4037 Green Buildings Coast to Coast

Presenter: Ann May, Chair of the Environmental Group of Emerson Unitarian Church in Houston, TX

Prepared for UUA.org by: Bill Lewis, Reporter; Margy Levine Young, Editor

Emerson Unitarian Church in Houston, Texas, was chartered in 1960. Its impressive sanctuary, designed by noted Houston architect Karl Kamrath in the style pioneered by his mentor, Frank Lloyd Wright, opened in 1975. In the intervening years, the congregation grew, but little was done in terms of adding significant new space.

Until the late 1990s, that is. At that time, the congregation realized that it needed new, dedicated space for its religious education programs, among other needs. A successful capital campaign was conducted and the church's Architecture Committee began the process of selecting a designer and finalizing a design. And the church's Environmental Group, inspired by many other members, began wondering just how "green" the new building could be—that is, to what extent could it be designed and built to maximize its use of recycled and easily renewable materials in its construction and minimize its use of energy in its operation and maintenance.

The Environmental Group agreed to work through the Architecture Committee to minimize the risk of offering confusing or conflicting instructions to the design team, and the process began. Early on, the volunteers in the congregation identified a few key criteria to convey to the architects. One was that while they might have a great many ideas for ideas they would like considered, they needed to rely on the professional expertise of the designers to select the right technologies, and the right mixture of technologies, to meet their goals. A second was that they wanted the new building to be as green as possible, so they would be open to hearing any ideas the architects might offer and they expected the architects to be similarly open to hearing ideas from the committees. Finally, since the capital campaign had already been concluded, they needed for the final design to be buildable within the amount that had been raised—$3.7 million.

Thus began what the folks at Emerson and the designers would term the "lean and green" design-build process. To everyone's great surprise and delight, the first response from the architects—after several meetings and many months of work—was that the final design was so close to being LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) certifiable that the architecture firm was willing to pay the fees required to have the LEED review conducted.

In fact, the total additional cost, after that initial response to the committees, was some $1,200—$1,500 to switch to a non-HCFC (non-hydrochlorofluorocarbon) coolant for the church's air conditioning system. And the cost of the review, which was slightly more than $20,000 (out of a budget of $3.7 million). The bottom line is that Emerson Unitarian got a beautiful new space which meets its needs while also being certified as the second building in Texas—and the first church building—to meet or exceed LEED criteria.