Reducing the Carbon Footprint of the Faithful: LDS Church Debuts Green Buildings

George Handley serves on the Executive Board of Utah Interfaith Power and Light and is the author of Home Waters: A Year of Recompenses on the Provo River (University of Utah Press 2010), a book that blends LDS theology, history, nature writing, and memoir. He will also have an article forthcoming in the Summer 2011 edition of Dialogue.

Actions speak louder than words, or so they say. In which case the actions taken by the LDS church to green their architecture according to LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards represents a major sermon on the Christian duty to reduce our ecological footprint. LEED certification was developed by the U.S. Green Building Council as a way to facilitate architectural design that works to reduce the ecological footprint comprehensively (see http://www.usgbc.org). Last spring, the LDS Church unveiled a new multi-congregation building in Farmington, Utah with 158 solar panels on its roof, state of the art Solarban windows to reduce interior heat in the summer, dual-flush water-saving toilets, bike racks, instantaneous water heaters, comprehensive recycling, xeriscaping, and a meter in the ward library that measures the building’s savings in units of electricity, gas, and, yes, carbon. This is one of four prototypes that the church will use to apply for a portfolio certification so as to then roll out all future meetinghouses according to LEED standards.

A group of us from Utah Interfaith Power and Light, a state chapter of a national coalition of people of faith dedicated to fighting climate change, were recently given a tour of the Farmington building by Jared Doxey, director of Architecture, Engineering, and Construction at the LDS Church. In a church that operates over 17,000 meetinghouses and builds over 300 a year, it is difficult to overstate what a significant contribution this makes to reducing carbon emissions. This one building alone will save 2 million pounds of CO2 in the next 25 years. To go along with the millions of dollars the church is already spending on humanitarian aid, this represents an important preventative measure to ease the environmental burdens of a warming world on millions. As Bishop Burton noted when the church first unveiled the building, “We want to be responsible members of the community as well, and I mean the community of man.” Plans are underway for retrofitting pre-existing buildings where and when feasible.

The building tangibly and unambiguously links LDS belief and environmental stewardship. Several months ago, Bishop Burton suggested he hoped the buildings would provide a “teaching moment”: “Not only are we trying to do it institutionally, we hope that our members will use responsible, conservative kinds of activities as they conduct their own personal lives.” However, because the construction and financial maintenance of LDS meetinghouses are centrally controlled, the irony is that leaders and members in current meetinghouses often don’t know or don’t ask what, if anything, they can do to make their buildings more environmentally friendly. Moreover, a church-wide green building program might not defeat indifference if there isn’t a comparably comprehensive educational program for members. The good news is that Jared Doxey suggested something was in the works.

The issue of climate change, particularly since the economic downturn, has been more politicized, and skepticism has been on the rise. At such a time, it would be especially helpful to have unambiguous, environmentally focused lessons and teachings that emphasize the unusual and potent doctrines of stewardship in LDS belief to go along with these architectural advancements. Otherwise, when they otherwise have so much to give, members of the LDS church may end up remaining largely on the sidelines of a vital international and interfaith effort to mitigate against climate change and other forms of environmental degradation. Indeed, Bishop Burton admitted that “in the things we advertise and the things we promote, we could probably be more proactive in that arena. It’s a great story, and we ought to probably promote it more.” Jesus wasn’t shy about preaching what he practiced, so here’s to wishing for a few sermons—of words—to go along with these important actions.

Comments

  1. I am sorry but I know may sound slightly offensive but I am not sure if this post is meant to be a parody or not. It sounds wonderful but it is something that is so out of the ordinary for the Church to do that it comes across something that I would read on The Onion. It has that kind of surreal quality to it.

    Perhaps I have just such low expectations of our Church being pro-active in such an endeavor since it contradicts the fixed conservative cultural mindset to which we are so accustomed.

    But if it is true then I am happily surprised! Good for the Church!

  2. I hope the bike racks are in the shade. Ours are out in the sun, and they are too hot to use when it is great weather to bike. So I end up using a random light pole or something.

  3. Natalie B. says:

    What a wonderful development! Thanks for sharing this.

    As we build future meeting houses, I also hope that we will also consider building them near public transportation. That way we can both be green and help members without cars get to church.

