Designing a Worship Center with Minimal Environmental Impact:
Questions for design professionals
September, 2001, The Interfaith Coalition on Energy: by Andrew Rudin, January 1996
We have received requests from congregations wanting to know what to ask for when they want to design a building that uses relatively low amounts of energy and is less harmful to the environment. In 1988, we wrote an article for Construction Specifier magazine which outlined many of the principles dealing with energy. Since then, we have continued our research and studied that of other people in this field, resulting in this series of questions which can be asked of design professionals to assist them in providing plans for buildings that tend to have less harmful impact on the environment:
Section 1 — General Questions
Basic overall issues
Does the building need to be built? Can the congregation rehabilitate an existing structure instead of building a new one?
Is the land suitable for development? Is the planned building the best use of the site? What is the future of the surrounding land? Are plans consistent with the needs of the community?
Can the building be designed to share space with other congregations?
Can the building and/or major interior and exterior spaces be designed to serve several purposes, with movable seating rather than fixed pews, for example?
What is the anticipated life of the building’s major components?
Are choices of methods and materials based on life-cycle cost rather than only first cost?
What simple payback period or minimum return on investment is acceptable to the congregation?
Has the intent of the congregation to build with minimal environmental impact been communicated clearly to the architects being considered for design work?
What is the track record of the architects with environmentally-sensitive buildings? Have any members of the congregation visited those buildings?
Will the building be smoke-free?
Will the congregation children be asked what design options they favor?
Will the building be easily converted to other uses if necessary?
Basic design issues
Will the building’s design conform to certified, Silver, Gold or Platinum ratings from the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEEDTM) Green Building Rating System? For details about this rating system, see
Is the design in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act?
Are separate areas (zones) of the building directly and easily accessible, complete with rest rooms and kitchenettes so that small gatherings will not require larger sections of the building to be open for occupancy?
Relating to the out of doors
Will the interior and exterior layout of spaces be influenced by the path of the sun, prevailing winds, and other environmental factors?
Will it be easy to worship outside?
Does the design of the building allow for natural light while minimizing heat loss through glazing?
Will there be a garden outside?
Will there be natural interior ventilation?
Will there be adequate shade from trees during the summer and windbreaks in the winter?
Will there be a minimum amount of lawn and maximum amount of natural habitat which requires minimal maintenance? Will native plants be used?
Is there a plan for easily and conveniently composting kitchen and yard waste?
Where will natural plants and flowers grow inside?
What happens to the storm water run-off from the roofs and paved surfaces?
Section 2 — More Specific Questions
Relating to transportation
How will the location and orientation of the building design lend itself to ease of use of bicycles, walking, carpooling and mass transit?
Will parking lots have more than one function?
Can open block pavers or a porous asphalt surface be used instead of impermeable asphalt?
Will space be available to pile snow after a large storm?
Choice of materials
Are materials with proven performance being selected?
Will the embedded energy content of various materials be considered?
Will you favor locally-produced materials?
Will sales tax be avoided on all purchases? Are there phrases in the construction contract that prohibit the contractors and subcontractors from claiming exemption from state sales tax and not passing the savings onto the congregation?
To what extent can recycled or used materials be incorporated into the structure?
Will the thermal envelope be optimally insulated — windows, doors, walls and ceilings?
Given the concerns with indoor air quality, are low toxicity materials being chosen — paints, carpets, cabinetry and adhesives for example?
Does any of the wood come from forests the congregation wishes to protect?
Will office furnishings and equipment be chosen according to minimal energy use and environmental impact?
If solar heating is being planned, what measured data, showing the actual benefit of solar heating from existing installations in similar buildings, justify the expense?
Will the heating system be the correct size and capable of efficient part load performance?
Is electric heat eliminated from consideration if it is more expensive than fossil fuel alternatives?
How will outside air ventilation be controlled?
If a hot water heating system is being considered, how can interior temperatures during unoccupied periods be kept very low without causing a danger of freezing water in pipes? How can the danger of thermal shock to the boiler be
Will the heating systems be easy to control, avoiding complicated electronic control systems that require thick manuals in order to operate them?
Will the clock thermostats have ramped or intelligent recovery? Is each day individually programmable from all the others on a 7-day cycle?
Will the heating controls allow interior space temperatures as low as 45F degrees when zones or the entire building are not occupied during the heating season, with protection from freezing water in pipes?
Are the controls designed to conveniently override temperature setback, with automatic restoration of setback after one or two hours?
Will the heating systems be easy to understand, with all major pipes, ducts, and pieces of equipment labeled clearly?
Will the boiler be wired for cold starts so that the burner does not maintain pressure or temperature when there is no call for heat from any thermostat?
