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Green Construction Helps Us Live Out Our Principles

Buildings don’t get much “greener” than the new sanctuary belonging to the Unitarian Universalist (UU) Fellowship of Wayne County in Wooster, OH (151 members). The building uses low-volatility paints and carpets, fluorescent lighting, a cistern whose water is used to flush toilets and irrigate plantings, windows that open, and a permeable “Grass Track” parking lot. Plus, seven percent of building materials were recycled products, most construction waste was recycled, and electricity comes from a wind power program.

Wayne County is just one of many UU congregations going green. When Paint Branch UU Church in Adelphi, MD (229), lost part of its building to a fire, it rebuilt and added a geothermal heating system. The new building of First Unitarian Church of Duluth, MN (217), has an underground garage, a roof planted with native grasses, and a pond to capture storm water runoff. The UU Church of Fresno, CA (353), has low-flow water fixtures, waterless urinals, drought-tolerant landscaping, recycled plastic restroom dividers, and a dais in the sanctuary made of renewable bamboo.

Increasingly, congregations are putting the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Seventh Principle—to respect and care for the earth—into practice, says the Rev. Katherine Jesch, director of Environmental Ministry for the UU Ministry for Earth, the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA)-affiliated organization that inspires and guides environmental action by congregations and individual UUs.

When congregations think about going green one of their first calls is to Jesch. Rising energy costs have made going green an easier decision, she says, but many congregations are already committed to that path. “They want to do the right thing even if it costs a little more,” she says.

The Rev. Bryan Jessup says building green was an easy sell to his Fresno congregation. “We have so many people who volunteer for environmental causes,” he says.

He adds, “Building green has been inspirational. It increased contributions to our capital campaign. And when visitors come, our building helps demonstrate our principles.”

At Paint Branch it was a long-term member who suggested, near the end of a congregational meeting, that they include geothermal. “It came out of the blue, but it just felt to the congregation like the right thing to do,” says the Rev. Jaco ten Hove. The congregation raised an extra nearly $50,000 for that purpose. The payback on utility bills was estimated at 20 years, says ten Hove, but energy prices have spiked since then, reducing that period.

One consideration for congregations is whether to seek LEED certification. The U.S. Green Building Council, a nonprofit committed to sustainable building practices, has established four levels of “greenness”: certified, silver, gold, and platinum. The UU Fellowship of Wayne County has the distinction of having the first place of worship in the United States to be LEED gold certified. The new Buchan Education Building, which houses the UU Ministry for Earth offices at First Unitarian Church of Portland, OR (1,114), is also gold certified.

Wayne Clark, the UUA’s director of Congregational Stewardship Services, notes that some congregations are going green without obtaining LEED certification. The LEED process requires the completion of a checklist of projects, but some congregations are finding that rather than completing all of those items, they can make themselves greener by spending their money in other ways. Awards from $5,000 to $10,000 are available from Clark’s office for those congregations that earn LEED certification. 


Contact the UU Ministry for Earth at office [at] uuministryforearth [dot] org or (503) 595-9392. Some congregations mentioned in this article have detailed descriptions of their green building projects on their websites.

About the Author

  • Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.

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