sisters of sustainability

As an architect, one of the most rewarding things is working with a truly special client on a truly special project. I feel so fortunate and honored to be able to work with some of the most amazing people I have met in my life to co-create beautiful dwellings with them. One such example is working with the Sisters of St. Francis to help design new housing for them on their land in Denver.

This project called Casa Chiara includes 6 dwelling units (for 12 sisters) plus province offices and was built using modular construction. In fact, this is first multi-family, modular, sustainable project built in the US that I know of. It is composed of 16 modules to create these 1 and 2-story duplexes with a center shared courtyard space and a cascading contemplation garden.

At first blush, one might not put together a group of Catholic nuns with modern, sustainable design. However, this inspiring group of women see building in a sustainable way as a natural extension of their core belief system. The Sisters are incredibly generous and gifted and give so much to their community. Many of them are teachers in art, pre-school, high school, elder training programs, hospital chaplaincy, social justice participation, and volunteer work in residential facilities. They are all involved in the ministry of prayer for peace and for the health and preservation of planet earth and all who live on it. In the province chapter of 2007, the sisters chose to adopt the Earth Charter and its principles for building a just, sustainable and peaceful global society. As a part of their penance, the Sisters of St. Francis live “with gentle courtesy toward all creation”. The Franciscan Sisters’ have a strong commitment to conserve and sustain resources and therefore built a team (outlined below) to help them with their project that reflected their values.

Some of the Green Aspects of the Casa Chiara project:

    • Strategically placed windows and openings to sculpt in natural light and maximize ventilation (reducing energy for artificial lighting and mechanical systems)
    • Modular construction significantly reduces material waste and provides safe and healthy environment for workers
    • All materials were purchased from in-state vendors, supporting the local economy and reducing shipping
    • Materials on the site were recycled including concrete waste that was dumped into a concrete washout container; copper wire, piping and steel beams from the existing building; and recycled concrete was used to backfill the retaining walls
    • Materials from the construction site were resused: bricks from the existing convent were saved and used for landscaping walls; wrought iron railings on the balconies and walkways came from the existing convent building; and Habitat for Humanity and others used salvaged materials from the demolition of the existing convent building
    • Eco-friendly materials with non-toxic and mold-resistant qualities were used as well as an air-filtration system to ensure healthy interior air quality
    • Efficient systems and building envelope to minimize energy usage including high performance insulation; dual pane, low-e glass doors and windows; energy star doors, energy star appliances, and 90%+ efficient furnace; tankless on-demand water heater
    • Xeriscaping landscaping and low-flow plumbing fixtures were used to reduce water consumption
    • Incorporated center garden / water retention to reduce issues with storm water run-off on this sloped site
    • 14kw PV solar system that produces all the electricity for the site and the buildings (and actually produces more than they require, so they sell back to the grid and receive rebates)

Project Team:
Client: Sisters of St. Francis
Developer: Urban Ventures LLC (Susan Powers, Kate Hilberg, Dick Taft)
Planning Consultant: Anderies Consulting (Mary Anderies)
Architect: Michelle Kaufmann Studio (Michelle Kaufmann, Andrew Faust)
Landscape Architect: Wenk + Associates (Jesse Clark)
Modular Factory: All American Homes (Doug Stimpson)
Site Contractor: Core Alternatives (Scott Glahn)
(Molly Urbina, Ken Brewer, Rick Garcia, Chuck Perry and Perry-Rose LLC, Lou Raders and many, many others helped make this project a built reality)

Here is a photo of the sisters during a sacred ground blessing ceremony with the project team at end of the garden. (I was pretty much weeping during this part)

Here are some excerpts from a previous ceremony as the site construction started:

“All of creation, from the initial creative event to the arrival of humans, is a single, interconnected and interdependent whole. When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe. No particle is ever wasted or worn out, but eternally flowing from use to use.

-John Muir

on the responsibility to the environment:

“Today, the ecological crisis has assumed such proportions as to be the responsibility of everyone. When the ecological crisis is set within the broader context of the search for peace within society, we can understand better the importance of giving attention to what the earth and its atmosphere are telling us: namely, that there is an order in the universe which must be respected, and that the human person, endowed with the capability of choosing freely, has a grave responsibility to preserve this order for the well-being of future generations. The right to a safe environment is ever more insistently presented today as a right that must be included in an updated Charter of Human Rights. I wish to repeat that the ecological crisis is a moral issue.

-Pope John Paul II

8 Responses to “sisters of sustainability”

  1. Ultan says:

    Fabulous, Michelle. God bless the sisters, and the sisterhood!


  2. Liz Gebhardt says:

    Beautiful and congrats Michelle. Will you be sharing any shots of the interior spaces? I’m curious about the room heights — and “double height” ceilings?

  3. Liza says:

    This is absolutely stunning for so many reasons – great work!

  4. kathy says:

    Congratulations Michelle and Sisters! Casa Chiara is absolutely amazing.

  5. [...] of concept. They showed clients it was possible to build green and make it beautiful. Today, the Denver site represents the next generation of prefab, as it mixes affordable and market rate housing. It’s [...]

  6. [...] of concept. They showed clients it was possible to build green and make it beautiful. Today, the Denver site represents the next generation of prefab, as it mixes affordable and market rate housing. [...]

  7. I have to admit i always was obviously a little leary of all of the hype happening around solar. After considering various programs and get options my spouce and i decided to take the plunge. We ended up getting solar without the need of money down and we immediatly started saving money the very first month is was installed. I have to admit that the primary advantages of solar are real and I am happy we chose to move forward with it.

  8. Mary Breiling, snjm says:

    Thank you. I appreciated your sustainable approach to building and enjoyed seeing what you did. It encouraged me with some of our approaches.

Leave a Reply