, cut down on the work that the A/C units do, and you’ve cut a huge amount of power use, without cost.

  4. I think the innovations will be small and short-lived. The Church are comfortable with their standardisation of meetinghouses and though they are trying to engage in the context of wider socio-political context (and will therefore innovate for time) I suspect that they will v. quickly find an equilibrium which allows them to satisfy these environmental concerns with their desire for standardisation. Unless of course the Church does manage to find a environmental vocabulary that begins to become prominent within the Church, as Rosalynde alludes to.

  5. Next we need to get rid of the big ugly parking lots which surround the church buildings and turn into dead zones during the week, and get the members to walk and bike to church more.

  6. If the fan-shaped orientation of the pews is what I think it is, I’ve seen that in place in 10-year-old buildings in CA, TX, PA, and OH…

  7. Aaron, I fail to see the tension you are suggesting. Standardization is the whole plan.

    Which means that, should the program be approved, Mormon churches will eventually become well-known in their communities for their ugly xeriscaping.

  8. To Rosalynde’s comment on environmental vocabulary: I suspect that “stewardship” is the word of choice because so many of the alternatives are too politically loaded. I concur that we Mormons need a new framework for discussing and relating to the environment.

    I would also like to say “I told you so” to my former co-workers in SE Idaho who thought that I was crazy for suggesting that the Church should use LEED to design buildings. I hope that none of them leave the Church when they are tasked with designing a LEED certified chapel.

  9. I would like to go see this. Does anyone know the address of (or general directions) to this chapel? Or even which stake it is for? There are at least four stakes in Farmington: Farmington Utah, Farmington North, Farmington South, Farmington Oakridge.

  10. Although “stewardship” does seem to be the word that Church leaders are using to couch the environmental push as a moral rather than political move, there does seem to be some very deliberate effort on the part of the people working this media “roll-out” to emphasize that this is not just about economy and efficiency. In the write-up in Business Week, Bishop Burton said

    The takeaway message for members is that the institution you are affiliated with is responsible,” he said. “And hopefully, the takeaway message is, maybe I need to reevaluate where I am in my responsibility to the community, responsibility to the environment and responsibility to good stewardship of this finite land and ground that the Lord has blessed us with.”

    As part of this effort, the prototype green chapel has an interactive touch-screen monitor in the library through which members can learn about the eco-friendly systems in the building. And in a Salt Lake Tribune follow-up article, Bishop Burton said that part of the goal was “to be a part of cleaning up the atmosphere and environment in which we live.”

    Also, Rosalynde, your discussion of our Puritanical architectural aesthetic of utility actual relates in an interesting way, I think, to conservative Mormon Utahns’ traditional attitude of suspicion and even derision towards environmentalism. The book New Genesis: A Mormon Reader on Land and Community”, contains an essay by Steven Snow, who, before he became a general authority (he’s now in the Presidency of the Seventy), was a prominent environmental and wilderness advocate in Southern Utah. In his essay, “Skipping the Grand Canyon,” he speculates that part of the reason that so many Utahns are hostile to environmentalism as a movement (even if they consider themselves outdoor enthusiasts and “conservationists”) is because they inherited a kind of urgent utilitarian mindset from our pioneer ancestors. Having just come across the plains, he imagines, they were conditioned to see everything around them in terms of how it could be used and useful: first for survival, and then for the building of the kingdom. This, he suspects, precluded sentimentality towards the environment. And he hopes for a future in which we have eyes to see and appreciate (and fight for the protection of) the natural beauty around us.

    In my mind, this lends environmental stewardship not only a moral aspect, but an aesthetic aspect as well. And it makes me wonder: could the Church’s new and public environmentalism–couched in part as reverence for Creation–be coupled with a greater reverence for the aesthetic aspect of our faith, including the aesthetics of our worship (which tend, in my ward, toward the officious and dreary) and even the aesthetics of our buildings?

    Or am I reading entirely too much into the angle of the pews? :)

  11. If these sorts of discussions intrigue you, I’d suggest following Green Mormon Architect:

    As for the chapel, the Church has done research into whether proximity to the speaker improves congregant experience (I believe, if I recall correctly, that the exact question was whether proximity actually influences retention). The answer was in the affirmative. Hence the new pew layout.

