Friday, February 06, 2009

"Praise the Lord and Green the Roof"

An article in the New York Times today about the (Episcopal) Community of the Holy Spirit in New York:
SISTER FAITH MARGARET, wearing a turquoise corduroy jacket, a flowered blouse and a wooden cross on a chain around her neck, set down a plate of freshly baked oatmeal chocolate-chip cookies on the table in the conference room of her convent on 113th Street in Morningside Heights.

Sister Claire Joy, attired in her order’s elective habit of navy robe and black rope belt, poured glasses of cold tap water. Six other men and women were seated around the table on this gray autumn afternoon, dressed in business casual.

Spread out in front of them were BlackBerrys, legal pads and architectural blueprints, along with a few samples of bricks of varying color and texture that the sisters were considering for their new “green” convent, to be built in West Harlem.

“This is the Palmetto brick?” asked Sister Claire Joy, rubbing her fingers along a sample from a South Carolina company. “I really love these crunchy-looking bricks myself.”

“And are any of these local?” she asked. “We really want to use as many indigenous materials as we can.”

“I think most of these samples here are from Pennsylvania,” replied Stephen Byrns of BKSK Architects, the Chelsea firm that is handling the project. As his colleague Julie Nelson spread out the blueprint for the new convent’s chapel, members of the group proceeded to debate the relative merits of stone, bamboo or cork for the chapel floor, as well as of different kinds of energy-efficient heating and cooling systems.

In setting out to construct an environmentally advanced building to replace the trio of connected brownstones that they now call home, the Episcopal sisters of the Community of the Holy Spirit were taking a giant step in their decade-long journey to weave ecological concerns into their daily ministry. While they have long tried to reduce their carbon footprint at 113th Street, the new convent, for which construction will begin in March, will help them be green from the ground up.

Of the 14 firms that the sisters had invited to submit proposals, BKSK ultimately wooed them with a plan that features rooftop gardens, water heated by solar power, rainwater collection, natural light and ventilation and the use of environmentally sensitive materials throughout.

BKSK is no stranger to this field; the firm has also designed a new green building at the Queens Botanical Garden and is drawing up plans for what will potentially be a new “eco-synagogue,” the Sephardic Synagogue, in Gravesend, Brooklyn.

Now it is the sisters’ turn to go an even deeper shade of green, which raises the question: Why would a community of nuns, devoted as they presumably are to spiritual matters, take the relatively unusual step of embracing environmentalism so energetically?

“It’s a question of stewardship,” said Sister Faith Margaret, a Staten Island native. “Of responsibility.”

The green convent that the architects were discussing on this fall day seemed a far cry from their current convent, which is known as St. Hilda’s House. Yet a close look at St. Hilda’s reveals the same environmentalism that is shaping the new building.

Dotting the walls of the conference room — a long space filled with a hodgepodge of slightly faded furniture and painted with a thick coat of cream-colored paint — were framed paintings of rivers, forests and planet earth, along with assorted wildlife scenes. Underneath fluorescent lights, copies of National Geographic, Scientific American, Solar Today and World Ark sat neatly organized on a bookshelf, next to a slim book bearing the title “Mainstreaming Renewable Energy in the 21st Century.”

The site of the new building, on Convent Avenue at 150th Street, is currently an empty lot. But if all goes as planned, then by the spring of 2010, the eight nuns of the Community of the Holy Spirit, most of whom are in their 50s and 60s, will be living in a home that reflects the environmental ethos that has become a central tenet of their lives.

The sisters approached Columbia University about buying the sisters’ current building, and Columbia has also taken over the complex task of obtaining the construction permits required for the new convent. Although neither the sisters nor Columbia would cite specific costs, the nuns did say that the new building will be entirely financed by the sale of the old one, with money left over to create an endowment for their order.

When the work is completed, after 57 years in the shadow of the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine a few blocks away, the sisters will have accomplished their mission of scaling down both their space and their ecological footprint.

More at the link, including some photographs. HT Daily Office Blog.

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