White Bear Unitarian Universalist Church purchased its current building in 1990, and within a year or two expanded the space by adding a large wing of 8 Religious Education classrooms, a renovated kitchen and new Social Hall. The congregation continued to grow; in 2004 we added a third service with concurrent RE to keep our doors wide open – but plans were already underway to study the possibilities for new expansion.
After many months of careful reflection, passionate discussion and serious research, we contracted with Locus Architecture in 2006 to design new space on site, and to do so in ways that would honor, protect and preserve our beautiful 4.5 acre property, integrating several deliberate choices:
Re-purposing our existing structure
Rather than razing the original 1959 building, we re-imagined new purposes for old spaces. Our Meeting Room became our Social Hall; the cramped church offices became a spacious Program Suite; the original chancel (stage) was divided, and part of it is now a pantry!
We added skylights in the new Social Hall, flooding it with natural light, and installed “solar tubes” in the Program offices, significantly reducing the need for artificial light.
A New “Solar System”
In collaboration with a local (member-owned) company, we installed 54 photovoltaic panels on the new roof, capable of generating 35 kilowatt-hours of power daily (the annual equivalent of burning 10,000 pounds of coal), reducing CO2 emissions by approximately one ton per month.
Preservation of habitat
Three-quarters of our site is protected wetland which we may not develop; the remainder is a cherished woodland, home to a variety of deciduous and coniferous trees, native plants, many birds (including raptors and waterfowl), small mammals, deer, and (rarely) visiting coyotes. Early in our planning we chose deliberately to limit the size of new parking lots to preserve wild space. We were mindful that this decision could cause challenges in time (and it has – parking may already be limiting our growth), but reverence for the land is a core value here. We invited an arborist from the University of Minnesota to prepare a diagnostic inventory of our entire forest (every tree!), helping us preserve 95% of our trees, even as we doubled the size of our building. The loss of even a small number of living trees proved to be the most painful aspect of our project. We worked with an indigenous shaman to understand the spiritual consequences of our choices. We invited children and adults to bless the trees that would be sacrificed, and we resolved to mitigate the damage by incorporating lumber from felled oaks (red and white) into the building and its furnishings. The oak panels on the dramatic north wall of the Atrium were hewn from trees which once stood exactly on that ground; the pulpit desk, too, is made of oak from a tree which once stood in that place. A small table in the minister’s study, an elegant hand-crafted cabinet and several beautiful turned bowls now used in worship, were all fashioned from wood harvested on site. From the breathtaking east window of our sanctuary, we see the living forest in every season.
Our parking lot is the largest permeable paving project to date in the state of Minnesota. We received a $50,000 grant from the Rice Creek Watershed District to construct a porous surface allowing rainwater to drain through natural filters into an underground reservoir before it flows into groundwater. The reduction in pollutants is significant.
Landscaped spaces on our grounds feature native plants and grasses that thrive without the use of fertilizers and attract a variety of birds and insects. Only a small amount of lawn requires mowing.
The Lee and Florence Jaques Outdoor Classroom
An Eagle Scout in our Youth Group, Patrick Charbonneau, partnered with long-time member Murray Olyphant to design a wonderful outdoor meeting space, dedicated to founding members (and renowned naturalist/artists) Lee and Florence Jaques. Patrick used felled oaks for natural benches and to build a small shelter for firewood.
Low maintenance materials inside and out
Beautiful concrete floors in the new Atrium and hallways are finished with long-lasting penetrating stains requiring minimum maintenance and avoiding the use of carpeting.
The exterior of our new sanctuary is cast in Cor-Ten steel, which cannot decay or rot, and will never require painting or treatment. Naturally oxidized to a warm auburn-rust, it blends in fall with vibrant red maples and gleams brightly against snowy skies in winter.
In October 2007, we gathered at last to dedicate our new sanctuary, and we commissioned member Peter Mayer to compose an anthem for the day, acknowledging the care and reverence with which our project was designed. We have been singing “Church of the Earth” ever since.