As a mission-driven religious organization, Unitarian Universalists have shared values and principles rather than being a doctrinal faith. Our seventh principle is “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” This principle compels us to take responsibility for the planet’s well-being. Inspired by this, we chose to build the greenest building possible within our means. Before deciding to build a new structure, we thoroughly explored the option of remodeling our 100+-year-old building. We also searched for a suitable building to repurpose but found none. In the spring of 2016, we found a beautiful partially wooded five-and-a-half-acre piece of land in Coralville about five miles from our Iowa City church—and we bought it.
Our new church is an accredited Green Sanctuary Congregation through the Unitarian Universalist Association. Our Green Sanctuary Team was formed way back in 2008 and has since been focused on educating and leading our congregation on living in harmony with the Earth both individually and collectively. The values of sustainability, environmental justice, and caring for the Earth were long in place before we began to plan and build our new building. Thus, our congregation had a strong foundation to embrace the slogan during our capital campaign—We are building the greenest church in Iowa.
We knew that building a sustainable and “green” building would cost more, but our congregation rose to the challenge, and we had a very successful capital campaign. Our groundbreaking ceremony took place on Earth Day 2016. Actual construction took 18 months, and we moved into our new facility in mid-October of 2017. It was a day for celebration, indeed!
Our New Facilities Committee worked with LEED-certified architects to plan and build our facility. The result is a wonderful building that is functional, fully accessible, and beautiful. The building is one level with 18,455 square feet that includes many sustainable and low energy usage features including:
- Onsite renewable energy production through a solar array of 429 solar panels. We are a net-zero building—this means that we produce more energy in a year than we use. For comparison, this is equivalent to 6,147 trees planted or 813,578 pounds of CO2 emissions saved. Excess energy is sold back to our utility company.
- A geothermal heating and cooling system with ten heat pumps throughout the building. Heat pumps are an efficient technology for heating and cooling.
- Four charging stations for electric vehicles. We are hoping that one day soon we will need to add more!
- Energy Star-rated appliances for our kitchen.
- LED lighting everywhere with motion-activated switches.
- Low-water-use plumbing devices in the restroom as well as motion-activated faucets.
- Three bio-retention cells on our property manage stormwater runoff and are planted with pollinators and native prairie grasses.
- To preserve the woodlands, we limited the parking lot to 75 spaces. So, we encourage members to carpool, ride a bike, or use nearby parking lots if they drive. Our members and friends can enjoy our green space by walking on the trails through the woods or working in the community gardens. There is a beautiful labyrinth that is shared with the wider community. We just completed a memorial garden and are in the process of creating a natural playscape for our children.
- We continue to learn to live with all the wildlife on our land – the deer, turkeys, woodchucks, coyotes, rabbits, squirrels, and a wide variety of birds.
- In addition to our building, we have adopted many environmentally friendly guidelines for using our space. For example, no Styrofoam or plastic utensils; environmentally-friendly cleaning supplies; toilet paper made from recycled materials, composting, recycling, and much more. Our goal is zero waste as well as net-zero carbon.
We are fortunate to have such a beautiful and sustainable place that offers us many ways to interact with the natural world and live our values on behalf of the Earth and all life. This effort was possible due to the will of the community church members. We hope this project can serve as a model so that others can follow suit and reduce more emissions at the local level.
If you are a resident of Iowa City—our church’s former home and Coralville’s neighboring city—please contact the mayor and your city council members and ask them to adopt a 24/7 carbon-free energy resolution by 2030. This commitment can help you and your neighbors’ power your community with 100% clean energy, transition away from fossil fuels, and become more resilient and sustainable.
For a just, healthy, compassionate, and sustainable future,
Deb Schoelerman and Miriam Kashia
Members of UUS Green Sanctuary Team
About the Authors
Deb Schoelerman (left) is a member of the Green Sanctuary Team of UUS and a member of 100 Grannies for a Livable Future of Iowa City. She also served on the New Facilities Committee during the construction of the UUS building and has been active in the climate movement for several years.
Miriam Kashian (right) has been a climate activist since 2014 when she walked across the US with the Great March for Climate Action, an experience that transformed her from a “concerned citizen” into a “Climate Action Warrior.” Also a member of 100 Grannies, the UUS Green Sanctuary Team, and Iowa City Climate Advocates/Citizens’ Climate Lobby, she has been arrested 4 times in non-violent direct actions to protect the planet.