Green Building on Solid Ground

By Kendra Langdon Juskus

Flourish Magazine, Fall 2009

Homes, schools, and churches: Christians are revamping traditional gathering places according to God’s creation care call.

“A Gift from God”
Cecile Roberts’s home is surrounded by trees. This might not seem unusual, except that Roberts and her family live in South Atlanta, Georgia, an urban neighborhood better known for a history of crime and poverty than for its natural splendor. But even when she’s inside her house, Roberts feels like she’s in the middle of a forest because of the view from her many windows.

“It makes me feel closer to God,” she says. “You can just lie in bed and watch the sunset and the sunrise. I love it. I knew it was a gift from God.”

Cecile Roberts's green home in South Atlanta

Cecile Roberts's green home in South Atlanta

Roberts’s home is a “green” home. From its aesthetics to its most functional elements, it draws creation in and is gentle on the natural landscape. Since 1998, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) has awarded Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification to structures, like Roberts’s home, that are built according to a checklist of environmentally sustainable construction guidelines. These standards ensure that a new or renovated structure’s construction and operation both minimize ecological harm and provide occupants with a healthy indoor environment. Projects receive points for the green elements they incorporate, and are granted “Certification,” “Silver,” “Gold,” or “Platinum” LEED status according to the number of points earned.

Even though construction of green homes is becoming more popular, architects still battle the impression that sustainably built structures are more expensive, and more complicated to maintain, than traditional ones. The Robertses’ home defies those misconceptions. Their home was the result of a 2006 collaborative building project called the Sustainable Home Competition. Financed by an anonymous donor and sponsored by a collection of Atlanta-based companies and organizations, the competition challenged entrants to create a green home, at an affordable price, for an inner-city family with ties to the community.

The Roberts family was chosen by Charis Community Housing—an affordable housing and neighborhood development ministry in Atlanta—to be that family. Cecile Roberts grew up in the neighborhood, and she and her husband are active members of a local church. Until moving in fall of 2007, they lived just blocks from their new green home.

One of Charis’s goals, as it builds new homes for low-income families, rehabs properties, and helps residents deal with the foreclosure and credit crises, is to encourage, according to Christy Norwood, Charis’s director of community development, “gentrification with justice.” When wealthier people move into urban neighborhoods to renovate homes and establish commercial centers there, the area’s safety and services improve, but its rent and property values skyrocket. This pushes poorer, sometimes life-long residents of the neighborhood into other more affordable areas. Charis helps lower-income residents remain in their neighborhoods so that they can benefit from and participate in their community’s revitalization, instead of being excluded from it. Charis donated the land for the new sustainable home, Norwood says, “to be a better steward of God’s environment, and, in the long run, to lower the cost for homeowners.”

The winners of the house design competition, Gamble and Gamble Architects, constructed the Roberts family a 1,300 foot, three-bedroom home that is shaped to accommodate the mature trees on its lot. It includes bamboo flooring, a rainwater collection system, energy-efficient appliances, and strategically placed windows to provide natural sunlight and ventilation throughout the home. These and other energy-efficient, waste-reduction measures gained the home its LEED-certified status, but they also make it more cost-effective for the Robertses to manage, and more pleasant for them to enjoy.

The green home is relatively new, so it’s still missing a few finishing touches, like curtains. But that’s fine by Roberts, who’s glorying in her new view of the outdoors: “I like the windows like they are.”

Educational and Environmental Excellence
“What is best for the students and the project we’re trying to put together?”

That was the question Shannon Dreyfuss and other planners of Valor Christian High School’s now LEED-certified campus asked while planning the school’s construction in 2005. Dreyfuss, Valor’s Executive Vice President, explains that the school’s goal to glorify God by pursuing excellence in every area—even in the details of its facilities—encouraged Valor to pursue and attain LEED Gold certification.

Adele Willson, principal and LEED-accredited architect with Slaterpaull Architects, the Denver, Colorado firm that designed Valor, encouraged Valor’s planners to consider sustainable design. She attended the United States Green Building Council’s annual green building conference where, as a Christian, she became frustrated with references to Mother Nature, and wondered why more Christians weren’t involved in the green building conversation.

“All these people just sort of dance around the Creator,” Willson explains about the secular green building community. “The real focus, and what Christians should be bringing to the conversation, is that the Creator has made this earth—that it’s not just ‘Mother Earth.’”

That’s why Valor’s decision to “go green” was so invigorating for Willson. Having a healthy learning environment, as well as

Valor Christian High School

Valor Christian High School

saving resources, motivated Valor’s building planners to seek sustainably built structures. During the school’s construction process, contractors recycled building materials and construction waste to make sure that as little as possible went to the landfill. They also made the buildings out of brick and stone to reduce the amount of upkeep they require, and to lengthen their life.

