Environmental Stewardship Reaps Rewards for Felician Sisters Convent

When the Franciscan nuns of the Felician Sisters Convent in Coraopolis decided they wanted to modernize their 70-year-old mother house to feel less like an institution and more like a home, they decided to renovate and consolidate their whole “community” under one roof.  With its sweeping chapel spire, original hardwood floors, fir moldings, and solid wood doors and transoms, the mother house for many years had been an established familial symbol to the Sisters.  As they aged, however, it was obvious that the existing building plan was not workable as an independent living facility.  The elderly Sisters’ bedrooms were too far from existing bathrooms and the bathrooms themselves were inaccessible for walkers or wheelchairs. The building’s systems were untouched since their installation in the 1930s, there were no individual temperature controls and existing partitions contained asbestos. The structure really needed to be gutted, yet doing so would jeopardize the very reason for renovating the mother house.

As followers of Saint Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of the environment and animals, the Sisters view environmental stewardship as a responsibility. They were strongly committed to an environmentally-responsible renovation, while simultaneously desiring to preserve the building’s historic architectural character.  The project team also realized the value of the building’s unique resources early in the process.  Despite the fact that they were 70+ years old, many interior and exterior materials were still in excellent condition.  For the low maintenance and durability the Sisters desired, new materials could not be purchased that would perform as well as the old. A subcontractor was therefore hired to catalog, remove, touch-up, repair and reinstall the doors, flooring, trim and cabinetry.  Over an acre of hardwood flooring was reused as well as several hundred doors and transoms and several miles of trim.  Even the ballast for the roof was stockpiled and reused as underlayment for paving.  What wasn’t reused during the renovation was recycled.  Recycling of the shell alone—including the roof, floor slabs, steel structure, masonry walls and foundations—saved embodied energy equivalent to energy used to heat the building for 15 years.

All new finishes consisted of low-emitting VOC material, which, in conjunction with natural ventilation, has greatly improved indoor air quality.  “We have seen a drastic reduction in hospitalizations due to pulmonary complications, as well as less reliance on medications among the Sisters, along with a reduction in asthma,” notes Laura Nettleton, an architect who worked on the project while with Perkins Eastman and currently owns a firm called design (by us).

“I think it is noteworthy that, despite the frailty of our elderly population, we have had no hospitalizations for upper respiratory illnesses since the renovation,” further states Elaine Herzog, director of nursing at the convent.  “One of our sisters with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease has been able to have her (asthma medication) discontinued and simultaneously decreased the use of her inhaler.  She has been asymptomatic.”

With the full participation of the Sisters, Perkins Eastman reconfigured the 150,000-square-foot convent into 10 household clusters consisting of individual rooms with private baths.  All the clusters were arrayed around a common living room, kitchen and dining room. Four different hallways exemplify the Franciscan Order’s ethics: the Hall of Life, Hall of Social Justice, Hall of Peace, and Hall of Community.  Each one is a focal point of its respective floor and used for the presentation of student work and as informal gathering space.  Large openings in the classrooms provide natural light, which is enhanced by high-reflectance paint.  On the grounds, students can enjoy nature trails that wind across seven acres of newly planted meadowlands (previously a lawn area) that promotes animal habitats.  All plantings were selected from native species and rain water is collected and used both for landscape irrigation and as make-up water for the building’s evaporative cooler.

This project, which achieved the distinctive LEED® Gold rating, has been used to educate the Sisters, students and staff in issues of the environment, including green cleaning, recycling, vermicomposting and renewable energy.  Inspired by their own project, the Sisters have proceeded to incorporate more and more sustainable principles into everyday living, including buying locally raised food and developing outreach programs to educate the community.

Beyond the learning opportunity, increased comfort and long-term savings, however, there is clearly another great benefit of this renovation.  It is an intangible and priceless one—the preservation of a cultural memory of an historic building.  As one Sister remarked to the architects, “These doors are the doors that I have touched and the doors that Sisters before me have touched.”

See more details on the Felician Sisters Convent here

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