Nuns’ Green Building Yields Crop Of Savings

By Consulting Specifying Engineer Staff May 26, 2005

Sustainability pays. And not just earthly dividends. After adding up a year’s worth of utility bills, the IHM Sisters

The savings come from installing features like a geothermal heating and cooling system, a constructed wetland, water-conserving fixtures and energy-efficient lighting and power management.

The geothermal heating and cooling system takes advantage of the earth’s constant 55

Cutting their water consumption in half came as a result of two factors: putting in a constructed wetland that supports a gray-water flushing system and installing a boatload of water-conserving fixtures.

The constructed wetland purifies water just like a natural wetland. Situated behind the Motherhouse and beside Lake Saint Joseph, the sister’s wetland collects water from the Motherhouse’s sinks, showers and tubs and then recirculates the water for flushing toilets. This gray-water flushing system saves thousands of gallons of water every day.

In spite of the fact that the sisters installed 305 toilets—150 more than they had before the renovation—and put in 257 showers and bath fixtures—157 more than they had before the renovation—the new fixtures add to their water conservation. The fixtures include high-velocity, low-flow toilets and anti-scald showers.

Electric costs have also saved the sisters money even though they added substantial electronic equipment. The Motherhouse was built in 1932 when electricity needs were at a minimum. With the renovation and the changing of electrical codes and technological advancements, the electrical requirements increased to over four times the original construction, says Martha Weise, campus administrator for the IHMs.

“Logic says we could have had four times the amount of electric expenses, but we didn’t,” Weise says. She attributes that to many factors, including the installation and use of a computerized energy-management system, heat-recovery units, energy-efficient lighting such as compact fluorescents, Energy Star appliances, planned natural lighting (adding more windows), glass selection and treatment of energy-efficient glass for windows, programmable occupancy sensors within the building and programmable outdoor lighting fixtures.

All totaled, in their first year of operation after the sustainable renovation, the sisters saved $187, 078 on utilities.

And the savings didn’t stop at sustainable building and property innovations. Encouraged by one of the sisters, a number of IHM employees formed a group, the Campus Greening Committee, to find ways of doing business in a more environmentally friendly fashion. The committee’s efforts prove that business operations can be done more sustainably and can reduce operational costs at the same time.

By standardizing and centralizing the purchase of “green” or recycled office supplies, the IHM community is saving over $2,000 a year. A recycling program that pays IHM for recycling inkjet cartridges generated over $2,200 worth of revenue in an 18-month period. Cell phone recycling brought in another $65 and a new paper retriever program on the sister’s property is paying them for recycling their newspaper, magazines, office paper and junk mail.

Evidence of how seriously the sisters take their environmental stewardship lies in the dumpsters behind the Motherhouse. A reduction of two 8-yard dumpsters that used to be emptied three times a week has been offset by the addition of one 8-yard recycling dumpster that’s emptied twice week. The result? An annual cost savings of $4,128.

The greening committee is even going entrepreneurial. Last fall the committee bought 100 T-shirts made from recycled plastic soda bottles. The white shirts, which showcase the Campus Greening Committee’s name and vibrant two-color logo, sell for $12 each. Their goal? To use the profits of the T-shirt sales to buy a can crusher for the kitchen in the Motherhouse.

Dozens of other sustainable practices are also going on in various offices and departments at the Motherhouse, like fueling community vehicles after 6 p.m.; discontinuing the use of plastic laundry bags and replacing them with bags made from EcoSpun material (the plastic soda bottles, again); using non-CFC containing Styrofoam cups in the Health Care Center; establishing recycling centers within the Motherhouse; using previously used computer paper to make notepads; and centralizing printers with color cartridges of ink that dissolve.

While this is only a smattering of the new and ongoing sustainable initiatives the sisters are pioneering, add it up: The value of investing in sustainable systems benefits the bottom line for both the Earth and the bank account.