Coralville’s Unitarian Universalist Society Members
Live What They Profess
In the middle of a worldwide heat wave that scientists declared resulted, in part, from human-caused climate change, we entered the campus of the Greenest Church in Iowa, the Unitarian Universalist Society in Coralville, Iowa. Feeling depressed by climate change news, the visit buoyed our spirits and gave us a glimmer of hope for the future of our planet.
One of the Unitarian Universalists’ principles is respect for the independent web of all existence of which we are a part of. The members of the Coralville church live the principle and others that form their core beliefs.
The Greenest Church in Iowa
As we turned into the Church campus, everything was softer and quieter. We drove past rows of photovoltaic solar cells. Just past them was a world of green. Nestled within native vegetation was a lovely contemplative labyrinth. A vegetated detention basin is both the home for pollinating insects and a place to catch stormwater, preventing it from scouring its way downhill.
We walked a delightful path circling the organization’s eight acres. Native flowers were alive with pollinators, and a children’s play area was meshed into nature. It’s almost as if this location were meant to be.
On entering the building, the Church’s low ceiling entry opens into expansive spaces, an echo of Frank Lloyd Wright’s style. An immediate sense of calm and comfort enveloped us. Just beyond the cozy foyer, our eyes were drawn upward. East-facing windows framed an Iowa summer sky dotted with puffy clouds. Outside, deep green pines swayed in a gentle breeze. Members greeted us and Sally Hartman, chair of the Social Justice team, hosted us during the service. Worship leaders were engaging, the acoustics excellent, and the presence of the outdoors through the windows soothed us.
How Did This Come to Be?
Depending on one’s perspective, this church and location have been in the making since the 1990s. More recently since 2013. Sally, also a member of the Iowa UU Witness Advocacy Network, and Kirk Witzberger, who served on leadership teams that developed and implemented the plans, explained. Over many decades, the Society recognized that even with renovations, the former Gilbert St. site in downtown Iowa City could not meet 21st Century needs. Different teams looked for new property. After an almost certain deal for another property fell through, a member happened to chat with a realtor who mentioned the current site. The Congregation voted overwhelmingly to buy and the couple who owned the land, former Peace Corps volunteers, were delighted to sell to an organization that respected the land.
Multiple meetings and myriad decisions followed. The result is a beautiful net zero building that the congregation shares with the community. The building burns no fossil fuel. Solar energy produces all its energy needs, including lighting, heating, and cooling.
Efficient and Flexible
The building includes a sanctuary, gathering spaces, offices, classrooms, and food service areas. Tucked into the property, it fits well. As attractive as its outdoor vegetation is, the building was well thought out. Just a few examples include:
- Efficient glass walls boost energy efficiency while allowing people inside to feel like they’re sitting in nature. We enjoyed watching clouds drift by during the service we attended.
- Flexible space can accommodate large groups of up to 600 or be compartmentalized into smaller, more intimate gathering places.
- All areas are easily accessible for folks with walking challenges. Even carpets are precisely flush with adjoining harder floors.
When we asked Kirk Witzberger, who was instrumental in the transition to this location, what the utility bill is he said, “We don’t have one. This is a zero net energy building…..it produces all its energy needs.” For members of an organization to live as lightly on the land as possible is impressive!
Living Other Principles
The Coralville Unitarian Universalist Society members live their commitments in other ways, too. Members take turns recycling compostable materials. When outside groups rent the space, they agree to a contract of sustainability – i.e. use only recyclable materials. The church is investigating how to be a “cool” refuge in summer and a “warm” refuge in winter. Further, members are researching ways they can offer a safe learning space for marginalized youth with activities like art and music. Members have held summer Nature Camps and environmentally-themed Trunk and Treats, and sponsored an environmental fair designed to raise awareness and action in caring for our world.
After touring the building and grounds we wondered why the model of the Unitarian Universalist Society isn’t more common in society. It should be. If people associated with all buildings everywhere did what they could to produce their energy needs through renewable sources the threat of climate change would be muted and our children could look forward to a cleaner and safer world.
Want to visit? The Church welcomes you. Details are on their website.