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The meditation hall and porch are clad in untreated eastern white cedar.


Won Dharma Center

Hanrahan Meyers Architects
Claverack, New York

Zen Getaway: A retreat in upstate New York reinforces the Buddhist mantra of simplicity and connection to nature.

By Fred A. Bernstein
March 2013

Whether President Obama has had an impact on carbon emissions isn't in doubt among the Won Buddhists of North America, part of a sect founded in Korea in the 1920s to promote interfaith understanding. The group's meditation center, in Claverack, New York (in the Hudson River Valley, two hours north of Manhattan), was already under construction when one of its leaders, Reverend Chung Ohun Lee, attended the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in 2009. She was so inspired by Obama's speech—in which he vowed to cut emissions by 80 percent over 40 years—that she asked the center's architects to switch from the conventional building systems they had already ordered to such energy savers as geothermal heating and solar hot water. The late changes increased the construction budget by about 8 percent, to approximately $6.5 million, according to architect Thomas Hanrahan, who designed the 22,000-square-foot complex with Victoria Meyers, his partner in New York's Hanrahan Meyers Architects.


Location Claverack, New York (Hudson River Valley)

Gross area 22,000 ft2 (2,043 m2)

Completed Spring 2012

Cost $6.5 million

Annual purchased energy use Not available

Annual carbon footprint Not available

Program Meditation and events building, administrative office, dining hall and kitchen, permanent residences, guest residences



Glass Bonneville Windows

Skylights Velux

Low-slope roofing EPDM Firestone EcoWhite rubber roofing

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Won Dharma Center
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The largest of the structures—containing offices, a kitchen and dining room, and a spectacular, double-height meditation chamber—is heated and cooled by 15 geothermal wells, which provide 55-degree water year-round. The other buildings, containing bedrooms for residents and guests, have radiant floor heating (a particular comfort, since everyone places their shoes in racks at the front doors). The system was designed to run on natural gas, but last year the Buddhists added a cordwood boiler, the Austrian-made FHG Turbo 3000. So far, center residents and volunteers have collected all the wood the boiler needs, picking up pieces of fallen trees while walking the 450-acre site. One resident stokes the furnace four or five times a day, a big responsibility but one the group is willing to take on, says volunteer coordinator Doug Conkling, "because wood is a renewable resource." The group has also seen its gas bills drop from about $4,000 a month during the winter of 2011–12 to about $1,000 a month this year. But the boiler cost about $40,000, and the fuel is free only because the Buddhists have both their own woodlands and unpaid labor—hardly typical conditions.

Meanwhile, hot water for the three residential buildings is produced by rooftop solar panels, a system that cost about $60,000, according to Hanrahan. By contrast, a solar electric system might have cost as much as half a million dollars, he says. Luckily, the center's electrical use is low, since Peter Barna, the lighting designer (who is also the provost of Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where Hanrahan is dean of the architecture school), came up with ingenious ways to light the buildings. For the dining room, he chose Shaper fixtures with layers of white acrylic and fabric to soften the hues of standard fluorescent bulbs. According to Barna, he was able to keep wattage throughout the buildings at about half the levels mandated by New York state energy-conservation codes. Meanwhile, the residential buildings, designed with courtyards for cross-ventilation and deep overhangs to keep the sun off the south and west facades, do not require air-conditioning. The owners have been tracking their energy use, but encountered some confusion in the electrical meter readings which they are still trying to sort out with National Grid.

While practically all the building systems were changed after Lee's Copenhagen trip, the architecture itself needed few adjustments. Hanrahan and Meyers had chosen to use wood framing (dimensional lumber and, in a few cases, glulam beams or columns) rather than steel. And all the exteriors were covered in FSC-certified eastern white cedar. The cedar was left untreated, which was possible, according to contractor Gregory Heitmann of Heitmann Builders, because "wood only rots when it stays damp"—emphasis on "stays." Here the cedar siding was shimmed out from the buildings' plywood sheathing by about 1/4 inch, ensuring that water would escape and air would circulate behind it. About a year after being installed, the cedar boards under the overhangs are still golden-hued, but the ones exposed directly to rainfall have turned a silver-gray. That's fine with the architects and clients, who like the color—and not having to treat the walls repeatedly. "Finishes only last a year or two, and then you have to do them again," says Uwe Heitmann, Gregory's father and business partner.

Interior designer Myonggi Sul was equally engaged in making the buildings green—she specified locally harvested oak for flooring and local sources for all custom furniture (made of FSC-certified and formaldehyde-free apple plywood). Paint is Benjamin Moore Eco Spec latex, VOC-free. The client opted against LEED certification, which Hanrahan estimates would have added at least $50,000 to the cost, instead spending available funds on green features (like the wood-burning boiler, an investment that is paying off in large part because of the Buddhists' commitment to keeping it stoked). It helps, Hanrahan says, that "reducing their carbon footprint is part of their philosophy." But the real lesson is that even the most advanced systems require the client's participation to achieve significant energy savings.

Fred A. Bernstein writes about both law and architecture and is a frequent contributor to Architectural Record.


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