A Religious Experience in Sustainability

For years, the Benedict House sat upon the serene 130 acres of land belonging to Holy Wisdom Monastery, an ecumenical religious and spiritual community overlooking Lake Mendota near Madison, Wis. From an eco-friendliness perspective, however, the 60,000-square-foot building, used for retreats, meetings, Sunday services, and conferences, was rather unholy. Burdened by an inefficient heating and lighting system, it cost some $100,000 a year to operate.

The sisters who run the monastery, led by Sister Mary David Walgenbach, felt that spirituality and harmony with the earth were interdependent, so they made a bold move. In 2007, they tasked Hoffman, an Appleton (Wis.) commercial planning, architectural, and construction management firm that specializes in sustainable design and construction, with tearing down the old building, Benedict House, and replacing it with an energy-efficient one. Fortunately, the plan was easier for Holy Wisdom to realize because, as an ecumenical entity, it is not under the jurisdiction of the Roman Catholic hierarchy. The monastery has one Protestant sister and two Catholic ones and opens itself up for use by other religious groups. Jewish groups have held events at the monastery, and the Dalai Lama has visited.

At project's end, the monastery had a 30,000-square-foot building filled with natural light, which means a smaller boiler and air-conditioning system. The new structure accommodates all the functions the old one did, costs 75 percent less to operate, and came in under the $8 million construction budget. It received the U.S. Green Building Council's highest designation, Platinum, under its building-rating system, Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) certification.

Sister Mary David and Paul Hoffman, chief executive officer of Hoffman, recently discussed the project with Businessweek.com's Patricia O'Connell and Rebecca Reisner. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow.

REBECCA REISNER: It sounds as though your motivation had nothing to do with money. You wanted to do the right thing for the environment. And at the end, did it turn out to be a good business decision as well?

SISTER MARY DAVID WALGENBACH: We knew we wanted to do something that was specifically caring for the earth in whatever way we could. We didn't know it was going to be the Platinum building. But one of our criteria was, was it going to be sustainable and fit our budget? Hoffman helped us recycle or reuse 99.75 percent of the old building. And that fit into our concern about the earth, because it wouldn't all go into landfill.

PAUL HOFFMAN: Even though this was a monastery, this was a business decision they had to make. Right now they're saving 75 percent compared with the energy they were using before the new building was built. And that number should continue to go up all the time. We think at some point the monastery will become a zero-net energy building, meaning it will produce enough energy to sell some off to others.

REISNER: You hear about how traumatic renovating can be—even people who get their kitchens remodeled say they're ready to tear their hair out. You weren't afraid of taking the plunge?

SISTER MARY DAVID: We are risk-takers, and I say that because we are the first Roman Catholic community in North America to become ecumenical, which means we stepped out of the jurisdiction of the Roman Catholic Church in order to receive a Protestant member.

REISNER: Was it a challenge for you to go green within the budget?

HOFFMAN: Well, to put the budget in perspective, the U.S. Green Building Council has the program for LEED certification. Since its inception, there have only been 5,375 projects that had been certified by the end of 2009, and of those, only 268 would receive the Platinum designation. So it's a challenge to get to Platinum. When you look at buildings comparable to the one we wanted to build, the average cost is about $366 a square foot for Platinum. Holy Wisdom Monastery was $209 a square foot. We beat the budget, which allowed us to do other things.

PATRICIA O'CONNELL: Is the goal always to reach Platinum?

HOFFMAN: No, the goal is to make the client's organization better than when it started. The other thing that makes the whole LEED certification interesting was that normally when you submit a certification to the U.S. Green Building Council, they'll come back and challenge some of the points you're asking for. And there was not one challenged point; they granted all 63 points.

REISNER: Was there anything proposed that seemed a little unorthodox to you? I understand the mechanical room in the maintenance building has a geothermal system consisting of 39 wells located beneath the parking area.

SISTER MARY DAVID: When we first talked about geothermal heat, we talked about using the small lake, but it wasn't of the appropriate depth. So then we had to start thinking about doing these 39 300-foot wells. But [the grounds are] built on rock. But you have to trust process. You find the way is given to you in the process if you're open.

O'CONNELL: Did the recycling of the old building materials help with the budget?

HOFFMAN: Yes. It was also just the responsible thing to do. We had Habitat for Humanity take nine tons of material to use in other buildings they were doing for their program. Drywall was ground up and put on [farm] fields to lower the soil's acidity, and lumber and steel and bricks went to help build a parking lot. We put the Dumpster that goes to the landfill at the farthest point from the building site so that it was easier to recycle the material [in constructing the new building] than to walk all the way to the Dumpster. All lumber was either reused or recycled.

O'CONNELL: Is recycling one of the things that goes into LEED certification?

HOFFMAN: Recycling is one of the things. At least 75 or 80 percent needs to be recycled.

O'CONNELL: You might have the idea that it's more expensive to reuse things, because you need to recondition things to reuse them—grinding up drywall in the fields to lower acidity and grinding up bricks to use in driveways. People might think, wouldn't it be cheaper to throw it away?

HOFFMAN: It's part of that myth that it just costs too much to do it. A lot of it has to do with how much equipment is on the property. We have subcontractors with the right equipment to pulverize this stuff and put it where it should be. And you can get money back [from people who buy the recycled materials], so you save money that way.

We have a process that we called "value trading." We'll think, this carpet costs this much a yard and has this much recycled content and comes from this far away, and there is a more sustainable carpet out there, but it costs more, so what we're going to do is instead of putting the most sustainable carpet in, we'll put in one that's a little less expensive but has the same warranty. And the savings from that decision can be used to enhance other parts of the building that might require more expensive systems.

SISTER MARY DAVID: Another decision was whether we would put in bamboo floor or carpet. Carpet would have been much cheaper, but we chose bamboo because it adds to the beauty of the place if a natural authentic wood is used.

HOFFMAN: Bamboo and cork are two of the most naturally sustainable products there are.

O'CONNELL: From a management perspective, to whom do you answer, Sister?

SISTER MARY DAVID: Benedictines are autonomous. We are responsible for the whole [monastery]: recruitment, development of the sisters, education. We don't get any money from a diocese. But we belong to a federation consisting of 16 other autonomous monasteries of women. Every five years we have a visitation where we share with the president of the federation who we are, what our strategic plan is for the next three to five years, and whether our vision is driving us forward. The federation assisted us in our journey to become an ecumenical monastery. We are a small community, which helped us in making these changes.

O'CONNELL: Because you're not part of a diocese, which is very lucky for you.

SISTER MARY DAVID: Absolutely. It was the best thing we ever did—to become noncanonical. And when we informed our bishop, he said, what about the land? We said we'd already transferred it to another nonprofit organization [501c]. So now when sisters are being investigated by Rome, none of that touches us. We became noncanonical not because we wanted to kick Rome in the butt but because we had a mission.

Read Paul Hoffman's Five Myths About Sustainability