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Holy Wisdom Monastery Goes Ultra-Green

Credits: ©2010 Hoffman LLC

by Geoff Williams, AOL Small Business, 2010 - Paul Hoffman collaborated with three nuns in Wisconsin to construct the Holy Wisdom Monastery, which will eventually become 100 percent sustainable. Paul Hoffman has made something of a niche business building buildings that serve the community. Instead of skyscrapers or department stores, Hoffman specializes in constructing YMCAs, religious buildings, health-care clinics, and schools. In other words, he builds the backdrops that are known as Americana, the type of places Norman Rockwell would have felt comfortable painting. And it's quite possible Rockwell may have done just that at some point -- Hoffman LLC is a fifth-generation business that's been around since 1892. But it's his company's latest project, the Holy Wisdom Monastery, that has been generating rave reviews. The facility is now the greenest monastery in the nation, and was designed to eventually generate 100 percent of the energy needed for its operation, meaning its carbon footprint will be zero.


Holy Wisdom Monastery Rendering

Holy Wisdom Monastery in Wisconsin is a two story, 30,000-square-foot monastery with a zero-carbon footprint on the environment. ©2010 Holy Wisdom Monastery

"We weren't aware that we were going to build a monastery that has the highest platinum rating" -- a high Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design score from the U.S. Green Building Council -- says Sister Mary David Walgenbach, the monastery's prioress, and one of the three nuns who worked closely with Hoffman. "But it was very important to us to build this in a way that would take care of the Earth and use less energy."

Hoffman is quick to praise the sisters' vision -- and points out that sustainable buildings generally do not cost more to build or operate, despite a popular misconception. It's something, he says, that every entrepreneur today should consider.

So is this the first monastery that you've built?
Well, we've worked with 25 women's religious orders, like the Congregation of Sisters of St. Agnes Motherhouse in Fond du Lac, Wis., the Holy Cross Sisters Office in Merill, Wis., and the Sisters of the Humility of Mary in Villa Maria, Pa. But there's been no other project quite as unique and as worthy of attention as this project has been, because of the multifaceted storyline. If you think about it, three nuns choosing to do something very ambitious and forward-thinking, and then to be able not only to achieve a high sustainable rating -- the highest possible for any new construction -- and to do it for a very low cost with a building that's only 30,000 square feet.... I wish I could take credit for all the great decisions that were made, but when we started off, we started with relatively simple criteria for decision-making that were developed by the sisters.

And what are some of the energy-efficient highlights you're proud of?
Prior to building this, we had to tear down the old structure -- a 60,000-square-foot, five-story building -- and 99.75 percent of that building and all the construction waste on the product was recycled and reused and diverted from the landfill. Forty percent of all landfill comes from construction waste, so if you think of being able to divert all but 0.25 percent of that from the landfill, and if that could be done on a consistent basis, think what an impact that would have for the world. You have to build a discipline within your workers, though, and one of the tricks we've learned over the years is that the dumpster, where the materials go to the landfill, has to be placed at the absolute farthest point that it can be from the building, and all of the recyclable containers should be near the building.

Now, as for some of the exciting things with the monastery, the windows provide ample natural light to 85 percent of the regularly occupied spaces. It's very uplifting as you walk into the building -- there's a lot of spaciousness and natural light, and many of the windows are operable to provide natural ventilation and reduce the need for air conditioning. Four rain barrels collect and store water for plant care, and there are two rain gardens. Bamboo, which is a rapidly renewable resource, was used for the flooring in the assembly, gathering and dining rooms, and for the ceiling of the oratory and meditation chapel. It's kind of like walking into nature, in a very refined and beautiful way, and the courage the sisters had to do this.

The sisters took a big risk in some ways, starting this project around the time that the stock market took a nosedive. Sister Mary David said that this was a very green project in a very red economy, and I think the courage to make that decision was very important. Which isn't to say that this cost more than a non-green building would have.

Really? Isn't the conventional wisdom that it costs substantially more to build a "green" building, in part because so many alternative energy methods aren't being mass produced?
It's really a myth that it costs more to be sustainable. The problem is that most people don't have the knowledge to know the difference between cost-effective sustainable solutions and solutions that aren't cost-effective. So if I were going to give advice to any business owners who want a sustainable, energy-efficient building, I'd say that you really should do your homework to understand a builder's track record and approach to sustainability solutions -- and I'm not talking about just the process, but also the results. When we look at a project, I don't care what it is, we ask how your business is going to be better when you're done than when you started. And if we don't have the answer to that question, we'll talk people out of projects. It's tough to say no to anything in this economy, but we pay a great attention to financial feasibility. (Hoffman LLC designed and built monastery at a cost of just over $7.5 million.)

