United Churches in HRM are on a carbon-cutting mission thanks to Faithful Footprints, a funding stream that helps churches cut their GHG emissions through retrofits.
By Zack Metcalfe, Climate Story Network
For the first time in over a century, the chimneys of Grace United Church in downtown Dartmouth are cold and smokeless, yet its 18,000 square feet remain as warm and welcoming as the day it was built, in 1920.
It began with a routine inspection of the building’s three furnaces in the fall of 2017, which revealed a fatal crack in the newest unit. Grace United’s board of volunteers bit the bullet and bought a new one – winter was coming, after all – but the expense sparked a conversation which never quite went away about finances, sustainability, and especially values.
“We decided this wasn’t the way we wanted to go in the long term,” said Board chair Robert Picco. “A lot of our congregation was interested in becoming a more carbon neutral operation, so, as a board, we asked how we could lower both our carbon footprint and operational costs.”
They considered renovating – everything from new lighting fixtures to a rooftop solar array – but their three furnaces, and $12,000 annual oil bill, remained top-of-mind. After some soul searching, and a thorough energy audit, they decided the furnaces were out, and heat pumps were in.
“At first we were a bit wary,” said Picco, “because we weren’t sure heat pumps would work in a building this old, but we went through the process, evaluated different alternatives, and at the end it looked like heat pumps would work.”
The renovation began in November 2022. Three furnaces and two oil tanks were removed, four Fujitsu heat pumps were incorporated with existing ductwork, and the church’s electrical capacity underwent a sorely needed upgrade. The tubing, connecting interior heat pumps to their rooftop fans, was fed through Grace United’s now retired chimneys.
The new setup performs well, said Picco. Financial savings and reduced carbon numbers haven’t yet been calculated, but he expects the final tally will be significant. The church remained warm through winter and the reduced humidity – courtesy of the heat pumps – turned out to be a godsend.
“Our music director said the church organ sounds a lot better in the dry air,” said Picco. “It’s a benefit we weren’t expecting.”
This renovation was no anomaly. United Churches across Canada have been cutting carbon with thoughtful renovations since 2018, reducing annual emissions by 824 metric tonnes of CO2 overall, equivalent to removing 252 cars from the road every single year, or leaving 351,029 litres of gasoline unburned. In HRM alone, Bethany United Church and the Brunswick Street Mission each cut emissions by a quarter, the former with new windows, insulation, lighting, and a smart thermometer, the latter with heat pumps.
Rockingham United, serving the Bedford Basin area since the 1960s, is an A-framed church whose broad roof was ideal for solar. They installed a 225-panel array in 2020, selling their $20,000 of annual electricity to the grid, while only buying $9,000 back. To date, their array has displaced 114 tonnes of CO2 emissions equivalent to a 457,000-kilometre road trip.
All these renovations were made possible by Faithful Footprints, a funding stream created by the United Church of Canada and administered by the third-party organization Faith and the Common Good. Through it, each United Church congregation can apply for up to $30,000 toward carbon cutting infrastructural upgrades, whether it be a church, office space, or health centre.
“We’re not going to build our way out of the climate crisis,” said Stephen Collette, building scientist with Faith and the Common Good. “We’re going to renovate our way out.”
This is because of “embodied carbon” – the carbon emitted during a building’s construction, which includes emissions from the mining of stone, cutting of wood, making of bricks, plaster and insulation, and simple transportation of people and materials to and from construction sites.
“It’s all the carbon required to get you to day one of ownership,” said Collette. “And in many cases, embodied carbon exceeds operational carbon (heat and electricity) for the lifetime of the building.”
This means that maintaining the efficiency and vitality of existing infrastructure will almost always be more carbon efficient than knocking down old buildings for the sake of new ones. Even if new buildings are enormously efficient, said Collette, their construction will require another heavy investment of embodied carbon, often taking decades to pay off. Climatically, renovations almost always make more sense than new construction.
This is especially true of churches, said Collette, not just because of their exceptional longevity, but because there are so many of them. Faith communities are the second largest property holders in Canada, surpassed only by the federal government. Renovating their 27,000 buildings, to keep them operational and efficient, is an enormous opportunity to reduce Canada’s carbon emissions in the near and long term, whether those buildings remain churches, or find new life as community centres or apartment buildings.
“We need to think about how to make it easier for these renovations to happen,” said Collette.
Faithful Footprints does exactly that. Through it, the United Church of Canada has awarded several million dollars across 209 grants, with hundreds more working through the application process. For the time being, Faithful Footprints has no end date.
The Climate Story Network is an initiative of Climate Focus, a non-profit organization dedicated to covering stories about community-driven climate solutions.
Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, photographer, columnist, and author. He has written for many publications across Canada, and focuses on the environment, endangered species, land conservation, and climate change. He has nine works of fiction to his name. Zack is also an outdoor adventurer, hiker, and rock climber.