Service at Circular Congregation Church

Service at Circular Congregation Church
Sunday, April 22, 2007


When Henry David Thoreau set out to build his cabin at Walden Pond one snowy morning in March 1845, he created a new chapter in American thought – about the value of self-reliance, honest self-reflection, and the courage to live modestly: to live simply in means, but grandly in thought.

Less well-known is the fact that Thoreau built his cabin out of pine trees he cut on the site and covered it with boards he salvaged from a nearby shanty. By building a cabin for $28, he crafted a message about simplicity. By using the materials he found around him, he was being sustainable….

We are here today to celebrate an addition to Lance Hall, which was originally built just 6 years after Thoreau retreated to the shore of Walden Pond.

While he lived at Walden Pond, Thoreau wrote that “every child begins the world again, to some extent, and loves to stay outdoors, even in wet and cold.” As a child growing up in North Carolina, my favorite activities were outdoors, under the trees. Most of what I know as an architect I first learned playing along the banks of a stream in Greensboro.

Thus it came as a shock to me as a young architect to learn that everything I designed would cause the earth to be stripped or mined. I remember being paralyzed for nearly a year while I was designing my first house on the shore of the James River. How could I destroy that soft forest floor for my client’s floorplan? Finally, I realized that the only way I could work as an architect was to promise to make the site better than I found it. Sometimes that has meant not to build at all.

It seemed natural to me to design buildings to catch the sun, accept the breeze, and grow naturally out of the earth. I was thinking sustainablity, but at the time we didn’t call it that. I simply thought it was good architecture. Let me give you an example:

Ten years ago, Jim and Janice Taylor asked me to design a summer house for them on a remote island in the Bahamas. At the time, there was no electrical power on the site and no drinking water. I designed a house that was like an umbrella, with a generous, spreading roof that provided shelter from the sun and collected rainwater for drinking.

There was, of course, no air conditioning. But the shape and orientation of the house allow it to capture prevailing breezes and enjoy natural ventilation. The house is quite simple and quite liberating. Staying there, you experience the sun and sky, ocean and wind with an intensity unknown before.

Needless to say, the house is sustainable. It has to be. And through it, I began to understand the logic of Thoreau’s cabin: Reduce our daily needs to the essentials and live life to the fullest. Begin the world again, to some extent.

Children are not the only ones to discover the world anew. Decades ago, but especially since 2001 and Katrina, it has become apparent that our addiction to oil, our appetite for land, and our carelessness with water were not only polluting the environment, but making our lives unhealthy. Our lungs, immune systems, and skin, for example, are affected not only by how we live, but how we drive and how we built.

According to the Energy Department, residential and commercial buildings account for 40 percent of total energy consumption in this country, versus just 28 percent for the entire transportation sector, including automobiles. Thirty percent of all the forests are cut to make architecture, and 25 percent of all our fresh water is used in buildings.

Clearly, if we want to make a future in which human health and environmental health are one, a sustaining architecture is a good place to start.

Two years ago, you asked me to make a start: to design an addition to Lance Hall – “small rooms with big ideas,” you said. The site was a small outdoor room that held the graves of generations and an ancient elm tree. You asked for classrooms, an elevator, bathrooms – all next to a perfect temple. Talk about a challenging site – to do all this on a swatch of land about the size of a tennis court! I promised to leave the site better than I found it, and to make it “green.”

“Of course, your green building also has to be approved by the B.A.R,”  your building committee told me.

Being from North Carolina, I thought a B.A.R. was a place where you went to drink. But as you know, the B.A. R. is the Charleston Board of Architectural Review, the Supreme Court of architectural review boards.

So while I was designing the modern, green addition to Lance Hall, I kept thinking about the elephant in the living room no one talked about – the B.A.R. How would we make a modern, sustainable Sunday School in historic Charleston, a city more tortured than most by the conflict between past and present.

Well, what we did was to design the most “green” Sunday School we could, with respect for its place –  not only its place in Charleston but in the 21st century. The new addition to Lance Hall has a green roof, which keeps the building cool and collects rainwater. We use cisterns to store the rainwater for irrigating the new courtyard, where children will play in the shade of live oak trees. To conserve energy, the new Lance Hall has a geothermal heat source, using the earth’s constant temperature to heat and cool the rooms. Those rooms will be lit by daylight and filled with fresh air, with windows offering views over the Circular Church. The morning sun will fill the Sunday School rooms. Wherever possible, we used local materials, as Thoreau did. The floors are recycled heart pine. The structure itself is made of Southern yellow pine and recycled steel.

We have tried to use materials reverently.

In the 21st century, unfortunately, we take wood, steel and glass for granted, no matter the effect of cutting or mining them. In historic Charleston, however, you can see in the way people wove a sweetgrass basket, built a steeple, or made a Windsor chair expressed joy in work, and a spiritual quality in how something was made. Materials, no matter how common, are precious. I hope that in the porches of Lance Hall, the way steel columns grasp wooden floor beams, and the way the smoothness of heart pine contrasts with the strength of stucco walls, express our joy in the making of it.

The addition to Lance Hall will have all these wonderful, efficient, green systems, but you won’t have to know that to like it. Just as playing beside a stream can be the greatest learning experience because it is unconscious, so the addition to Lance Hall will teach by experience. Children and visitors will learn about sustainability simply by being here. The new Lance Hall will automatically inspire those who experience it, and exist as your gift to future generations.

And what about the elephant in the living room – the B.A.R.? I presented the green design concept to the B.A.R. with Whitney Power’s invaluable coaching, Bert Keller’s spiritual support, Susan Davis’ advice, and some trepidation. To my great relief, they approved this sleek, modern, sustainable building outright!

“We’ve been waiting for a building like this for years,” they said.

Reinvent the world, I thought.

That brings me to my last point, which is about balance. What our experience with the BAR shows is the possibility that the past and present might learn to coexist and complement each other. The ancient Greeks thought that perfection in art meant balance; that in a painting or a building, you would add nothing nor take anything away without destroying it: balance.

Since the Greeks, we have come to equate balance with beauty, and that alludes to a state we call happiness. I hope that the addition to Lance Hall has balance and happiness!

The task we face –  to build sustainably and to deal with climate change — is immense. I was reminded of that last night, driving to Charleston past miles of suburban sprawl and parking lots, unable to see the sky because of light pollution. What we have done at the Circular Congregational Church is a small start. But I am reminded of the immense change brought about by Thoreau’s cabin — 10 ft. by 15 ft.