Salvage and Re-use
Components for the old building were salvaged including the maintenance building that was the lowest level of decommissioned building re-used. The organ was shipped to the Cleveland manufacturer for re-build and re-installation. The former monastery bells were shipped to Cincinnati for re-furbishing and reinstallation. The old walk-in cooler was dismantled, re-sized and reinstalled to store the nuns’ site-grown produce. Furniture for the building was stored in 3 semi-trailers during construction and then re-used in the new building. The fireplace mantel from the retreat and guest house was relocated over main entry door of the new building. Even the existing water well was maintained and upgraded to serve all buildings. In addition, all telephone and computer networks, fiber-optics, repeaters and switches were re-used, as well as a backup generator and electric and phone mains. Outdoors, seeds and plants were taken from the existing restored prairie and used for native landscaping on site.

In all, 99.75 percent of the deconstruction of the old building was diverted from the landfill; nine tons was donated to Habitat Restore and 8,628.6 tons was either recycled to re-used on-site. Twelve-and-a-half tons went to the landfill.

A living tradition of care at Holy Wisdom
In 1953, Benedictine Women of Madison set down roots on a hill overlooking Lake Mendota and the skyline of Madison, Wisconsin. The original 40 acres consisted of farmland cleared in the early 1900s. Today, Holy Wisdom Monastery (formerly Saint Benedict Center) includes 130 acres with a 10,000-year-old glacial lake, wooded nature trails, restored prairie, gardens and orchards. Reverence for creation is a deeply-held Benedictine value.

Lost Lake
Lost Lake lies at the western boundary of Holy Wisdom Monastery. Originally more than nine acres in surface area, the basin had been reduced to less than two acres due to sedimentation from surrounding farming practices and residential development. Eighty-five thousand cubic yards of accumulated silt have been removed from the lake and the shoreline restored with native plants. Restored to near its original depth, the lake again acts as a natural deterrent that detains and filters water that would otherwise wash downstream to neighboring properties and Lake Mendota. More than 200 acres of land drain into Lost Lake.

Upland Prairie
When settlers arrived in Wisconsin in the early 1800s, prairie covered more than two million acres of the state. Today, fewer than 3,500 acres of prairie remain. The Benedictine sisters believe this land is a gift of natural beauty to be shared with all who come to Holy Wisdom Monastery and so are returning much of their land to pre-settlement conditions. Prairie restoration activities began in 1996 and continue each year. To date, 95 acres have been restored to upland prairie with donated seed or seed collected by volunteers and college interns. Each year, 10 to 20 acres were hand sown with a large variety of native Wisconsin prairie flowers and grasses. These plants have long, deep root systems which prevent soil erosion. This project received the Wisconsin Business Friend of the Environment Award in 1998.

Detention Basin
A detention basin was created on the eastern side of the property; a soil berm was built below the natural grass waterway. Prairies can absorb 5–7 inches of rain within an hour. The structure can hold, purify and slowly release 10.5 acre-feet of water, providing a key part of the environmental protection of the north shore of Lake Mendota. In recognition of these environmental efforts, this wetland preserve was made a Lake Mendota Priority Watershed Demonstration Project.

Holy Wisdom Monastery is a "living laboratory" for students and environmentalists. Every summer since 1999, university students have interned in environmental restoration at Holy Wisdom Monastery, gaining invaluable hands-on training to supplement their classroom education. Students of all grade levels frequently join the interns on-site to learn and work together. Area environmentalists benefit from the bountiful prairie and the monastery’s knowledgeable environmental co-workers.

Relevant Books:
Saving God's Green Earth
Green Sisters


  Holy Wisdom Monastery Brochure (1,857 kb)

  Holy Wisdom Monastery Project Profile (933 kb)

  Holy Wisdom Monastery Case Study (870 kb)

  Holy Wisdom Monastery Achieves LEED Platinum Article 2009 (152 kb)

  Holy Wisdom Monastery Article 2009 (32 kb)

  Holy Wisdom Monastery Tour PPT 2009 (5,204 kb)

  Holy Wisdom Monastery Case Statement (3,053 kb)


Solar Churches Blog

Holy Wisdom Monastery and Benedictine Women Madison (Wisconsin)

Hoffman LLC (Wisconsin, USA)

Holy Wisdom Monastery Going Green Video Link