But the most innovative aspects of the school’s efficient design are its lighting system and its athletic fields. Sensors detect when a lack of sunlight necessitates artificial lighting, but otherwise the buildings maximize their use of daylight, fostering a naturally bright learning environment. And the athletic fields all utilize artificial turf—a big investment, but one that reduces the amount of water needed to maintain them. That’s especially important in Valor’s dry Colorado locale. Explains Dreyfuss, “[It] means we save money and a lot of manpower. The fields don’t get worn out, and they’re immediately playable after bad weather. It’s a utility deal for us.”

As Valor is still young, returns on green investments like these haven’t yet been calculable. But the USGBC estimates that building sustainably decreases a structure’s overall operating costs by eight to nine percent, and increases a building’s value by over seven percent.

“[Valor] focused on energy for the building,” says Willson, in reference to the facilities’ energy efficient mechanical and electrical systems. “Doing so reduces the amount they pay every month for their utility bills. That money can then be used for ministry.”

But Willson emphasizes that when green building is done by Christians, the financial benefits constitute only a part of a larger equation. Although her firm’s priority with any building is green design, Willson especially embraces opportunities to engage a church or Christian school in conversation about good stewardship because it brings faith into everyday practicalities.

“Doing this on a daily basis made me realize that this isn’t just good from a professional perspective,” she says, “but also from a faith perspective. It can be both spiritual and practical. It’s about taking care of these things that are given to us by God.”

Holistic Green Building
Daniel Keiser has always been a conservationist. Growing up he had a deep love for creation, and believed that it should be used responsibly and treated with care. But environmental issues had always been treated as politically volatile in his Christian community. So as he entered the building industry and became principal architect and owner of the Ohio-based Keiser Design Group, he felt torn between his desire to operate in an environmentally sustainable way and a need to remain politically neutral in his work.

“It really wasn’t until about 10 years ago that I wondered, is this a political issue or a biblical issue?” Keiser says. “And I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a biblical issue. It is political, but really, when God created man and handed creation over to man to take care of it, it became a biblical issue.”

Now the Keiser Design Group is embarking on a new period in its history by taking the idea of green building to churches. In the church context, Keiser feels he can freely discuss creation care as a motivating factor for churches to make sustainable building choices.

More and more evangelical churches are warming to the idea of incorporating creation care principles into their facilities’ structures, according to Jerry Lawson, a Christian and the national manager of the Energy Star Congregations Network at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The program has served over 1500 congregations since its inception in 1997, providing them with resources, networks, and support as they alter their structures to be more energy efficient. Lawson has recognized an increase in evangelical congregations’ interest in the program over the last few years, an interest that is reflected in a new emphasis on environmental sustainability at the annual Worship Facilities Conference and EXPO, held this year in Charlotte, North Carolina.

“I think evangelicals are really opening up to this,” he says. “All of them that we talk to come from a faith tradition that says not to waste. They know about the loaves and fishes and about the stewardship direction in Genesis, and they know the earth is the Lord’s, but they may have a [facilities] problem that is the immediate reason they give us a call. I think that increasingly they’re starting to ask themselves, can we be better stewards?”

Parish Presbyterian Church, in Franklin, Tennessee, asked itself that question in the midst of a new building campaign, and has found the answer in designing a LEED-certified church community. When the congregation outgrew its small, historic chapel space in downtown Franklin, Pastor George Grant and other church leaders began working with a developer in the congregation to transform a 23-acre plot into not just a church campus, but into Middle Tennessee’s first LEED-certified green community.

The future Parish Presbyterian Church

The future Parish Presbyterian Church

The new church and ministry buildings will occupy seven acres of the land, and they will be surrounded by a walkable, park-like neighborhood of affordable LEED-certified homes available for anyone—including church members—to purchase.

“We have wanted something,” says Grant, “that reinforces our theology of covenant community, that reinforces our commitment to Franklin and its heritage, that reflects our intentionality in creation stewardship, and that roots us in a neighborhood, rather than just placing us on a campus.”

This “Parish Park” plan fulfills the church’s mission to be parish-oriented even as it relocates. And the congregation—who supported the project with the first unanimous vote Grant can remember in his 30 years of ministry—has been “nothing but enthusiastic from the start,” says Grant. “Since the green aspects of the project are integral to the whole vision, overall awareness of creation stewardship has become a significant facet of our witness in our community.”

Although they are taking more responsibility for their impact on the earth, not many churches have taken as holistic and extensive an approach as Parish Presbyterian. Most congregations, explains Lawson, make changing their lighting systems their first step toward greening their facilities. Similarly, not every homeowner can build a new, LEED-certified home like Cecile Roberts’s, and not every Christian school can start its greening with the unprecedented steps implemented at Valor Christian High School.

Nonetheless, the Christian community is gradually deepening and expressing its understanding of the enmeshed nature of ministry and creation care. The ministry we do in our homes, schools, and churches is essential, but how we house that work is also crucial to the nurture and flourishing of God’s creation.

Kendra Langdon Juskus is a freelance writer and editor, and the managing editor for Flourish. She writes from Illinois, where she lives with her husband, Ryan.


  1. What a wonderful article! I am interested particularly in rehabilitation of homes in areas that are experiencing gentrification.

    Beautifully written, Kendra!

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