  4. Michael, it is true and not a parody.

  5. As one involved professionally in areas that touch LEED accredited development, I cannot over-emphasize the significance of the church’s involvement in LEED (and yes, Michael, this is real).

    While not among the earliest adopters of green building practices, the church is most definitely not a late adopter in a program that is still young and very much evolving.

    It is a thrill to see the church ahead of the curve of this movement, and taking the 2nd half of the directive to “multiply and replenish” seriously!

  6. Excuse me while I go slam my head against the nearest wall for the next while. I can only see this as yet another attempt by the church to maintain a good image campaign for its PR rather than bring souls unto Christ.

  7. Dave, you can see things any way you like, I suppose. But your comment is just bizarre. What makes you think that the Church has decided to be more environmentally-friendly instead of bringing souls unto Christ? What makes you think that it’s an either/or scenario, or that making green buildings is somehow incompatible with bringing souls unto Christ?

  8. Dave, buildings gotta get built. It might as well be done “right.” I’m not so cynical to believe that PR is the driving force behind the decision. Building to LEED standards is not mutually exclusive to bringing people to Christ. That the presiding bishop, essentially in charge of the church’s temporal affairs, is aligning the church’s construction efforts with gospel principles is something to celebrate.

    If you wanted to be really cynical, I’d suggest focusing on the immense financial savings the church will enjoy due to reduced operation and maintenance expenses associated with LEED building practices.

    By any objective measure, this is a good news story for us.

  9. I loved hearing about this when it was first announce and it is great to be reminded here. Esp. poignant for me was the clear sense of eco-theology that the post brings to this issue through Bishop Burton and others. Thank you for sharing this with us.

  10. 7 – Because God hates the environment. Obviously.

  11. I’m happy we’re doing better vis-a-vis the environment. That said, the idea that this represents a change (or a change in emphasis) in doctrine seems misguided. I’m not saying orthopraxy doesn’t have a role in determining orthodoxy, but sometimes we make good decisions simply because we want to, not because there’s a doctrine compelling us to.

  12. I saw that article when it came out, and I was really excited. Since then, they announced a new chapel to be built in our stake (in southern AZ). They haven’t begun construction yet, but I have high hopes that it will at least have solar panels, even if it’s not oneof the new LEED-accredited designs.

  13. George, because the climate change-skeptic view is so prevalent in the Church given so many members’ choice to align themselves with the talking points of leading voices on the American political right, wouldn’t this post and discussions of the Church’s involvement with LEED certification be more effective if not framed in terms of climate change? We can talk about environmentalism and environmental responsibility in terms of stewardship and a D&C-based mandate to treat the earth responsibly and appropriately, and talk about reducing pollution and being good stewards of the environment, without provoking the political ire of climate change-skeptics, can’t we? I think we should take that approach and press forward full steam with these LEED and other environmentally responsible efforts without framing it in terms of climate change, otherwise there is a risk of wholescale rejection of these efforts by members who think that climate change is some kind of “liberal” conspiracy.

  14. Kevin Barney says:

    I took a video tour of the building and was very impressed. This is a great development.

  15. John,

    Point well taken. But I want to ask why the very idea that someone believes climate change might be happening provokes “ire” as you put it or why we should change our own beliefs to avoid it. If I believe it is happening and and someone else doesn’t, that doesn’t have to be a reason for either party to be angry or, worse, to use that difference of opinion as an excuse to disregard our shared and commonly agreed upon responsibilities to be good stewards just because we want to prove that we are right. This development is a major contribution to mitigating against climate change, but if someone doesn’t like that idea, then they are still obligated, I would argue, to see it as a call to reduce our ecological footprint through good and smart conservation efforts. That should be common ground enough for skeptics, shouldn’t it?

  16. I would have thought so but I’m afraid you’d be surprised. Don’t you already know this?

  17. Global warming activists believe that deniers are dangerous, naive, ignorant rednecks that ignore obvious and plentiful evidence.

    Global warming deniers believe that activists are dangerous, naive, lying elitists who create statistics to promote agendas.

    Assuming that anyone will be civil and understanding in such a loaded conversation simply because they “should” is optimistic, to say the least.

  18. Maybe the fact that they’re under covenant to do so gives extra force to the “should”, B. Russ.

  19. I personally would love for the Church to continue to talk about climate change. It’s about time the right-wing members of the Church face a little bit of the cognitive dissonance those of us on the left have experienced for years. There’s a (very un-Christlike) part of me that is looking forward to asking someone who just ranted about “the environmentalism racket” in Elders Quorum why he can’t accept the prophets’ teachings.