  12. The parking lot will even feature special parking spots for electric cars

    What does this mean? Access to an electrical supply for recharging your battery? Is the electricity free? If so, wouldn’t that be a major expense? I am not sure there are any electric cars (other than golf carts) in Farmington, though, so it might be a while before it gets tested.

  13. Sorry for this threadjack:

    does anyone know how to access greenmormonarchitect? As of a couple of days ago, I get this message when trying to access the blog: This blog is open to invited readers only. I’d love to be able to read it again!

    Back to the building in Farmington: I wonder how much of the technology could be retrofitted to existing buildings?

    One critique of the design: I generally like the shape of the chapel, but I wish we’d they’d designed the chapel to sit farther forward so that there could be windows on the side of the chapel, and not just on the stand.

  14. Mark D.,

    I don’t think the parking spaces will have charging capabilities. It was my understanding that they will simply be prime parking spaces reserved for high efficiency vehicles, as an incentive to drive them.

  15. As a product designer, I obviously think it would be fun to have more unique meetinghouses. However, even I can agree that you don’t need even a nice meetinghouse to have a profound spiritual experience. I’m sure every missionary who taught a lesson on a log in the mud, or attended a branch meeting in a run-down house can attest to this.

    As for the energy efficient stuff, I see it as a natural extension of existing principles that the church is now ready to implement. I for one will be SO HAPPY if the old meetinghouses get smart thermostats! My old ward’s chapel has been about 85 degrees the last few months!

  16. I generally like the shape of the chapel, but I wish we’d they’d designed the chapel to sit farther forward so that there could be windows on the side of the chapel, and not just on the stand

    The Primary Memorial Chapel (ca. 1868) in Farmington has large windows on the side of the (historic) chapel, which are very nice. A singles ward I attended was one of the last wards to ever hold sacrament meetings there (the other wards meet in a newer chapel added the same building ~1978). But I am not aware of any relatively recent LDS church designs (since 1980 or so) with windows on the side of the chapel. Are there any?

    It was my understanding that they will simply be prime parking spaces reserved for high efficiency vehicles, as an incentive to drive them.

    I understand all the efficiency stuff, but I am a little surprised to hear that the Church would be getting into the business of rewarding people (at ordinary chapels) with preferred parking spots based on some behavior or another. Why would that make more sense then preferred parking or seating for (full) tithe payers, for example?

  17. Good blog reading for a while now so I thought I would finally drop a comment to Jeans Deal Shopping. Free Auctions for Mens Womens Low Rise and Designer Jeans at JeansDeal Marketplace.

  18. I have not previously heard about the special parking spaces for electric cars. I suspect this may be an effort to earn a LEED credit.

    LEED is a green-building certification program ran by the US Green Building Council. Currently it is the standard by which the “green-ness” of buildings can be measured. The new building is certified by the LEED program.

  19. To #13, I think the building is at 1700 S and 200 E in Farmington.

  20. Can’t believe that the church would set aside special parking spaces to those who can afford electric cars. Dumb.

    It will be interesting to see if the church is willing to spend *more* on environmental issues, because the fact that the changes are more economical make it impossible to know if the environmental talk is just clap trap. It appears that the church’s environmental efforts extend only to those providing economic efficiency.

    It will be significant when the church says they spent significant money on an a non-economical environmental benefit and says that given the many uses to which the church applies it’s money, it feels that the particular environmental benefit is the most important.

  21. “the fact that the changes are more economical make it impossible to know if the environmental talk is just clap trap.”

    Wow. Did you just refer to Bishop Burton’s pretty direct call for greater environmental awareness as “clap trap”?

  22. I see this as the church practicing what the preach and becoming self sufficient. If they produce their own power they won’t be dependent on the government to power buildings. There will always be light.

  23. It appears that the church’s environmental efforts extend only to those providing economic efficiency

    And this is bad for the environment how? Would you rather that the Church abstain from issuing press releases and do things like this under cover of night because there is an economic benefit in there somewhere?