If outdoor temperature reset is used as a the way to control water temperature, what method will be used to assure quick recovery of interior temperatures from night setback?
Will the heating systems be easy to maintain, with easily accessible filter banks, for example?
Will new, cutting-edge technology be avoided in favor of equipment that has a long-standing track record of reliability and ease of operation?
What daylighting strategies will be followed?
Will the lighting design in the worship space vary significantly from the average light level (about 4 to 6 footcandles at hymnal height) of traditional worship space?
Will the lighting designed for other spaces not exceed illumination standards from the Illuminating Engineering Society?
Will the exit signs use light emitting diodes for the light source?
Will fluorescent tubes be T8-type with electronic ballasts?
Will all the socketed lamps be of efficient types, such as compact fluorescent lamps, light emitting diode and tungsten-halogen flood lamps?
Will the switching of lights lend itself to maximum use of daylight?
Will vacancy (not occupancy) sensors be installed in areas in which lamps may remain lit when the space is not occupied?
Will all outside lighting be either metal halide, high pressure sodium or light emitting diode fixtures with shields to prevent outward or upward glare? Will quartz and mercury vapor lighting be avoided entirely?
Will outside lighting be controlled by timer with battery back-up, rather than by photocell?
Air conditioning issues
Will air conditioning be avoided wherever possible in preference for natural ventilation?
How environmentally benign are the refrigerants specified for the cooling system?
If air conditioning is planned, does it have economy cycle to take advantage of outdoor air for cooling without using the compressors when conditions permit?
Will the air conditioning system be capable of economical part load performance, with variable speed fans and multiple compressors, for example?
Will the air conditioning system be easy to maintain and understand?
Will the roof be a light reflective color to reduce air conditioning loads?
Will ceiling fans be installed for cooling?
Utility and fuel issues
What is the anticipated annual electric and fuel costs for the building?
What is the most favorable electric rate for the building (off-peak, for example)?
Will the utilities understand that the building is tax exempt?
Should electric submeters be installed to measure major loads, such as air conditioning?
Should electric service be combined with other buildings to improve load factor?
Should the heating system be dual-fuel with an interruptible gas rate?
If a fuel oil tank is being planned, should it be of greater size to take advantage of bulk purchasing and extended cold spells?
Can the facility benefit from lower cost transportation gas? Should gas service is combined with that to other buildings to take better advantage of lower priced gas?
Will the offices be wired for future telecommunications?
Are there plans for an adequate number of telephone lines throughout the building?
Is the steeple being considered for a wireless antenna location to be leased? If so, is the congregation considering the profit-making and historic preservation issues?
Will information on each major piece of equipment be permanently filed in some accessible manner?
Is maintenance information on each major piece of equipment summarized in a preventive maintenance schedule?
Will a complete set of blueprints and shop drawings be mounted on durable materials and labeled so that they can always remain on-site for future use?
Will copies of the blueprints be reduced to a convenient size for those who wish to remove a copy from the premises?
Will a complete set of the specifications be kept on the premises and easily accessible for future use?
What provisions are planned for making it easy to recycle paper, plastic and metal?
Where will the building’s water come from and where will waste water go?
Will run-off from paved surfaces diminish the water quality of any natural stream?
Will landscape watering be minimized?
Does there have to be heated domestic water in the building?
Will summer/winter, immersed-coil, domestic water heating systems be avoided?
Will the least expensive fuel be chosen to heat water?
If electric water heaters are chosen and the facility billed according to an electric rate with measured demand, will a time clock be installed to heat water during off-peak times?
Will the temperature of domestic water be 110 degrees F or less?
Is there a heat trap planned for the water heater’s discharge water pipe?
Is flow restriction planned for each point of use?
Are water-saving toilets planned?
If domestic hot water will circulated with a pump, will the pump be timed so that water is not circulated when the building is not occupied?
Is any planned water meter oversized?
Will appliances be chosen according to life cycle cost rather than first cost?
Does water from any planned water fountains need to be electrically chilled, or will unchilled water be adequate?
Will efficient refrigerators and freezers be chosen? Can they be easily unplugged when they are not in use?
Will the cabinets for the kitchen have adequate storage capacity for non-disposable dinnerware?
Will the least expensive fuel be chosen for cooking?
Is a booster heater necessary for the dishwasher? If so, does it have to be an electric booster?
Other things for the congregation to consider
Will the person who will be in charge of maintaining the building pay attention to how it is built? Will he or she be on-site to witness the construction?
Will pictures and/or videotape be made of critical aspects of the building process, such as drainage from foundations, wiring in open walls, location of pipes underground and within walls and ceilings?