Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Last One

National Geographic has an excellent article in the January 2009 issue titled ‘Countdown to Extinction.’ It was a difficult to see the pictures of mammals, insects and more, who are either threatened or endangered or worst of all, already extinct, a reminder of the negative side of our human impact. And although it’s true some species might become extinct on rare occasion from natural causes (think dinosaurs), for the most part species today –and let’s just be honest, are becoming extinct or endangered due to human impact. Our built environment is in large part responsible for this impact.

We humans tend to think that we can build wherever and whenever we want, that land is for taking and making something from, versus caring for and tending to. We don’t often think about who else might be residing there, whether flora or fauna. And then we are surprised when a coyote is seen walking down the street of a new subdivision.

Every time we build is an impact on someone else’s home, someone else’s ecosystem, whether mammal, bird, amphibian, tree, wetland and so on. Of course, we will continue to build, we need to build, if nothing else, to provide the basic need of shelter. Most animals after all, build some form of shelter as well, beavers being perhaps some of the greatest architects of the animal kingdom. But we humans need to be especially mindful as we build new and retrofit existing buildings, both now and in the future. We need to begin to work in harmony with the natural world, supporting it versus destroying it. What does this mean?

For new construction, this means beginning each project with an ecosystem survey of the site. Who lives there already? How will the new building impact these inhabitants and how can it support them? For existing buildings, it means understanding what once existed and working to restore it as fully as feasible. It also requires thinking beyond the confines of the site to the larger community. For example, if a development project will have some negative impacts on a wetland 50 miles away, how can these impacts be fully negated and/or balanced out in some way?

Sure, all of this will take time and require thoughtfulness. The process might even change designs and approach. But the reward is a deeper connection to the natural world, a chance for us to be more fully human, and a built environment that supports and nurtures ecosystems, which in turn we must always remember support and nurture us. That’s how God intended Earth to work anyway, that all of it, all inhabitants work together, supporting, nurturing, in community.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Green Buildings = Green Mountains

One of my fellow GreenFaith Fellows, Sr. Kathleen Denigan, traveled to W. Va. after our last retreat in early November. As she said, “…I am going to Appalachia to do "the great work" with people who are watching their mountains be massacred to make a bit of energy that will probably be transported to China…” More than likely however, coal being extracted by blasting mountaintops away will stay right here in the US.

Mountaintop removal is the new and improved, fast, cheap way coal companies are extracting veins of coal from Earth –new in that it started in the 1970’s, improved in that it reduces manpower needs and takes less time than digging tunnels and mining by more ‘traditional’ means would, all resulting in less labor costs and increased profit.

The environmental destruction occurring because of mountaintop removal is heart wrenching, not to mention the overall impact on general human community, i.e.: looking to take care of one another versus increasing profit. But so too, is our need for power, more and more of it each year. Just like with water (, we expect to plug a device in or flip a switch, and have the device work, or a light go on. Our lives run on electricity. And although we have the ability to purchase wind energy, or install PV –which in all honesty, remains too cost prohibitive for most at present, the fact remains that for the most part, we are all still pretty connected to coal, in some way, however large or small (save for those completely off the grid).

I don’t mean to belittle any of us who are doing what we can to reduce our energy needs. But no matter how hard we try to remove ourselves from coal generating power, the fact remains that we are in some way connected to it. We cannot control –always, who generates power for our office space, nor can we control who generates power for our grocery store, doctor’s office, school, and etc. So in some way, we are probably all connected to mountaintop removal –in fact, you can indeed find out if you are or not by visiting You can also watch some videos on mountaintop removal at that site, as well as here:

More than likely, we will continue to have coal generated power for many years into the future. This saddens me, because of the destructive environmental impacts we now know coal has, from mining to burning it –it’s not only environmental destruction either, its impacts to general health and well-being of Appalachian communities, as well as those living near the generating stations. But the reality is we won’t be able to make a switch from one form of generation to another in say, a year. And in fairness, we cannot lay blame entirely on coal companies either –although some may feel otherwise. When coal was “discovered” back in the 1700’s and started to be used to create our modern world during the Industrial Revolution, no one thought we’d wind up where we are today with respect to emissions to our air, environmental destruction, and the potential for man-made contributions to climate changes. In addition, the coal industry over many centuries has built an entire industry which supports and sustains families and local economies; relatives from both sides of my family, immigrants, worked in Pennsylvania coal mines in the early part of the 20th century.

