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  • Writer's pictureGary Nicholson

Building Green on a Budget

Sustainable word cloud

Much is being said about living and building green these days. Some people are concerned about environmental impact and climate change, some are concerned about limited resources, and others about keeping maintenance and utility costs down, but whatever the motivation, it makes sense to think about utilizing sustainable design in church building today. Stewardship of the earth’s resources, as well as the church’s financial resources demands some consideration of these strategies.

Sustainable buildings use less water and energy. They make use of reclaimed, recycled, or renewable resources, and may take advantage of solar, wind, geothermal, or other alternative and renewable sources of energy.

Often budget constraints make it difficult to implement some of the green practices we would like to include in our building projects, but as with so much of life, there is a balance between doing too much and too little to achieve sustainability. You must decide on where your church will land on the sustainable continuum, but there are some things that can be done that cost so little that it just doesn’t make sense to ignore them.

Please consider the cost of such items in the context of the big picture of the lifetime cost of ownership of the building. Good energy efficient design will usually have a long-term pay-off in terms of the reduced cost of maintenance and utilities. Studies show that the initial cost of construction typically represents only about one-third of the cost of a building over its lifespan, so impacting the utilities and other costs can represent a significant savings.

The problem comes when the funds for construction are very limited and force us to make choices between energy-efficient design and providing needed space for ministry. Churches need to do some serious soul searching before committing to a plan that gives in too easily to a laundry list of “needs” that are not really necessary. Sometimes the best savings in terms of both dollars and environmental impact can be to not build as big as well as to use green building strategies.

Unfortunately, every building is different, and climate, site, and frequency of building use are variables that make it almost impossible to give iron-clad rules for sustainable practices that ought to be implemented in churches. There are some general practices that should be considered and evaluated for their value and potential contribution to a sustainability strategy for any church.

Generally, certification programs such as LEED add significant cost to the project without any material benefit. They should only be used when there is significant value in having a certified building (such as matching funds) that simply having an efficient, renewable, and/or sustainable building would not give. This means most churches should not consider any level of LEED certification.

Here are ten green strategies with reasonable cost impact that churches should consider. Discuss these and any other strategies you are interested in with your architect and see which are a good fit for your project:

  1. Building orientation – Where your building is located on the site, the direction it faces, the location of windows and openings and the amount of site excavation needed to build facilities and parking all have a major impact on building cost and the effects of solar heat gain. Maintaining efficient use of the site while considering these effects can be an important money-saving part of an over-all environmental strategy.

  2. Insulation – depending on the location of your facility, the right amount of insulation can make a big difference in the amount of energy your building consumes and the corresponding cost of utilities over the life of the building. R-19 in walls and R-30 in roofs are a good starting place, but your architect can advise you on the cost-benefit ratio you can experience in your climate to determine if more or less insulation is advisable. Seal gaps with foam insulation to assure a tight envelope and get rid of air leaks that can undermine your efficiency.

  3. Windows and doors – good, thermally insulated windows and doors work along with the insulation to maintain the integrity of the building envelope and protect against the elements. Low-e glass is a good investment to reduce the impact of solar heat gain where direct sunlight on windows is an issue. Make sure doors and windows are caulked and sealed correctly to get the full benefit of the unit.

  4. Lighting – LED lighting, especially in locations hard to reach, like high worship ceilings are the most efficient and long lasting, but cost more initially. The cost for these continues to go down and is becoming much more affordable than just a few years ago. If budget is still a concern, fluorescent lights may be a good choice for some locations. They use less electricity than incandescent, but contain hazardous materials. Avoid standard incandescent whenever possible. Use daylighting to reduce the need for artificial lighting in offices and other similar locations. Occupancy sensors turn off lights in empty rooms. These, and dimming controls are very helpful to make lighting more efficient and help you use the amount of light you actually need when you need it.

  5. Exterior materials – Lots of good choices here: Brick is good because it is often a locally resourced product, adds thermal mass, it requires very little maintenance and can even be re-used. Wood can be renewable, but requires maintenance. cementitious, or fiber-cement siding is durable and requires much less maintenance, without pest control chemicals, and may contain recycled content. Steel is recyclable and lasts a long time, but requires a lot of energy to manufacture. Stucco over rigid insulation (EIFS) can give your building a good blanket of protection from the elements.

  6. HVAC systems – a small investment in a higher efficiency system can reduce energy consumption and save thousands in heating and/or AC costs over the life of a building. Energy recovery systems can greatly improve efficiency, but are quite pricey in initial cost. In some conditions a geothermal system can produce good savings as well. In general, all-electric HVAC systems are to be avoided.

  7. Roofing – use long-lasting light-colored roofing materials when possible to reduce heat absorption. EPDM, PVC and TPO roofs are good choices for low-slope roofs. These, as well as fiberglass shingles can be recycled in some areas. Metal roofs are very long lasting and can also be recycled.


  1. Flooring – Polish the concrete slab and omit the finished floor material altogether if possible. Choose carpet or other flooring materials that use recycled materials, or are recyclable themselves. Bamboo is renewable and can be a beautiful finished floor where the warmth of wood is desired.

  2. Paint – Use low VOC paints, finishes and adhesives to improve the indoor air quality of the building. These are plentiful in the market today and should have almost no impact on the budget.

  3. Water efficiency – use high efficiency toilets and other fixtures that reduce waste. Motion-sensor activated fixtures can help reduce unnecessary water use, while increasing the user-friendly nature for your guests. Be aware that there is increased maintenance required for these, however.

Finally, be sure your contractor complies with good construction practices by having your architect inspect frequently during construction. Bad workmanship can undermine the best green strategies. Being a good steward of our resources is Biblical and can help your congregation feel good about the way you are going about the building process.

For information on how I might be able to assist your church in designing a sustainable building go to my web site at

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