Turning Quaker Gray into Quaker Green

"Ignorance ends today. Negligence starts tomorrow."
—Architect William McDonough

Whatever one might think, suspect, or wish away, climate change and global warming pervade public discourse. Celebrities at rallies, musicians at benefits, and, perhaps more than anything else, Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth ensure that the environment stands tall among the many issues facing our policy, nation, and species today.

A new jargon has found its way into everyday speech: hybrid no longer describes crossbred animals but trendy cars; ethanol no longer intoxicates drivers but powers their vehicles; "clean diesel," which once might have seemed a laughable oxymoron, now follows hard on the heels of incongruous neologisms like "bio-diesel." Politicians speak fluently, whether they understand or not, about "clean coal" power, wind power, solar power, nuclear power. All are discussed, proposed, and sometimes rejected but always considered passionately in the U.S. and around the world. Environmental think tanks sound alarms; scientists inform us in detail of the changes already effected; economic think tanks, the Department of Defense, and now even our President acknowledge and warn us of the potentially disastrous consequences of the way in which we use natural resources.

So we all work, in whatever way we can, to address the problem. Besides the many initiatives afoot on Capitol Hill, here in Pennsylvania the legislature passed the Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards Act of 2004, which requires 18 percent of all energy in the Commonwealth to come from renewable energy sources within 15 years. Philadelphia, named one of the ten greenest cities in the U.S. by msn.com, is highly rated for its public transportation—used by a third of the city’s commuters—and for sourcing electricity locally. The city’s Energy Cooperative buys electricity off roofs of residents, generated from solar or wind power, which it then sells to an estimated 1,500 consumers.

However, there is still much more to be done, especially in the way of green buildings. Friends Center, home of many national Quaker organizations, a conference facility, a monthly meeting, a childcare center, and itself a National Historic Landmark, will become one of the greenest buildings in the city.

Quakers have long been innovators and served as examples in the cause of social justice: for the abolition of slavery, universal suffrage, and economic equality among all people worldwide. This work has stemmed from leadings to live in a manner consistent with Quaker testimonies. The decision to go green at Friends Center, likewise, is a deliberate effort to manifest these testimonies, particularly those of Simplicity, Integrity, Peace, and Equality.

Friends Center expresses Simplicity by working in harmony with nature instead of exploiting it, by utilizing the Earth instead of manipulating it. The Center shows Integrity in the consistent and persistent desire to serve as examples to all around us. But how does environmental consciousness reflect the testimonies of Peace and Equality? It is no secret that competition for diminishing resources often results in violence and even war. By working to preserve our environment and conserve our resources, Friends Center contributes to the cause for peaceful relations among nations. And ensuring that clean air, clean water, and clean energy are available to all people in all places embodies the Testimony of Equality.

These testimonies came to the surface in discussions about desperately needed renovations to Friends Center by its Corporation Board. One or two members suggested considering environmentally friendly methods. These suggestions were at first dismissed, but these individuals continued to encourage others to bear them in mind until finally, through Quaker process, came unity. So the call to witness was heard, and soon plans were drawn and renovations got underway.

On June 14, 2007, Friends Center unveiled the first completed section of the renovations, the main office building’s vegetated roof, designed by Roofscapes, Inc. The roof is 10,000 square feet and has four layers. Underneath is a layer of white roofing, over which a system of coils and tubes carries excess water to the roof drains. The drainage system is then covered by a layer of light "dirt," composed of volcanic ash and other airy substances, in which is planted a garden with five types of sedum plants that tolerate high temperatures and limited water supply.

Green roofs have numerous environmental and economic benefits. They help mitigate the urban heat island effect, where the average temperature in a city is substantially higher than the surrounding areas. On a 90-degree day a regular roof can reach 140, while a green roof will only reach 85. Another part of the roof has a photovoltaic array (solar panels) that will generate energy from sunlight to use in the building, reducing energy expenses.

