Building In Good Faith

Volume 52, Issue 3 :: The Reverend Fletcher Harper

Transforming religious architecture in an age of climate emergency.

It has become common to use words such as “crisis” and “catastrophe” in descriptions about the state of the climate. As the impact of climate change has become increasingly visible, it’s easy to see why. This past June was the hottest ever on record, followed by the hottest July ever, followed the second hottest August on record. On July 25, Paris broke its all-time heat record when temperatures climbed above 108°F.¹ Hurricane Dorian, which devastated the Bahamas in early September with frightening force, was “one of the strongest landfalling storms ever recorded in the Atlantic.” More than a week after the storm hit, “70,000 people have been made homeless and in need of food and water.”²

The introductory text to the UN Secretary General’s September 2019 Climate Summit, written months before the summer heat in the Northern Hemisphere, sounded an ominous warning, “Global emissions are reaching record levels and show no sign of peaking. The last four years were the four hottest on record, and winter temperatures in the Arctic have risen by 3°C since 1990. Sea levels are rising, coral reefs are dying, and we are starting to see the life-threatening impact of climate change on health, through air pollution, heatwaves, and risks to food security.” Jonathan Franzen wrote in a recent New Yorker article that “…if you’re younger than sixty, you have a good chance of witnessing the radical destabilization of life on earth—massive crop failures, apocalyptic fires, imploding economies, epic flooding, hundreds of millions of refugees fleeing regions made uninhabitable by extreme heat or permanent drought. If you’re under thirty, you’re all but guaranteed to witness it.”

Religious communities globally, from every tradition on the face of the planet, have become more and more active in response to the crisis. They have issued statements, repeatedly affirming a commitment to the care and protection of the Earth. They have adopted a vocabulary of urgency in their preaching and public proclamation, and have become increasingly active in civil society movements in response to environmental degradation.

A Serious Disconnect

But there remains a disconnect, and a serious one, between what religious groups say about climate change and the architecture, construction, and maintenance of religious buildings. No studies exist, but long experience in the religious environmental movement suggests that only a tiny minority of religious institutions globally design, build, and manage their facilities in a manner that prioritizes dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental impacts. Correspondingly, there is not yet any evidence of the architects that serve the religious community collectively playing an active role in the green building or sustainable design movements, or of religious leaders calling for such architectural leadership. For the most part, religious communities are continuing to design, build, and operate their facilities as if the carbon emissions and related air pollution they create, their use of toxic chemicals, their construction-related waste, and their impact on their local ecosystems simply don’t matter.

Sometimes, the religious sector’s behavior is even worse. A recent bill passed by the New York City Council mandated substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions over the coming decades in larger buildings across the city. Understandably, “real estate interests …chafed at the idea of having to shoulder the cost of the upgrades.” Less reported was that a lobbyist representing some of the city’s largest faith communities worked actively to oppose the bill for the same reasons. And in numerous other jursidictions, religious lobbies have opposed land-use restrictions designed to protect water quality and to minimize runaway suburban sprawl in order to preserve the right to develop their land as they please. This is not a good look.

Given the gravity of the climate crisis, the sizeable and symbolically important physical footprint of religious institutions globally, and the spiritual, ethical, and social mission of religious institutions, this represents a profound disjunction between religious values on the one hand and the actual practice of religious architecture and building on the other. Undergirded by clear moral and theological principles, a shift is needed, with urgency.

Embedded Within Revelation

The theological imperative for this shift in religious architecture is centered around themes of beauty and ethics. First, religions affirm the Earth as a form of sacred revelation and recognize that humanity is embedded within this revelatory field. Whether from an Abrahamic perspective that sees the Earth as showing forth the Creator’s artful majesty, or a Dharmic viewpoint that either deifies nature or recognizes our interbeing within it, the mandate for environmentally respectful religious architecture flows first from the sense that we and our buildings are embedded within something that is profoundly holy. This means that religious buildings need to be designed, built, and operated to treat nature with the respect due a sacred revelation. In their planning, construction, and operation, religious facilities must nestle themselves beautifully and functionally within their ecosystems in ways that reflect and honor their eco-locale’s own beauty and functionality.

In other areas of their common lives, religious communities don’t trash revelations, nor defile them with unappreciative or downright destructive incursions. Our religious buildings need to mirror this respect for the Earth, developing visual identities that strengthen our connection to place, and architectural and building practices that respect every place as a sacred place.

Building Justly

A second vital theme for a new religious architecture revolves around themes of right and wrong, and of healing. The ways in which religious structures are designed, built, and operated have an impact on the planet and people. Building materials that are energy-intensive and toxic, and building systems that waste energy and water further the planet’s destruction and do harm to human communities. Truly sustainable materials and efficient or regenerative systems, on the other hand, help slow the bleeding and allow the Earth to heal.

For millennia, religious traditions have taught us that we are ethically, spiritually responsible for our impact on others. More recently, religions have repeatedly affirmed that how we treat nature is a moral issue. Because of this new emphasis, the communities that construct religious buildings have become morally accountable for their environmental impact.