However, I am also hopeful that coal companies are looking at ways not just to generate ‘clean coal’ (which I am sorry to those clean coal proponents, I’ve looked at both sides, weighed the facts, discerned about it, and rendered my opinion -there is no such thing as clean coal; you are welcome to yours), but ways to restructure and innovate their companies to focus on and provide renewable and cleaner forms of energy such as wind, solar and geothermal (although the latter does have some environmental impacts as well, and gives off a nasty odor of sulfur). The Saudi’s are hedging bets and investing heavily in solar –even with 18 billion barrels of oil left. Will we be buying power generated by the sun (which provides power for free) from them too in 100 years, via a global grid? They hope so.

So what do green buildings have to do with mountaintop removal? A lot. Buildings require a lot of power. Electricity powers the obvious like lights, computers and servers, vending machines, phone systems but also runs HVAC equipment, pumps, refrigeration equipment and much, much more. Don’t even get me started on what must be needed to operate Google’s servers, and who today, could exist without Google (I ask, tongue in cheek)?

Reducing the amount of power needed for a building overall reduces the need for power in general, which reduces the draw required from the grid, which reduces the amount of power a generating station must generate, which reduces the need for coal, which means, that maybe, just maybe, we won’t need as much coal as fast as we think, which means more time to shift over to newer, renewable forms of power generation to provide power for buildings.

Reducing need can be accomplished many ways: orienting a new building properly on the site to maximize natural daylight penetration, thereby reducing the need for electric light, combining mechanical and natural ventilation, thereby reducing power needed to run heating and cooling equipment, installing the most efficient lamp available for lights, thereby reducing the power needed to keep the light on, providing daylight harvesting, and much more. Much of what I’ve listed can also be implemented during retrofits of existing buildings as well. This all combined with installing renewable forms on the building itself or on the building site, when taking all buildings into account all over the country –new and existing, residential, commercial and industrial, could mean a drastic reduction in the need for coal generated power. That means that maybe more mountaintops won’t be sacrificed to quench our need for electricity.

Psalm 24 says “The Earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it…” so in theory, the coal, natural gas and oil within Earth is His, and one could argue, for us to use. But Genesis also requires that we humans, made in *God’s image, exercise dominion over Earth, that is, act responsibly, in compassion and care for all of Earth, all its creatures and vegetation, all its glory, which God created. I think God challenges us way more often than we think -and in ways we would never think *He might challenge us either. Maybe, just maybe, we really need to be looking at what we want, and asking ourselves in reality, what do we need? Maybe taking the coal, every last vein of it, is like taking the last chocolate in the box when you know you’ve had way too many already, and perhaps leaving it for someone else, say, a few generations from now, might be the better thing to do.

I don’t believe God is particularly happy about seeing the beautiful mountaintops He created decimated for some veins of coal, even if they are reclaimed afterwards. But somehow sticking a few baseball fields on a now flat mountaintop, as I saw in one case, doesn’t seem to equal what was taken and what was sacrificed. There are better ways. Let’s keep working together, at table, in community, to find them. Building green is a great way to start.

*Please always feel free to insert the God of your choice (Mohammed, Buddha, etc.), as well as your perceived gender of God.

Image from website.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Water Follies

I thought a lot about water Thanksgiving week. I spent it in Scottsdale, AZ, which is, basically, in the desert. I do my best to be conscious of how much water I use at home (Collingswood, NJ), though I’m far from perfect and could do better. And although I inherently understand the increased challenges cities in arid climates face with respect to getting water, actually “living” in the desert for a week made me to think about water much differently. Out there I felt a heightened awareness to how much I was using each time I turned on the tap or shower or flushed the toilet. Even more so, I felt a heightened sensitivity to the lack of water. So I thought a lot about water.