    Most organizations have to borrow heavily to be able to afford the extra efficiencies of buildings like this. Cost recovery won’t be for twenty to thirty years later. It is no small investment.

  24. Actually the building is out in the middle of nowhere. 1525 West 550 South.,+Farmington,+UT&sll=37.0625,-95.677068&sspn=51.576045,114.169922&ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=550+S+1525+W,+Farmington,+Davis,+Utah+84025&ll=40.971668,-111.919699&spn=0.012119,0.027874&t=h&z=16

    The fan shaped chapel and perpendicular cultural hall have been done many times in the past. For anyone interested, email greenmormonarchitect at gmail dot com for access to my blog.

  25. Mark, the efficient building technologies are great for the environment, but there are lots of technologies the church hasn’t used, too, and it appears that they’ve only employed those their financial planners like. The extra cost of $1.84 per foot is small compared to the $6000 annual savings. A typical church building is 15k feet, so the investment would be around $28,000, meaning the changes are projected to pay for themselves within 5 years.

    The church’s physical facilities director is quoted in the SLTrib article as saying that the environmental measures of about $1.84 per square foot is “almost inconsequential.” I agree.

    Jeremy, we can listen to the words or we can watch the behavior. As long as the church’s environmental positions extend only to those with technological efficiency, then there’s no indication that the church actually values conservation compared to other worthy projects.

    We should all be proud that the church is smart with its money.

  26. “Jeremy, we can listen to the words or we can watch the behavior. As long as the church’s environmental positions extend only to those with technological efficiency, then there’s no indication that the church actually values conservation compared to other worthy projects.”

    Words are behavior. The PR rollout for this whole thing placed a huge emphasis not only on the economical and environmental aspects of this project, but the educational aspects. There have been a number of public actions on the Church’s part in the recent past that have provided good enviro-PR but were not necessarily directed at changing members’ behavior. I’m thinking specifically of the green design used in the Church History building and the Church’s participation in Earth Hour (turning off the lights of the SLC temple to raise climate change awareness ahead of the Copenhagen talks). Not much about these events, however, was directed towards members of the Church–I suspect most people in my ward are unaware of them. However, the new building in Farmington and the others planned are being used very conspicuously as teaching tools for members, and they have gotten exponentially more press than the Church’s earlier green efforts.

    You seem to suspect that this push isn’t “genuinely” environmental based on cost/benefit issues–“behavior,” as you say. But it seems to me that in Mormonism the leadership behavior that has the biggest impact on the world is the teaching of its members–and Bishop Burton is obviously using this as an explicit teaching tool to encourage members of the Church to change their behavior.

    Is the political dissonance of the Church doing something environmentally progressive really that hard for you to bear?

  27. Jeremy, I agree that the church is making a statement, and it’s a statement I support: buildings should use technologies that will pay for themselves within 5 years. That’s not progressive, it’s economical.

    It the church were “environmentally progressive” it would be spending money beyond cost savings in order to protect the environment, money that could have been spent instead on temples, humanitarian outreach, the missionary program, or anything else they do with their money.

  28. I really don’t understand why this has to be such a binary issue for you, Matt–especially since in order to make it one you have to claim that Bishop Burton’s clear statements–about his hope that these buildings will encourage members to be better global citizens and better stewards of the Earth and the atmosphere–are disingenuous. He said, repeatedly, that he hopes the takeaway from members is NOT just that “buildings should use technologies that will pay for themselves within 5 years.” He said it over and over again. He used the word “atmosphere.” For goodness sakes, they spent what I have to imagine was a considerable amount of money to install a monitoring system in the building that is connected to a graphic interface touch-screen monitor in the library so that members can go on and learn about the impact of the building’s green initiatives.

    Usually cynicism is for lazy people, but you really seem to be working hard at it.

  29. Just because the church has elected to pursue options that are economically justifiable in the short run doesn’t negate the fact these are environmentally progressive practices within the development and construction industries. Most commercial businesses haven’t reached the point of committing to LEED certification in the way the church just announced.

