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Renovated Unitarian Church is more Earth-friendly

Renovated Unitarian Church is more Earth-friendly

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Sunlight streams through the giant double-paned windows of Lincoln’s newly remodeled and renovated Unitarian Church -- a noticeable difference from the once dimly lit gathering area outside the church sanctuary.

The church feels warmer. More inviting. Less dingy, admits longtime member Becky Seth.

But more importantly, the $2.5 million  renovation and addition project is an environmentally friendly testament to reducing the congregation’s carbon footprint and living by the Unitarian Universalist 7th core principle: “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”

At 3 p.m. Sunday, the church will rededicate the building -- and show off the 5,715-square-foot addition along with the many improvements made during the yearlong construction project. During construction, the church held its services at Faith United Methodist Church.

Improvements include a geothermal heating and cooling system, solar panels, LED lighting and improved insulation throughout.

Seven principles guide the faith and its moral compass, said Seth, chairman of the church’s Green Sanctuary Committee.

“As Unitarians, we believe climate change is the most pressing issue of our time. We believe that we are required by our faith to address it in whatever way we can,” Seth said.

For the congregation, that meant being willing to pay more.

“Environmentally friendly approaches are more costly upfront,” she said. “But the belief is that they will pay off financially over time, and environmentally immediately.”

The Unitarian Church moved into its building at 6300 A St. in 1961. The solid masonry building with steel-framed, single-pane windows was sorely in need of repair, renovation and ecological updates, Seth said.

“It (building) had no insulation at all,” Seth said.

Consequently, the building was cold in the winter and hot in the summer. Beige bricks blocked daylight from the interior.

Double thermal-pane windows and doors keep out the chill. A “fake skylight” in the education wing is illuminated by thousands of LED lights. Installing a real skylight was not feasible because of the infrastructure of the building, Seth said.

Fifty-eight solar panels are installed on the south-facing side of the roof. There is room for 42 more panels in the future. Ultimately, the panels should produce 220,000 kilowatt hours a year -- enough to provide electricity to the sanctuary.

“Our goal was to expand and renovate our facility while maintaining or decreasing our total energy consumption,” Seth said. The church added 5,715 square feet, making the church a total of 16,100 square feet.

The geothermal heating and cooling system consists of 15 wells dug 330 feet deep beneath the church parking lot. Seven heat pumps push warm and cool air into various areas of the church building.

“It takes up a lot of room, but is very effective,” Seth said.

As well as energy efficient.

The heat pump water heater is two to three times more efficient than a standard electric water heater. Annual water heating costs are expected to top out at $195 a year -- about one-third of what the church has spent in the past, Seth said.

The church salvaged all it could from the old building. Cabinetry was reinstalled in the classrooms, library and offices. Other items were donated to eco-stores.

In order to accommodate the building project, the church had to cut down a maple tree and several cedars. The wood has been saved. The mantle above the new fireplace in the fellowship area was made from the cedar wood. Benches and other items are planned for the remaining wood, Seth said.

In spring, the church will landscape with drought-tolerant plants. A rainwater mitigation project will be completed in an effort to protect church neighbors’ property from runoff.

“These features involved the building team making some hard financial decisions and having continuous consultation with our architect and contractor. In many cases we decided on green features that speak to our values, over and above financial concerns,” Seth said.

Lincoln’s Unitarian Church has been Green Sanctuary-certified by the UUA since 2014. Similar to environmental stewardship programs of other religious denominations, the designation is awarded to churches that work to restore Earth and renew spirit. Churches must demonstrate these through worship, education, environmental justice and sustainable living programs.

“Everyone said that this was not only the right thing to do, but that it is better in the long run,” Seth said of the renovation project. “We did try to think about the people 20 years from now. Hopefully they will be grateful for what we have done and make decisions from that.”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7217 or On Twitter @LJSerinandersen.


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