  20. The thing is, the skeptics seem to think that climate change is a left-wing conspiracy meant to ruin our economy (and on a slippery slope to socialism and atheism). So if you frame our LEED certification efforts in terms of climate change then you’re going to get mired in that discussion rather than on how great it is that the Church is institutionally interested in building environmentally friendly and non-polluting buildings. Just frame it in terms of reducing pollution. That is the angle that all sides can agree on, I think.

  21. The cynical part of me just thinks they anticipate higher power prices in the future. (Which isn’t an unwise decision in the least)

  22. 18 – I don’t disagree, but what john said.

  23. Is not the bottom line that the new building standards save money long term on things like power and water expenses? I have seen one of the new buildings and it seems like you would have much less lawn work and watering to worry about. That matters to me and seems smart no matter what your opinion on the climate change debate. I could care less about carbon footprints to be honest. Show me something that makes $$ sense and I am behind it.

  24. Perhaps this will help members who cast a suspicious eye on all (or most) environmental issues rethink their positions on the benefits of green building. It doesn’t HAVE to go back to climate change to make sense. Not by a long shot.

    Whether that distinction can be made clear through the noise is certainly an open question. Maybe Fox News can help everyone make sense of it!

  25. I hope it is framed in terms of climate change, because the belligerent anti-science ignorance of the climate-change-deniers goes squarely against our tenets as well as our traditions as Mormons. The Church has nothing to gain, in the long-term, by coddling such nonsense.

  26. Chris Gordon says:

    I love that the church has done this and I think the timing was wise if for no other reason than it has become more economically feasible to build better buildings than it had been in recent past.

    I loathe the notion of and doubt the average ward’s ability to avoid politicizing any “new” instruction about stewardship and how it relates to ecological footprints, global warming, or not, et. al. However, I see no conflict and no need to even go down that potentially unpleasant route by simple conversations of replenishing the earth, gratitude for the creation, etc. Those principles are harder to argue with than the political extension of those principles.

  27. I think Jeremy (25) illustrates my point nicely. Thank you Jeremy for being knee-jerk-errific!!

  28. It’s not climate change that worries me so much as sustainability.

  29. Excellent. I’m not at all surprised the church did this.

    Even if one believes that global warming is bunk and that liberals are making things hard for the poor (ethanol driving up food prices, etc.), the LDS concept of stewardship makes conservation a slam-dunk. No politicizing necessary.

  30. I 100% agree with George framing it in terms of climate change, but the Church is not and will not frame it in these terms simply because the people making the decisions don’t believe in climate change. I see these LEED chapels as a step in the right direction, but a very small step. I still do not consider this a sustainable building (it’s built in a flood plain out in the middle of nowhere, for crying out loud!), but at least it is an improvement over past standard plan designs in several ways that George outlined. As for what JamesM said, it’s not cynical at all that the main reasons for this move is because of the savings on O&M and the good PR it will bring. All for very little cost. This building is a Heritage building – essentially the same as the previous designs with a few exceptions. The Heritage buildings were already very close to LEED certification, so that means that the pieces were in place to do this, so why not certify a couple of buildings? It makes sense.

  31. In which B.Russ confirms his dim view of humanity.

    Anyway, I wonder if this new approach signals a growing acceptance of less water-intensive baptisms.

  32. I agree with Clark — his more cynical side, that is. I think it has more to do with saving money in the long run than anything else. Besides, now that something like this (see link bellow) is appearing on the market it will only be a matter of time before technology renders the whole climate debate moot.

    http://www.chevrolet.com/volt/?seo=goo_|_2008_Chevy_Retention_|_IMG_Chevy_Volt_|_GM_Volt_|_gm_volt&utm_source=Google&utm_medium=cpc&utm_campaign=Retention-Chevy-IMG_Chevy_Volt&utm_content=Search&utm_term=gm_volt

  33. Speaking as a hippie organic farmer who is SO JAZZED about this move, it’s also a very good decision strictly from a maintenance-costs perspective. The normal approach ever since we invented water heaters, for example, was to keep a full tank of hot water at all times. That makes no sense for a building that only gets used about 10 hours/week– instant hot water is the way to go. Similarly, there’s a pretty considerable acreage on most church building roofs; the building only uses electricity for 10 hours/week, but the roof makes electricity all day, which can be sold back to the power company. Ward budget WIN.