    While the church hasn’t necessarily been an “early adopted” of green construction practices, I am thrilled that it is ahead of the curve from an industry standpoint. It’s certainly ahead of most of its members.

  30. Jeremy, I’m not being cynical and I believe Bishop Burton’s conservation message. The church has always supported conservation. None of that changes the fact that of the gazillion different ways the church could “protect the environment” through building design and materials, the few they implemented happen to be cost effective.

    James, do commercial builders not do what the church is doing because they don’t believe the numbers like the $28k investment resulting in $6k annual savings, or is it because the builder incurs the cost of the construction, but the tenants pay for the utilities?

  31. Matt,

    Your very careful choice of language serves as a perfect example of how delicate it is for the Church to, as Rosalynde put it, “develop an environmental vocabulary.” “Conservationism” is what conservatives say when they don’t want to be associated with environmentalism as a political force. But it seems pretty clear to me that, while the Church may be trying not to come across as choosing political sides, they are taking a tack that puts it very much at odds with the political right in Utah. (After all, we’re talking about the state legislature that brought in, as their “expert” on climate change, the utterly laughable Lord Monckton–just months after the Church’s very public participation in the Earth Hour initiative, which was all about climate change awareness.)

    I’ve heard many, many members here in Utah County–including my own bishop–openly mock even the most commonsense environmental practices as leftwing propaganda. I don’t think Bishop Burton has left him much room to do that any more–and I don’t think that has much to do with efficiency or cost/benefit ratio.

    But please continue. I always enjoy watching conservative acrobatics when the Church sways a few degrees to the left. I haven’t had this much fun since Gayle Ruzicka’s press conference after the Church endorsed Salt Lake’s gay rights initiative.

  32. Why green building practices haven’t completely become the norm is due to a lot of factors, but one reason is that the industry is still full of people who weren’t brought up with an awareness of the innovations and/or the potential cost benefits. As with most things, unfamiliarity breeds skepticism. Think of it akin to the way older generations interact with technology in a lot of cases vs. their kids.

    Most anyone coming out of a program in real estate development or architecture nowadays (and probably construction management, but I’m not as familiar with that end of the process) has been eating and breathing this stuff.

    For an organization that is so often viewed as being anything but progressive, this is a very good news story for the church!

  33. I don’t have the level of expertise JamesM has, but I can report that while watching the video a lot of things that came up are what the faculty in the HVAC program at the institution I work at talk about as very positive, effective innovations in the field.

  34. Jeremy, I don’t think the church is trying to develop an environmental vocabulary. The church is conservation minded (as the Scouting program teaches) and I don’t believe they use the term conservation simply to avoid the politicization of environmentalism. My take is that the church believes nature is God’s creation and and we should not be wasteful, but because people are a lot more important and come first, the church spends its real money on people projects like temples, buildings, missionary work, humanitarian aid and BYU. The half a percent of building costs (I imagine the cost of a church building, with land and all improvements, to be above $300 per foot) they’re spending on cost-effective green technologies shows that they do run the math, unlike the builders Mark mentions, but also that compared to other priorities facing the church, protecting the environment is way down the list. Bjorn Lomborg would applaud the church’s approach.

  35. I am surprised no one has mentioned the garden roof on the Conference Center as an element of a green building, one which is given significant credit in the LEED standards. The much smaller planted roof on the new Salt lake City Library is something the City brags about, but the Conference Center has it beat, hands down.

    The Church knows that it can maintain ownership of its meetinghouses and receive the full benefit of reduced energy costs from solar power and energy efficiency, in a way that even a homeowner might not, given the fact that she might need to sell the house in five years and relocate to somewhere else, and not every potential is going to appreciate and pay for the value added to a house from such a system. Between predictions of peak oil, the vagaries of government energy policy on allowing oil production from Federal lands and the seabed, and the politics of international oil cartels, plus the potential impacts on energy costs from all sorts of government regulatory schemes, decreasing the need to rely on what is almost certain to be a rising cost of energy is a wise investment for the Church for a building that will be in service for decades.

