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Sustaining Our Heritage: How Historic Buildings Can Support The Energy Transition

In the year 2050, all human activities need to be carbon neutral – meaning that we capture as much carbon as we burn. To accomplish this, we will need to reduce our usage and dependency on energy generated by fossil fuel sources within the built environment. 

Under Building The Transition, the theme of World Green Building Week 2023 (September 11 - 15), The World Green Building Council highlighted three transitions that are essential to accelerate a sustainable built environment. Critical on the pathway toward carbon neutrality, The Energy Transition focuses on “accelerating the uptake of built environments that are all-electric, reducing energy demand, storing and sharing clean energy, and producing more energy than they use.” 

Preserving the Past, Shaping the Future

When you envision a carbon-neutral world, you might be picturing a scene from Star Trek, with flying cars and glasses with built-in computers. On the contrary, our world in 27 years will look a lot like what we see right now, only different. Many of the buildings that exist today  — the buildings we live in, work in, and worship in, will still be standing and operating. While we aggressively design buildings that are net-zero, net-positive, and carbon-neutral, we will simultaneously be retrofitting existing buildings to strive towards those same standards. The Energy Transition will rely on deep retrofitting existing buildings as much as it will on designing new ones.

Historic Buildings and The Energy Transition

Like a significant number of United Church buildings, historic buildings, often operating on conventional and inefficient fossil fuel-based energy systems, are typically correlated to high energy consumption and poor energy performance. Retaining, retrofitting, and repurposing these buildings, rather than replacing them can present significant energy-saving and carbon-reduction opportunities.

Energy efficiency coupled with building electrification are the main strategies for transitioning historic buildings towards the future. The first course of action is to make buildings as efficient as possible. This means well-insulating and air-sealing buildings to help eliminate heating and cooling intensities and keep as much energy used to provide comfort to building occupants. The second action is transitioning to building electrification by moving away from carbon-based non-renewable energy sources and toward clean renewable energy.

Tailored Energy Solutions for Historic Buildings

Due to their unique architectural intricacies, and diverse materials and techniques used in construction, retrofitting historic buildings to align with The Energy Transition faces distinct challenges. Recognizing that each building has its own set of obstacles and opportunities, tailored strategies for building-specific energy solutions become imperative. 

From innovative insulation techniques that respect the original fabric of the structure to the installation of efficient HVAC systems that operate seamlessly within architectural constraints, these strategies need to be both adaptive and sensitive.

“Our church building was constructed in 1963 at a time when building energy standards were less stringent. We needed to work with the existing structure without compromising its architectural or structural integrity. The brick and concrete block walls and hot water heating system are constraints that needed to be considered during any of our proposed building modifications.” shares Ensor Nicholson, Board Member at Mount Royal United Church in Moncton, NB.

Embracing the Transition

Trinity United Church in Shelburne, ON is one of the many communities of faith within The United Church of Canada that are embracing change and taking action toward The Energy Transition.


“The current strength of our church is its willingness to accept change, to reinvent itself and find new ways to keep up with the time…to test our way forward and experience what it would look like to bring the whole church closer to today’s environmental standards.” shares Micheal Hofman, Property Chair of Trinity United Church.

In 2019, Trinity United reconfigured an entire room by insulating the outer exterior wall, installing hydronic baseboard heaters and EnergyStar ceiling fans, swapping T-12 fluorescent fixtures with LED fixtures and dimmable lights, and replacing two old single-paned windows with double-glazed units. 

A year later, to further reduce its natural gas and electricity usage, Trinity United applied for a Faithful Footprints grant. With expert guidance and financial support from The United Church of Canada’s Faithful Footprints program, Trinity United replaced its hydronic boilers and the two main doors of the church. A year following the projects, Trinity United reduced its GHG emission by 34.6%, electricity usage by 38.1%, natural gas usage by 34.6%, and energy costs by 15.2%. 

“The boilers were unusable and the front doors had not been upgraded since the church was built in 1903. Both these projects were well past their due date. The Faithful Footprints program supported our efforts to bring our aging church building up to modern environmental standards” expressed Rev. Dr. Candice Bist of Trinity United Church

Trinity United Church plans to continue its efforts to improve the energy efficiency of its building, taking on smaller inexpensive upgrades as they make their way around the church — replacing windows, insulating outside walls, and upgrading lighting on a room-to-room basis.

“The church building needs lots of work, but it is still a solid, well-built building from which to reimagine a new future — When we began working with Faithful Footprints, we did a DIY Energy Audit of the entire church building. The audit, along with Faithful Footprints’ many resources, brought to our attention some smaller items, specific to our building that we could attend to that would help energy loss throughout the building” shared Bist.

Take part in The Energy Transition 

Is your faith community ready to advance The Energy Transition and retrofit your historic faith-building? 

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