Oak Park Church Preaches Green Gospel
Located just 20 minutes by bicycle from Frank Lloyd Wright’s celebrated house in Oak Park, Illinois, Euclid Avenue United Methodist Church is the Village’s epicenter of sustainability initiatives. The 22,500-square-foot church was built in 1900 and in 1967 a two-story addition was attached directly to the south to provide space for religious education. After that the building remained the same, more or less, until the early 2010’s, when its leaders bit the green bullet. By 2014, they had completed two major energy-saving upgrades to the structure.
Both upgrades were, ingeniously, hidden from view. The first, in 2011, was the installation of geothermal boreholes, or wells, to take advantage of the earth’s constant temperature to heat and cool the building. Though the church’s intent was never in doubt, there was limited space to drill wells on church grounds. After conferring with the Village, the church chose to sink 46 wells, each 150 feet deep, in its parking lot across Euclid Avenue, and connect them to the church via a network of underground pipes. Those pipes had to steer clear of an old brick sewer line under the street, so the geothermal installer, Advanced Geothermal Plumbing & Heating, ran them 15 feet below the sewer. At the same time, the church had the parking lot’s asphalt pavement replaced by permeable pavers to allow rainwater to seep into the soil below, rather than run off-site into the sewer system.
Three years later came the second upgrade: a photovoltaic array of 99 solar panels, angled southward, to complement the new geothermal system. To avoid the challenges, both aesthetic and physical, of attaching the panels to the century-old church’s slanted roof, the panels were instead placed one by one on the flat roof of the adjacent education building.
Once the photovoltaic and geothermal systems were up and running, the church began to realize big savings in its energy bills, and its congregation experienced more comfort during summer services now that the air around them was “conditioned.” Another payoff: freedom from the grid and from the old, antiquated boiler in the basement.
Since 2014, Euclid Avenue Church has moved closer to its goal of “net zero” energy status by signing onto a community solar program and encouraging its members to do the same. It has also replaced its old light bulbs with LED’s, put in energy-saving motion sensors to turn bathroom lights on and off, and added two electric car charging stations in the parking lot. A butterfly garden, rain garden, and two new trees top off its efforts to be carbon-free. While passersby may admire the church's pretty flowers, they have no idea that its main fuel sources are the geothermal system below and the solar array above.
Euclid Avenue Church isn’t the only house of worship in Oak Park with so many green features. The famous Wright-designed Unity Temple nearby, for example, also relies on geothermal heating and cooling. But Euclid is unique in that it has a Green Action Team and its own Sustainability “Bible” full of green goals and practices, from composting to using nontoxic chemicals. It periodically holds events like Earth Day dinners and the “Solar-bration” that marked the completion of the solar panel project. Not only that, but this church’s ambitious motto is “Love God, Live Green, Liberate All.”