Energy Guidelines for the Renovation and Construction of Religious Buildings

December 2004 (revised July 2011)

About this publication

The Interfaith Coalition on Energy has examined thousands of buildings belonging to religious congregations.  Some of them are new or recently renovated, and from these, we have learned many helpful ideas for those beginning the construction or renovation process.  This publication has several parts:

  • Part A discusses planning ahead to avoid mistakes

  • Part B is a narrative of several specific aspects of energy systems

  • Part C is a checklist

  • Part D is a list of questions to ask design professionals

Our thanks to the now defunct Nonprofit Energy Savings Investment Program for some of the following information.  We also included some information from our article in the October 1988 issue of Construction Specifier magazine.

Part A. Planning ahead to avoid mistakes

Congregations that serve their communities can feel compromised by owning and operating facilities that demand high payments for electricity and fuel.  More dollars for energy mean fewer dollars for service.  

Many lessons can be learned from older religious buildings.   The annual energy cost per square foot of floor area is less in older buildings than in newer ones, mostly because the energy systems in newer buildings require more electricity for air conditioning.  Very old buildings come from the era before natural gas, fuel oil and even electricity.  They usually have large steam boilers, natural lighting and natural ventilation.  Newer religious buildings have less mass, less natural structural material, hot water heating, air conditioning and mechanical ventilation.

If a congregation must construct a new building or expand an older one, it is least expensive to plan for a building that uses very little electricity and fuel.  Plans are relatively easy to change.  After construction contracts are let, however, changes can become very expensive change orders.   And after the building is built, changes are even more expensive.   The following are some of the mistakes congregations can make in planning for a new building or major renovation: 

  •  Not adapting existing facilities to expanded use, to avoid construction and renovation altogether

  • Not considering that electricity and fossil fuel costs will increase substantially over the life of new facilities

  • Paying more attention to the purchase cost and less to the cost of ownership

  • Oversight of construction falling on too few individuals

  • Design professionals not working as a team


Trends in construction

  • Fossil fuel costs may go up and down temporarily, but they will inevitably increase, at increasing rates.

  • Tight and humid buildings are more likely to have problems with mold and mildew.

  • Growing Asian economies and wars in which the US is involved can increase the cost and decrease the availability of building materials.

  • Control systems are becoming more complicated with digital components, wireless communication and user-unfriendly interfaces.


The building as a system

When a congregation views their new project as an integrated system, the cost of ownership will be less.  For example:

  • Efficient lighting reduces the size of air conditioning equipment because lower wattage lamps and ballasts produce less heat during the cooling season.

  • Increasing the insulation level and the quality of windows reduces the initial size and lifetime energy use of both heating and air conditioning equipment.


Energy Codes and Standards

Almost all new religious buildings will have to comply with mandatory life/safety codes.  Other codes may apply in different states, municipalities and counties.  In recent years, codes and standards have been greatly improved.  Here are some of the more relevant ones:

  . . . . . . . . . .

This Entire Article is 25 pages long.


 NOTE: To read the Full 25 page Printable PDF Version please click on the link below
(Opens in a new window, 293 kb PDF File)


Comparison of Conventional and Infrared Heating Systems

April 1987

The manufacturers of gas-fired, unvented, ceramic panel infrared  heaters advertise that fuel costs are 20% to 50% less with their systems in comparison with forced air heating systems.  Several churches in the Philadelphia area have installed these systems.

The manufacturers claim that their infrared heaters do not heat the air, as other heaters do, but rather they directly heat objects and people, similar to the sun’s heating the earth.  They claim that the units provide equal comfort at lower thermostat settings, that there is less air movement and associated dust, and that there is less stratification of air in the heated space.

Energy comparison

We compared the heating energy consumption data from four church sanctuaries and one multi-purpose room to similar buildings in our database. The following are the BTU’s per square foot per year for the five buildings heated with unvented, gas-fired heaters mounted high on the walls:

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Electric Witness

September 1998 Green Cross magazine

Electric meters are as prominent in churches as pulpits — usually one per facility.  Understanding sermons, however, may be easier than understanding electric meters.  Pulpits are located in sacred space — well-cared-for rooms with colors and cleanliness.  Meters are usually located in profane space amid dirt, dust and dim light.

Electric meters are the cash registers for electric utilities.  Each month, the utility usually reads your electric meter, which belongs to them, and then sends you a bill.  Personally, I can’t wait for them to read my meter only once a month; I read it each morning keeping score of the amount of electricity, measured in kilowatthours, we used the day before.

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