What Makes a Green Shul Green?


JRC will be moving home this Sunday! If you’ve been reading my JRC Construction Diary updates over this past year and a half, you must surely know what a long, powerful trip this has been for our congregational community. And you will also know that our new synagogue building is a green shul, having been built according to sacred Jewish values of environmental sustainability.

What makes a green shul green, you may ask? Click below for your own personal tour…

JRC’s new building was designed to achieve one of the two highest levels of LEED certification by the US Green Building Council. LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is a point-based review process created by the USBC to rate private, commercial and public buildings in six major areas: sustainability, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, indoor environmental quality and innovation and design process.

Our decision to achieve a gold or platinum LEED rating required careful consideration of sustainable strategies and a comprehensive, holistic approach to the building design. The design of our synagogue included sustainable components such as reclaimed, recycled and rapidly renewable materials, wood from certified sustainable forests, and strategies such as light harvesting and water conservation. Our building maximizes the latest in technological and design advances to minimize the use of depletable resources, maximizes natural light and air, and reduces energy consumption by a careful system of insulation, heat reflection, and digitally controlled zones for heating and cooling.

Here’s a tour of our building’s environmental features, starting with the exterior:


Our ceremonial entrance door (above) is made from reclaimed maple trees harvested from our site that needed to be cut down for construction. The exterior wood siding is reclaimed from barns in upstate New York. The exterior consists of 14,000 board feet of cypress collected, re-milled and refinished for our use.


The gabion walls on the exterior of our building (above) contain reclaimed fill from locally demolished buildings as well as shards of Jerusalem stone that were used in the interior and exterior of our building. Gabion is a term for metal cages that are typically used to prevent soil erosion – JRC’s gabion walls make a dramatic statement by openly displaying materials that would otherwise go into a landfill.

Our building is built on grade and is supported by eighteen caissons which go down fifty five feet to bedrock. Our old building’s rubble was used to fill the old basement and bring the site to grade. An amazing 96% of the old building (approximately 2,700 tons) was recycled – only 4% went into a landfill! Metals were removed for scrap, while the concrete and brick were ground up (see below) to fill in the old basement and support our new foundation.


Our landscaping, which will be installed this spring, is designed to require no irrigation, and will be filled with native and drought tolerant plant species. There will be no lawn except on the parkway as required by the city. Our parking lot across the street is lit by photo-voltaic (solar electrically powered) lights. The windows of our building are made of high efficiency, insulated, gas filled, Low-E glass, which allows for sunlight but minimal heat collection inside of the building.

Moving now into the first floor of the building: the floors on all three levels are made of polished concrete designed to look like terrazzo. Besides being much cheaper than real stone or commercial flooring products, they eliminate the need for any adhesives that would be used to glue them in place. The one exception is the carpet in the offices on the first and second floors. There the carpet is made with non-VOC (Volatile Organic Compound), non-formaldehyde fibers that include both recycled content and rapidly renewable corn content.

The windows are meant to both bring in light and views at various levels for people of all heights (especially our pre-schoolers). They can be opened during those times of year when we don’t need artificial heating or cooling. The cabinets and shelving are made with Dakota Burl Cabinetry, (below) a unique composite product manufactured from a rapidly renewable agricultural fiber product including sunflower husks.


The Chapel (below) is finished with reclaimed cypress and has an east facing window looking out into a soon to be landscaped rock garden built next to our protective gabion wall. It also features a solar powered Ner Tamid (Eternal Light.) Here, as elsewhere, indoor air quality concerns dictated the use of low-toxic, non-formaldehyde emitting construction materials and furnishings as well as the use of Low-VOC paints.


Our bathrooms (below) feature low-flow water faucets and dual-flush toilets (up for liquids, down for solids) work to reduce water usage. Showers (also low-flow) have been installed to encourage bicycling, especially among the staff. The combination of water efficient features are projected to save 40% on water consumption through the life of our building.


The first floor also includes a dedicated recycling collection area. According to a recently passed congregational green policy, JRC will commit to recycle paper, glass, plastic and metal. There are also other recycled materials in the building that are not obvious. The concrete floors contain fly ash from steel mills. The steel beams that hold the building up have significant recycled steel content, mainly from automobiles. The thick insulation in our walls and roof contain recycled glass. The carpeting, the rubber baseboards, the rubber play ground mulch and other furnishings also have recycled content.

Moving up now to the second floor: this is a good place to explain our energy efficient zoning system. Each and every room in the building has a separate thermostat and variable air velocity box to deliver warm or cool air. They are designed so that air is only delivered as needed when the room is in use. Classrooms that are in use four to six hours weekly will only be heated and cooled when needed. Likewise the sanctuary can be cooled or heated only when it will be used. A central digital system is programmed according to building use and can be adjusted as our schedule dictates. Each room can also be reset up or down two degrees as needed for comfort.

Integrated with this system are CO-2 sensors, which assure enough fresh air will be brought in to each area for a healthy oxygen level. The fresh air brought in through the system is filtered. Although the windows are operable, the system is designed to bring in fresh air and filter it. The operable windows are designed to be used only during the spring and fall when the HVAC system is off.

Occupancy sensors turn lights on or off when rooms are in use or vacant. The lighting is provided by fluorescent T-5 bulbs (below) which are controlled with dual switches. This means that we have the option of only using half the energy when daylight permits. Saving energy with the high output per bulb is not the only feature of the T5 bulb. The color rendering index (CRI) is better than the typical T12 and T8 bulbs. The lighting system offers a 50% savings over lighting usage in a standard system.

As a result of all of these features, our engineers have calculated our building will consume 45% less energy than a conventional building.