    A number of newer meetinghouses in warmer climates have avoided conventional air conditioning and instead adopted the style of chapels with open panels all along both side walls to encourage natural air circulation, along with ceiling fans, and replace enclosed hallways with open outside paths. That is the pattern of the Honolulu Tabernacle, and it has been adopted more recently in Guam and other tropical locales.

    As for clothing, I think a lot of the men in my wards in Idaho and Washington State wear short sleeve shirts with ties but no coats. The only men who seem to be committed to wearing a suit are the bishopric and stake authorities. The main need I have on warmer days for wearing a jacket is that I need something to carry all my portable electronic devices in.

    On the idea of having pews angled toward the speakers, that was used in some Mormon tabernacles a century ago, such as the tabernacle in Wellsville, in Cache Valley, Utah. The chapel has the stand in one corner of a square room, with the pews forming “L” patterns enclosing the corner stand. It also has an L shaped balcony.

    An innovation that has not caught on was the design of my stake center, which has a sloping chapel floor so that the stand can be at ground level for a handicapped person entering from the hallway. Unfortunately, when we open up the cultural hall and have stake conference, it is hard for people in the rear of the building to see who is standing at the lectern.

  36. In my experience few Mormons are anti-environment. It was a big focus when I was a kid in Utah when we had entire conferences on littering, using less energy in all sorts of ways, and recycling clothes to reduce waste. (I was in a fashion show that featured all the clothes that were remade from out-of-date, out-of-size clothing in the 70’s.) The programs and classes that I was part of didn’t just stress monetary benefits, but environmental ones as well.

    Lots of Mormons (and others) are, however, opposed to making up science, falsifying data, and selectively enforced rule-making to reach a political agenda. Thinking that Al Gore (in his 20x-average carbon footprint house, flying around the world in his private jet to tell OTHERS not to drive to work) isn’t a valid scientific resource isn’t the same as being anti-environment. Thinking that Robert Redford (who opposes cutting down trees in the canyon to provide safer roads, but is pleased to plow down mountainsides for his personal residence and his ski resort is fine and have people fly to Sundance from all over the world to watch movies) isn’t an environmental authority isn’t the same as being anti-environment.

    That said, I think the buildings are cool. Most of the articles I read gave numerous quotes about the sensible approach the church is taking. Lots of thought and research, backed up with a “let’s try out our best ideas and see what works in the real world” approach. Expansion plans after testing.

    We are currently building a green home. There are so many great innovations available. The “green” label can be awfully misleading, of course, as it often ignore real impact of products that have somehow made it on the “nice list” and there is so much politics in the mix, it can be hard to make good choices. But it’s all quite interesting.

  37. I for one am glad the church is not spending tithing money in a way that is not economically sustainable. It’s great that they are making changes that will pay for itself in the long haul. The church is not the religion of the environment, even though we have a profound respect and appreciation for it. I would be more concerned if the church wanted to make a lot of costly additions, which provided no economic benefit, other than intrinsic rewards and an immeasurable effect on the environment. It would be a good example. But if it’s between being a good example through using organic sand (made up) bricks and being a good example building a well in an African village, I vote for the well.

  38. Someone didn’t run the numbers right. Another article said the cost of the solar panels, and all the associated equipment to turn it into AC power and sell the excess back into the grid cost several hundred thousand dollars. That is more than $1.64/sq ft. And it would require more than $6,000/year in electicity savings to pay for the solar panels and electronics.

    Maybe the $1.64/sq ft is the cost of the “passive” stuff like window glass, etc, that reduces the cooling cost, and doesn’t include the “active” electronics. Such “passive” measures might indeed reduce electricity for cooling by $6,000/year.

    But I’d also like to see the numbers on the solar and AC-inverter components, to see what the ROI is on them.

    One of our small footprint chapels in Indianapolis costs $3,000/month on a yearly average for electricity and natural gas.

    If this green building is a large stake center, and if the solar panels can generate enough juice to power the entire building during sunshine hours, selling the excess back to the grid on bright days when the building is unoccupied, then they might indeed have a positive ROI too.

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