Doing Better Than Doing Less Harm

Ahmed Bouzid, head of energy efficiency for Morocco’s national energy investment company SIE

Ahmed Bouzid, head of energy efficiency for Morocco’s national energy investment company SIE stands next to photovoltaic panels recently installed on the roof of the nearly 900-year old Koutoubia Mosque in Marrakech, one of 600 Moroccan mosques to be retrofitted with modern energy technology. Photo: Chris Bentley/flcikr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Normative thinking about sustainable architecture and design is centered on how facilities, architecture, the built environment can reduce the customary level of harm to the environment. The most common strategies in the green building toolkit include using less energy, water, and materials, producing less toxic waste, and sending less waste to landfills. A well-known example of this approach is represented in the US Green Building Council’s LEED standards. These standards provide a systematic approach that can help religious institutions and architects that serve them reduce the environmental impact of their buildings. Religious networks should require that their facilities, at least, meet the minimum level of such standards.

In 2010 GreenFaith, the interfaith environmental organization that I direct, sought to introduce the growing green building field to religious communities. GreenFaith’s theory of change posits that addressing the climate crisis requires change at the systemic, institutional and individual levels; greening religious buildings fits squarely in the institutional category. GreenFaith’s on-line “Building in Good Faith” resource was an effort to articulate a theological foundation for green building, to interpret the LEED standards for a religious audience, to provide case studies of religious green building projects, and to offer recommendations for how religious leaders can build support, and raise funds, for religious green buildings projects.

But as important as these first steps have been, the severity of the climate crisis now requires that we interrogate an approach whose ambition is limited to reducing harm. In our climate emergency, such an approach begs a question: when was it ever a religious aspiration to “do less bad?” Religious hospitals and schools don’t just seek to make their patients less sick or less misinformed; their vision is a positive one rooted in healing, wisdom, and real well-being. Religious architecture needs to do likewise, articulating and embodying a positive ecological vision and an accompanying biophysical reality. In a climate-threatened, environmentally degraded world, religious architecture must now embrace a commitment to active environmental restoration. Religious facilities must regularly begin to generate renewable energy beyond what the mosque, temple, or church itself needs, must design on-site wetlands to help absorb stormwater runoff, and more. It is no longer enough for sacred sites to take less from nature. They need to give back, spiritually and ecologically.

Living Buildings for Living Faiths

The Living Building Challenge (LBC), and its associated body of work, represents one source of inspiration and support for such a vision. Launched in the early 2000s, its founder Jason McLennan had a vision of an ecologically regenerative approach to architecture, construction and building operation coupled with a commitment to the health and well-being of all who utilize a given space. He designed the Living Building Challenge to spur the creation of “buildings that give more than they take, creating a positive impact on the human and natural systems that interact with them.” LBC is organized into interrelated performance areas. All LBC-certified buildings must gather and produce, on-site, all the water that they consume, capturing rainwater for internal use. They must be powered by 100 percent renewable energy, including daylighting, solar, and other systems. They must be sited in a manner that respects the health of natural systems. They must set aside newly protected land away from the building site equivalent to the land used in the development of the new building. They must provide a healthy indoor environment for their inhabitants through access to fresh air and daylight, and the use of non-toxic products that cannot include a number of red-listed items including PVC and formaldehyde. Construction materials must be sourced in an ecologically responsible manner. Social equity is integrated into the standards in the form of requirements around hiring and access to training for under-served communities, and in promoting expanded access to nature. Finally, the standards call for a commitment to building designs that elevate the human spirit, a subjective yet vital commitment of the Living Building Challenge.

LBC is the first and best-developed building design approach consistent with religious values. Religious-building architects, along with religious leaders, need to engage with these standards and the values they represent. They need to discuss them, understand them, debate them, and ultimately adopt standards that contextualize and deeply reflect religious values, and that actually help regenerate the Earth. Today, to our knowledge, no major religious body has intentionally aligned religious values with religious buildings. In a climate-threatened world, that must change.

Call for Action on Religious Buildings

The time has come for those who design, build, and operate religious facilities to take the Earth’s health with a seriousness that our current context requires, at a collective level. Theologians and religious architects must work together to develop mission, vision, and values statements for religious architecture that speak directly to the threats posed by the climate and environmental emergencies and the response that religious buildings must embody. Religious networks, including regional, national, and international associations and networks of congregations must adopt green building policies. At a minimum, these should require all new religious facilities to use 100 percent renewable energy, and to contribute to ecological restoration and renewal within their community. Failure to take these steps represents a breach of religious communities’ moral, spiritual responsibilities.

To support this evolution, religious institutions and networks must develop best practices and support knowledge and resource sharing to help congregations everywhere climb up the learning curve as quickly as possible. These religious networks, and their endowments and trusts, must develop funding and financing tools to help religious communities meet the costs associated with this shift.

The science is clear: we face a massive threat in the form of climate change. As part of its response, the religious sector must transform its approach to the design, construction and operation of its buildings. An initial model framework, the Living Building Challenge, exists. Architects designing religious facilities need to embrace this challenge, develop and adapt standards for their own use, and offer the leadership that only they can do.

For century upon century, religious buildings have served as beacons of inspiration and purpose for people around the world. Now, it is time for these same buildings to inspire us to meet the ecological threats that are a defining issue of our time.

The writer is Executive Director of GreenFaith, an international interfaith climate and environmental organization. He is author of GreenFaith: Mobilizing God’s People to Protect the Planet (Abingdon, 2015). Information about GreenFaith is available at

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