    Also, FWIW (this time speaking as a grad student in agriculture currently embroiled in an Ag Law & Policy class), it ain’t the “liberals” driving ethanol (though plenty of the gullible ones seem to have been talked into it, along with plenty of gullible conservatives). It’s the ag-industrial complex in the Midwest. Them folks ain’t liberal, my friends.

  34. B. Russ: “knee-jerk” suggests an unthinking, unconsidered, emotional response that defies empirical evidence, which is exactly the filthy fuel the climate-change-denial movement runs on. My response is hardly knee-jerk. Impatient, harsh, sure, but not knee-jerk. The science is settled for everyone except the far-right fringe (which, alas, holds several seats in the Senate).

    Knee-jerk is when my redneck neighbor steps on his porch during a February snowstorm and says “Is this what Al Gore meant?! Har har har.”

  35. “The normal approach ever since we invented water heaters, for example, was to keep a full tank of hot water at all times.”

    Not where I live. For years, my husband had to go to church hours before a baptism to turn the hot water on. And when we are trying to wash dishes after a funeral or something, we have to boil water on the stove if we want it hot.

  36. John Mansfield says:

    LEED is only a US standard, promoted by a private organization at that. In other countries, other organizations have different standards: BREEAM in the UK, HQE in France, etc. Shouldn’t we just follow our own efficiency standards instead of letting external bodies set them for us?

  37. @ John M #35

    I have wondered the same thing. Some possible answers to your question:

    1. The church doesn’t want to be in the business of creating efficiency standards.

    2. LEED is the industry standard in the US, and is widely accepted in the building design community. The church is following a best practice for the US.

    3. LEED certification carries some weight in the public arena. It sends a clear message that the church is building “green”. Depending on one’s view this may be to clarify the church’s stance on stewardship, or it may be to gain PR points.

    GMA, do you have any information on this?

  38. In his presentation, Jared Doxey made it clear that the church had a longer history of trying to build according to conservationist principles in the past. Among other examples, he cited the Church Office Building which has used geothermal heating for 35 years and the fact that most chapels met up to 75% of the LEED requirements prior to this recent jump. The church also won an award in 2008 from the Sierra Club because of the City Creek project. The church has been learning as it goes forward, so I am glad to see it adopting best practices wherever they are found. My impression was that the Church has opted for building according to LEED standards because they now have four LEED certified architects on their team and that they are simply drawing from the expertise of these US-trained architects.

    I see no reason to be cynical about this. This is costing them some upfront money and while it will help save money in the long run and it might be getting them some good publicity, it is publicity that will help create a much needed higher level of environmental awareness among members. As I see it, these are positives, not negatives. The meter that measures the energy savings and carbon emissions in the building is located in the library and is intended to be shown to members, especially the youth, according to Doxey, so they learn from their own architecture.

    While it is perhaps true that the new buildings are not intended to make climate change a central focus among members, they certainly offer a comprehensive approach to stewardship that includes much of the developments in construction that are intended to respond to the demands of a changing climate. I highlighted this aspect of it because I think it deserves that attention. I would rather try to assuage the ire of skeptics than to bypass the conversation about climate change altogether in fear of their wrath (and yes, I am well aware of what that entails–I have had many such conversations). It seems like a lost opportunity otherwise. What any of us believes about climate change, in the end, doesn’t change the fact that the church has made a significant commitment to good and comprehensive stewardship. Nor does it change our obligation, then, to consider what similar steps we should take individually. I only hope for more instruction because I think it would go a long way to alert us to our own unique doctrines of stewardship that I fear we have allowed to languish.

  39. I think this is an excellent idea, as long as it doesn’t increase the real cost of building and maintaining church buildings too much. The church is in it for the long haul. There is not a whole lot of reason to go around worrying about carbon dioxide emissions, in my opinion, but waste is wasteful, regardless.