Vegetated roofs also capture and divert storm water, the main source of pollution for Philadelphia’s rivers. On average the city’s sewage plant is overwhelmed by an excess of storm water runoff 54 times a year, washing sewage, fertilizer, and animal waste into Philadelphia’s rivers. Friends Center’s roof is predicted to absorb 100 percent of the rain from 90 percent of storms. Runoff from other roofs in Friends Center will be collected and used to flush toilets, reducing the Center’s use of city water by about 90 percent. The garden will also cool the building and shield the rooftop underneath from the damaging rays of the sun. While it is not known how long a green roof can last, there are several in existence today that date back to the 1930s and have yet to need replacement.

Besides the green roof, photovoltaic solar cells, and runoff system, the planned renovations include installing geothermal heating and cooling, which will drastically reduce the amount of energy Friends Center requires to heat and cool the building. Six wells will be drilled into the ground along 15th Street, six inches in diameter and each reaching deeper than the Empire State building is tall. The temperature of groundwater remains relatively constant throughout the year at about 54 degrees. The heat exchangers extract heat in winter and cool in summer to circulate through the building. The geothermal wells are so effective compared to normal heat pumps because it is much easier to extract coolness from 54-degree groundwater than from hot summer air, and, conversely, much easier to extract warmth from groundwater than from cold air in the cooler seasons. Similar deep-well systems have already been implemented successfully in New York and Boston.

Geothermal exchange requires electricity to run its pumps and heat exchangers, but for every unit of electricity put into the system four units of energy for heating and cooling will be returned, so the system has 400-percent efficiency compared to the 90-percent efficiency of the best conventional systems. "It’s just using the Earth’s capacity to heat and cool something without having to add energy to it," explains Pat McBee, the full-time volunteer director of the capital campaign. "It’s nothing fancy. This is a water well, much like the one my grandmother had in her backyard. It’s about thinking better."

There are also interior improvements planned, including new systems to transport heat and coolness inside, a more energy-efficient light system, windows that let in more light and less heat, new carpeting made of recycled fibers, low-emissions paint, and more energy-efficient appliances.

Other organizations—including the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, the Philadelphia Water Department, the Philadelphia Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, and the Delaware Valley Green Building Council—have already expressed interest in this project as an example and a spur to change building practices in the region.

This massive project is not without its price. The renovations will total approximately $12.6 million. The owners of Friends Center—American Friends Service Committee, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, and Central Philadelphia Monthly Meeting—committed $5 million at the start of the project, and contributions play an extremely important part.

As head of fundraising, McBee had initially hoped to raise $2 million. Over the past two years, more than $2.35 million have been committed, and McBee hopes to see donations top $3 million by the end of the campaign. Some of the donations were made by foundations, but most came from individuals who want to support green construction. Fundraising has been so successful, according to McBee, "because so many people are so excited about doing this with us!"

While the money not raised through donations will have to be financed, the Board considers this decision a sound investment. Ultimately, the savings in long- term energy expenses will more than offset the costs of the energy saving strategies. Within ten years the Board expects to recoup those expenses. McBee explains, "Sometimes the best way to save money is to spend more money at the outset."

But for McBee, these renovations are much more than a way to save money; they are a personal leading. She stresses the vital significance of environmental advocacy both for herself and for all Friends when she declares, "It’s a witness as important to Friends in the 21st century as freeing slaves was in the 18th century. We have to do it."

Helpful Websites:

  • www.onebillionbulbs.com: encourages replacing standard incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs
  • www.getonboardnow.org: NBC’s site to promote its Conservation Fund
  • www.greenbuilder.com: eco-friendly techniques for home renovators
  • www.greenhomeguide.com: "green" products and energy-saving tips
  • www.energystar.gov: energy efficient appliances
  • www.touchstoneenergy.com: energy co-ops across the United States
  • www.usgbc.org: the U.S. Green Building Council; news and construction information for home and industry
  • www.buildinggreen.com: resources for sustainable design
  • www.greenmaven.com: a custom search engine run by Google focusing on green, conscious, and sustainable websites
  • www.grist.org: news and commentary updated daily

Erica Bradley

Erica Bradley, Amanda Gagnon, Breja Gunnison, Elizabeth Markham, and Maximilian Plotnick served as interns for Friends Journal this past summer.