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Middleton, Wisconsin

To create a LEED-Platinum monastery for the Benedictine Women of Madison, tradeoffs are made.

By David Sokol
December 2011
Courtesy of Hoffman
Sun filters through the windows as well as tubular and traditional skylights to reach 85 percent of regularly occupied spaces.

Perhaps greenness is next to godliness, because the Benedictine Women of Madison required no convincing that Holy Wisdom Monastery should embody the most sustainable outcome their money could buy. By the time the Sisters had tapped Hoffman to design and construct the new monastery, they had already converted 95 acres of their 130-acre Middleton, Wisconsin, site from farmland to natural prairie, and dredged a glacial lake of the silt caused by agricultural runoff.

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There just wasn’t that much money to spend, in part because an underutilized 60,000-square-foot former boarding school was still costing the Sisters $100,000 annually in operations. Hoffman’s assignment was to design and build a green and lean replacement for the energy-guzzling Benedict House, which would encompass spaces for prayer, residential living, events, and administration.

Figuring square footage was the first major decision impacting the ecological and financial footprint. “We backed into the solution, balancing wants and needs with a very modest budget,” says Hoffman’s owner and president Paul J. Hoffman. Over two years of conversation, the Sisters made trims throughout their program and, in particular, eliminated guest-room space. Their internal tradeoffs yielded a 50 percent reduction.

Hoffman then employed its own tradeoff process for making the most of every remaining square foot. Explains the company namesake: “We look at individual systems or products and evaluate them for quality and performance, including environmental impact. If the most sustainable carpet is three times more expensive than the second most sustainable carpet, then we may use the less expensive carpet and apply the savings to something with greater benefit, like a geothermal well field.”

He specifies two examples. The Sisters’ goal was zero-net energy, but reaching that target using photovoltaics would have cost them $1 million more than the solution they chose, in which PVs produce 13 percent of electricity needs now, with flexibility for expansion. The design team also worked with a manufacturer to reduce double-glazed windows’ visible transmittance by 20 percent. For the slight surcharge of customization, the cost of interior and exterior shading devices on three exposures was eliminated without sacrificing their sustainable benefit. In both cases Hoffman applied the savings to other features.

Indeed, today, sun filters through those windows as well as tubular and traditional skylights to reach 85 percent of regularly occupied spaces. The windows are mostly operable, and in temperate weather the Sisters and other occupants receive an automatic email encouraging them to control natural ventilation as they wish. In addition to the new 30,000-square-foot monastery, Benedict House’s 4,000-square-foot subbasement was salvaged and remodeled for offices, a workshop, and housing for geothermal equipment (39 closed-loop wells are located beneath the parking area) and other mechanicals. Its roof is planted in native forbs and grasses. 

Working in tandem with efficiency and passive strategies, the closed-loop ground source heat pump and photovoltaic system help Holy Wisdom operate at an energy cost of $34,000 per year, which includes grid purchases. The project’s total first cost also represents big savings from a known baseline: At the time Holy Wisdom achieved LEED-Platinum certification at 63 points, the Sisters had paid $246 per square foot for the monastery, completely outfitted, while 16 other Platinum-rated buildings averaged a cost of $412 per square foot.


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