  40. It seems to me that the next interesting moment will be when the “educational materials” mentioned by Doxey are released. I admit that I am with the crowd that doesn’t want this to just be about monetary savings, but also talked about in terms of environmental concern and climate change. Causing cognitive dissonance in those who insist on overmixing their right wing politics with their theology is a poor, poor reason for the Church to back off (agree #19). One signal they may not is the fact that they included the carbon footprint counter in the show building instead of just the savings counter. Also, Burton’s original remarks indicates at least some willingness to link these actions with an environmentally tinged doctrine. My guess is we will get statements just soft enough that anti-environmentalists can justify to themselves that the Church is making no appreciable statement on the subject, but just strong enough that environmentalists are going to have fun drawing on it in their lessons and comments.

    Whatever the rhetorical outcome at least it is nice to know that there will be a real impact in terms of our resource use and carbon footprint. I am really excited by the thought of extending this to retrofit. To me that would be the other clear signal that environmentalist concerns are being take seriously.

  41. the earth is old says:

    While it is perhaps true that the new buildings are not intended to make climate change a central focus among members

    Just “perhaps”, eh? Preach it, brother, preach it.

    Also, what B. Russ said re #25.

    -a geologist who dislikes both Al Gore and big oil

  42. Mark B. says:

    Why not set the A/C at 75 or 78 and ban the wearing of suit jackets/sport coats between Memorial Day and Labor Day? Wouldn’t that save more money/reduce carbon emissions/keep the ladies in their light cotton dresses from freezing much more effectively? And at a much lower cost!

  43. Civil Engineer approves. This is awesome.

  44. p.s. Mark #41. Great thinking!

  45. p.p.s. Hi, John #35. I hope you are well. :-)

  46. sounds familiar? says:

    It seems to me the ideal response would be something like…

    “This making good stewardship of limited natural resources as well making use of under-utilized resources in a cost-effective way.”

    Of course there are other things, etc. that can be said. But I’m saddened to see a mixture of all the above with the following sentiment thrown in:

    “I’m sick and tired of these politicos bashing me from the right as they mingle politics and science with religion, so now I’m happy the church is doing something which I can bash them with from the left as I mingle my politics & science with religion.”

  47. I think this thread is proof positive that the inability to separate politics from religion is not just a problem for conservative members.

  48. I can certainly appreciate a more cost effective building plan, but I could do without the contention surrounding it.

  49. Hurray for the church!! I’m so excited this is happening. I can’t wait to see a LEED chapel in person. I look forward to being able to brag to my friends that my church is a green building.

    We currently meet in an older chapel. In the winter I dress my kids in short sleeves and we sweat through the meeting and in summer we have to bring sweaters. It’s nice to think the building management will be done more efficiently.

  50. I am familiar with the LEED program and the Church’s use of it. Thank you for this post giving yet more information. I would also share what we have been able to do on a local level. Stake presidents have a lot of power when it comes to the physical facilities within their stakes. All of the buildings within our stake (Helena, MT) are now using chemically safer and greener cleaning products, including the handsoap in all of the restrooms. This is particularly important now that families (with children and pregnant women) are cleaning the buildings every week and thus using these products. This may seem like a small thing, but if every LDS church building changed it’s cleaning products, it would make a huge environmental impact.

  51. A couple of other things we’ve done locally–used more environmentally safe carpet cleaning and gym floor restoration. All this takes is a call from the stake president to the FM (facilities manangement) director for the area.

  52. Thanks for the write-up, George. I read with enthusiasm the Church Newsroom story about this chapel several months back, and although I was a bit skeptical of the accompanying timeline tracing the Church’s longstanding commitment to green building, it is exciting to see a high-profile alliance with principles of good stewardship. Still waiting for the accompanying General Conference talk.

  53. This is a good beginning.

  54. Great post George. When you think about all of the buildings the church maintains, the footprint is very big and only growing, so it is good to see the Church taking steps to minimize the impact on the environment.

  55. Thanks for the write-up. I’m glad to see a LEED-certified building, too, though it is true there are multiple reasons for seeking a smaller carbon footprint.

    “I’m sick and tired of these politicos bashing me from the right as they mingle politics and science with religion, so now I’m happy the church is doing something which I can bash them with from the left as I mingle my politics & science with religion.”

    People liken the scriptures unto their own lives, as we’re told to, so it’s not at all surprising people look for religious backing for their political beliefs, no matter what their politics. I’m glad for the same reasons because having the church take even a minor stance against something right-wing reinforces the perpetual claim that the church doesn’t subscribe to a political philosophy. It does make the church feel more inclusive.

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