We are used to turning on the tap and having clean, fresh water at our disposal. Humans –as well as every other creature on Earth, need water to survive. It quenches, cleanses, purifies, nourishes, and cultivates, to name a few. And we actually have a finite amount on Earth –precipitation aside. We can’t make water easily either -from scratch that is (okay, actually we can, but it isn’t easy, although there are some interesting experiments for turning water vapor back into liquid water in large quantities (

Not to knock Phoenix and Scottsdale, but I spent some time last week reading their 2005 Water Resources Plan ( The report states that Phoenix has enough to meet current demands for the next 50 years and beyond –although how long beyond equates to isn’t stipulated. They are approaching this very responsibly too, but 50 years is hardly a generation. What about a plan that looks at minimum, say, 500 years into the future? How would this change the approach to and thinking about the plan, as well as future growth for the city?

Thinking about all this also got me musing about resources we use to produce energy. Our current priorities are focused on having enough oil, coal and natural gas. However, we can actually live without these (and although it would require adaptation and change, it wouldn’t mean a return to the Dark Ages). Rarely though, do we hear enough about water and dwindling supplies in the news. We cannot live without water.

The giving of water by one person to another in need is often seen as one of the most charitable acts of humanity. We are taking vast quantities of water from Earth, and even changing the very ecology and hydrology of Earth’s waterways and groundwater sources to meet current demand without replacing in kind. Most of our sources are dwindling. Many are polluted. Do we see the provision of water by Earth as a charitable act? Taking this a step further, are there moral questions around water we as a collective global society need to be asking and answering? Such as, how much growth for a city is too much and what does it need to be limited to or, how does the taking of water for City X deprive flora and fauna both near and far and what steps are we going to take now to ensure that there is enough water for all living things, not just humans, or, what is the long term, i.e.: 500 year, environmental impact of any new commercial or residential building which conducts business as usual with respect to water usage, i.e.: merely meeting minimum standards?

The next version of the LEED rating system, LEED 2009, calls for a mandatory 20 percent water use reduction. That’s a step in the right direction, but we can do better. In reality, we must do better to even consider having water 500 years from now, and beyond. For buildings, this means moving towards a closed loop system, striving to capture and recycle every molecule of water which can possibly be so, for both new and existing buildings. We also need to continue to think outside the box, challenging current accepted standards, codes and practices as well as repairing and restoring our waterways and groundwater supplies. Finally, we need to see water as a gift from Earth for us and for all living things, one to be used with the utmost judiciousness, and the giving of it by Earth understood to be one of the most benevolent acts bestowed upon humankind.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


Welcome to the inaugural post of A Green Building Theology! My name is Sara Sweeney and I am a registered architect, LEED AP, GreenFaith Fellow (in religious/spiritual environmental leadership), self-professed building science geek and committed environmentalist. I am also founder and principal of EcoVision Green Solutions Services LLC, a sustainable design & construction research, education and consulting firm.

We are in the midst of a huge paradigm shift, with respect to how we design and build, and how we connect our world –the built environment, with the natural world –a world not of our making yet with which we are inherently connected and bound to at a deeply spiritual level. But we don’t always recognize this. Even with all the tremendous good being done through the green building revolution, in many respects we still view building (as a verb) as merely an action and an activity, and buildings (as a noun) as commodities. Yet the built environment -what we build and how we build, is a direct reflection of our values, a snapshot of who we are and what we believe as humans at any given moment.

This blog seeks to look at green building from the spiritual perspective and create and pose a theology around green building. It is based on the belief that building green has the power to inspire change, affect well-being, strengthen values, foster and build community and most important, connect us back to Earth and Spirit; we are already seeing evidence of this. I’ll draw from all sorts of religious and spiritual traditions, practices, teachings and writings as much as Thoreau or Leopold or Hawken. I’ll also look at all aspects of building, from process to site to materials to energy and resource use (and abuse).

I hope you will find this blog interesting, thought-provoking and informative. Thanks for reading!

Peace –