Moving up finally to the third floor: the entry foyer to the sanctuary gets daylight from our south facing windows but also from Solar Tube Skylights (below). They can also be found in the kitchen, hallway and reception areas to bring in natural lighting, reducing our need for electric lighting.


The sanctuary (below) features reclaimed cypress, as well as black walnut from storm-felled trees reclaimed from the Chicago Park district. Like the chapel there is another solar-powered Ner Tamid and the most dramatic feature is the east window wall that use of the high efficiency low-E Glass. Lighting programming provides for eight dimming “scenes.” Photo cell sensors dim for ambient lighting, and if the light gets too bright from the clerestory windows we can lower motorized shades. The track is in place for a large curtain that could be drawn across the main east window if necessary for light control.


The unique heating and cooling system in the sanctuary is called a Displacement Ventilation System. This system, used extensively in Europe, works by locating air diffusers at the bottom of the walls and circulating the air so that only the bottom 6ft of the room is warmed or cooled. This allows us to have a high ceiling without the high utility costs to heat or cool the entire room.

Our kitchen (below) utilizes Energy Star appliances, including a highly efficient quick-cycling commercial dishwasher. The washer/dryer will also be high efficiency Energy Star models with a special sanitizing feature. The goal of having a dishwasher and washer/dryer unit is to decrease our use of single use kitchen products such as paper or plastic plates and flatware and paper tablecloths and towels. There is recycled content in the stainless steel and the pressboard in the wood bases contain no formaldehyde. Solar Tube Skylights bring in daylight.


Our rear stairwells include windows so that light fixtures are less needed. Motion sensors turn stairwell lights on only when needed. On the roof, a white reflective surface (see below) was chosen to decrease our air conditioning load and reduce our “heat island” effect in the neighborhood. Most homes and buildings in America, in fact, are built with dark roofs that absorb heat, forcing air conditioners to work up to 20% longer and use a fifth more power. JRC’s reflective roof will help our air conditioning system to work more efficiently, especially during peak usage hours.


Post Script: Questions about some green options that we opted not to include in our building:

Why doesn’t JRC have a “green roof?”

A green roof, one filled with soil and plants and the water to sustain them, requires a much heavier structural support than our reflective roof. In order to provide that support we would have needed to put several structural beams in the middle of our sanctuary, blocking sight lines to the Bimah and Ark. The much higher cost to provide that structure as well as to install the green roof was also a consideration. The reflective roof we have meets the LEED requirement for mitigating “heat trapping” (discussed above.)

Why didn’t JRC put a solar hot water system on the roof?

Solar hot water makes sense in those situations when large amounts of hot water are used all of the time (like a laundromat) or when the user has discretion over when to use it (a family deciding when to wash clothes or use a dishwasher). At JRC, our use pattern is the opposite. We need small amounts during the day and then large amounts occasionally during the week such as during services. It didn’t make sense functionally, and had a very long payback period.

Why didn’t JRC install photo-voltaic solar power cells on the roof to provide electricity?

At this point the cost for PV solar power is not economical. All of the energy features we put into the building were instituted with the idea that a small higher up-front cost would pay back in energy savings in a relative short time (three to ten years depending on the feature and the cost of energy). The current PV payback is just not there. We did install a conduit so that when the price of PV becomes more attractive, we have the infrastructure already built in to the building so we would not need to retro-fit.

Why doesn’t JRC use a geo-thermal heating or cooling system?

We explored this possibility as well and discovered that the size of our lot and the type of soil we had were not ideal or practical for geo-thermal, even if it was possible. We also felt the money needed for geo-thermal was better spent on our highly efficient, non conventional heating and cooling system which does have a reasonable payback period.

Why doesn’t JRC have pervious pavement in the parking lot or along paths?

This was an area that we strongly desired but could not afford. There was also a concern as to whether these surfaces would be accessible enough for people who have trouble walking.

Why doesn’t JRC have bamboo or cork floors?

Another desirable feature that we could not afford in the end. We held several meetings where our Financial Oversight Committee was required to make massive cuts only to discover that they needed to make more after the later estimates came in still higher.

Why doesn’t JRC use cotton batting insulation?

The cotton batting, although rapidly renewable, comes from China. We opted for locally manufactured fiberglass, which is less expensive and mitigates the use of fossil fuels for transport.

(Thanks to JRC Members Julie Dorfman and Jerry Herst for helping compile this material!)

6 thoughts on “What Makes a Green Shul Green?

  1. Ellen

    This is incredible!! It is so impressive. I am so proud!!
    I feel so blessed.
    I cannot wait to be a part of it all on Sunday!
    All the best for a Shabbat filled with Shalom

  2. Roberta Cohen

    I am humbled by the beauty of your new shul and the thoughtfulness of its green contributions for all of us. Go with strength!

  3. carol shulman


    I have been friends with one of your congregants , Jan Wishinsky from the time we were 6. I emailed her recently to say that a mutual friend from Baltimore, David Bacharach was building a Torah Ark for a Synagogue in Evanston and that it sounded like a good reason for a visit with her. Amazingly, Jan wrote back that it was, in fact, HER synagogue that was receiving such a beautiful and sacred piece of art for their sanctuary!

    Mazel Tov! Your website evokes images of tradition, warmth and joyful community. I am so pleased that Jan is a member of such a community and that our friend, David was able to add to it’s beauty and grace.

    From Strength to Strength,

    Carol Shulman

  4. Anna Singer

    Thanks for this. We’re planning a much smaller new synagogue here in the deep south and many of the questions you asked and answered will be useful to us.

    Anna Jacobs Singer
    1st VP
    Temple Emanu-El. Tuscaloosa, AL


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