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LEED With Vision

May 28, 2013 by Carolyn Heinze in Designer

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2013 issue of Designer magazine ( and is reprinted with permission.

They didn't start out to set a record. Not at first, anyway. At first, they just wanted to do the best they could. But then they realized they could do their best—and set a record to boot, raising the bar for anyone who argues that the greener you go, the more expensive it is.

However, when the Benedictine Women of Madison enlisted Hoffman Planning, Design & Construction Inc. in Appleton, Wis., to design and build their new monastery, going green was definitely among their primary objectives. “We told them that we wanted to build it as green as we could afford,” relays Sister Mary David Walgenbach, Order of Saint Benedict (OSB), prioress at Holy Wisdom Monastery, “and it proved to be economical that way. That was a big learning experience for me. People say, ‘If you build green, it costs way too much.’ Our experience was that it did not.”

Inner and outer convergence
Nestled into 130 acres that includes 100 acres of restored prairie land, a glacial lake (also restored to its original size), oak savannah and several buildings, the 34,000-square-foot Holy Wisdom Monastery reflects the ecumenical Benedictine Women of Madison’s values of incorporating prayer, hospitality, justice and care for the earth into a shared way of life.

Its design, then, needed to provide an uncluttered space that was conducive to quiet contemplation, worship and community events in a sustainably built facility that was respectful of its natural environment within a responsible budget. Very early on, as Hoffman was addressing these needs during the design process, it became clear that Holy Wisdom could attain LEED Platinum certification--which it did, earning 63 out of a possible 69 points, setting a record under LEED-NC v2.2. The project cost per square foot was $246.

One of the most striking aspects of Holy Wisdom’s interior is its relationship with its exterior surroundings. Boasting an enormous number of windows and skylighting, 99.5% of the facility’s regularly occupied spaces enjoy a view to the outdoors, and 85% of them are day-lit. This was extremely important, since, as Walgenbach explains, one of the design objectives was to invite Creation in. For Catherine Cruickshank, senior project designer at Hoffman, this connection became increasingly evident as she spent more and more time in the space. “I got a sense of the passing clouds and a real connection to the outdoors, even if I was not looking outside, because I could sense the changes in light,” she recounts. “If you’re in a building that has artificial light, even if there are windows, you don’t sense those passing clouds. It’s been interesting for me to see how much more of a connection to the outdoors you have with natural light.” And, the decreased need for artificial lighting helps to conserve energy.

The most important space in Holy Wisdom is, of course, the worship space—or the “Assembly Room,” at it’s referred to at the monastery. Pointing to its curving forms, Walgenbach describes the space as “feminine;” visitors feel invited in to gather, rather than be dominated by, hard, isolating lines. Capable of seating up to 400, the Assembly Room floor is completely devoid of steps and platforms, rendering seating arrangements flexible and easy to reconfigure depending on the event. Typically, they are arranged in a semi-circle to promote community in worship, enabling worshippers a view of both the altar and each other. The main worship space, like the rest of the facility, is painted off-white, with any color accents provided by the natural colors of the materials that were used, such as the 1,000-squarefoot bamboo ceiling in the Oratory, and 10,000 square feet of bamboo flooring in the facility.

Vision and hindsight
The lead-up to the new construction involved some difficult choices, most notably the decision to tear down another building on campus, the 60,000-square-foot Benedict House. Originally built as a girls’ school, the sisters had been using this facility as a retreat and conference center, but it had grown too energy inefficient and expensive to maintain to make a solid argument for keeping it on campus. “It had begun to run us, rather than the other way around,” Walgenbach says.

Still, just because you can’t see Benedict House anymore doesn’t mean it has completely disappeared: according to Cruickshank, 99.7% of the building was diverted from the landfill. "You pretty much say: What was the point of that .25% we threw away? And basically that was stuff that just simply could not be recycled,” she says. The bulk of the rest was crushed up and used as gravel for the parking lot and driveways, while some elements were donated to Habitat for Humanity.

The lowest portion of Benedict House lies below a green roof, approximately 30 feet away from the monastery, housing a groundsourced heat pump system. From underneath the parking lot, underground piping connects 39 wells, each 300 feet deep, to the heat pumps that are housed in the lowest level of Benedict House. “All the noise from the heat pumps is in a different building, and so the silence that the sisters were looking for was easier to achieve that way,” Cruickshank says.

One of the design challenges that Cruickshank and her team faced had less to do with the design itself and more to do with how to communicate their ideas. “Unfortunately, at that time we really weren’t into 3D,” she explains. “That project pushed us into getting up to speed with Building Information Modeling (BIM), because we later realized we could have saved a lot of time if we could have shown them 3D models right from the start.” Since 2D drawings weren’t the most effective alternative, they employed a combination of Google SketchUp and scale models built from cards to help the sisters “see” the spaces to ensure they were consistent with their vision.

Cruickshank relays that a considerable amount of deliberation went into every decision related to the project, especially since each element had to be analyzed for its “greenness.” “When you are designing a LEED building, you have to thoroughly discuss every single system or product that you are thinking of using, because you are trying to balance the cost, the credit you can get using it, and whether it’s actually going to achieve your goals,” she says. To simplify this process, the sisters developed three basic questions that were then applied to everything: Does this choice enhance or further our mission and vision? Is it a viable green solution? Is it cost-effective, both in the short and long terms? “They found that when they analyzed everything using those three criteria, it made it easier for them to make a decision,” Cruickshank adds.

While LEED certification was not a specific goal from the outset, third-party verification was extremely important to the sisters. “If we had done everything we did and not certified it, nobody would really know or care about this project. It’s the fact that it did get that third-party certification that makes a difference,” Cruickshank says. Not only does it confirm that they had built a green building—it also serves as an example by which others can measure their own green efforts. “It furthers their goal of encouraging others to live sustainably,” adds Cruikshank.

Carolyn Heinze is a freelance writer/editor. WFD

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