At the Garrison Institute, we believe our current ecological crisis is also a spiritual crisis—one that asks us to both deepen our emotional, intuitive, and embodied ways of relating to the earth and to expand our collective sense of perspective, meaning, and solidarity around the global crisis. However, in addition to our efforts to encourage a societal shift around profound ecological issues, we also get in the weeds, as it were, with our efforts to understand, measure, and minimize the environmental impact of our operations at the Institute.
Although our building was not originally designed for energy efficiency, the Garrison Institute inherited an ethos of simplicity and stewardship from the monks who lived on the premises when it was a Capuchin monastery. That sensibility combined with one of the Garrison Institute founders Jonathan Rose’s experience as a developer of affordable, environmentally responsible communities led to an initial renovation of the building that was simple but efficient. First, because 15% of heat loss in buildings occurs through the floors, they restored the old floors. Then they re-painted the building’s interior with low-VOC paints, which are more cost-effective and less harmful to human and environmental health. They completely remade the bathrooms, using low flow fixtures, and installed more energy efficient lights throughout the building—at that time, compact fluorescents. They rolled up their sleeves, caulking around the old window frames and insulating exposed pipes. Then they replaced the old boilers with new efficient ones.
“We tried to apply the Institute’s mission to the design of the building,” Rose says. “Energy and resource conservation flowed from the monastic facility’s natural simplicity.”
When the Garrison Institute first opened its doors, all of the furnishings were made from sustainably harvested woods in the Hudson Valley. Many of the pieces were made by Amish farmers. At that time, they started the ongoing work of restoring the gardens by planting a vegetable and herb garden for the Institute’s kitchen.
In the years that followed, more ambitious efforts were made to lower the environmental impact of the Institute’s operations. The onsite sewer system was rebuilt according to the current environmental standards. A new geothermal system was installed, providing cooling and heating for the Meditation Hall, Chapel, and Auditorium.
A lot of energy waste in old buildings is the result of how challenging it can be to manage the heating systems. In recent years, the Institute’s maintenance team has worked to perfect the balancing act of letting the building go cold when it’s not occupied, while giving rooms enough time to warm up before guests arrive. Right now, that process involves a human being going into each individual room and preparing the temperature. Eventually, the goal is to find and implement a smart thermostat system that would be able to control individual rooms in the building by remote control.
A recent triumph for our sustainability efforts occurred when we transitioned from a very old style of a water-cooled refrigeration system to an air-cooled system. We were previously using 7,000 gallons of potable drinking water a day to cool our kitchen’s refrigerators and walk-in cooler. In addition to the water saved in this process, this made a huge impact on our electrical consumption because the system used hydroelectric energy to pump water up from our 600-foot-deep wells to the top of our 90-foot water tower and back down into the building.
In the most critical areas, we have replaced all of the compact fluorescent lightbulbs that were used during the initial renovations with the more efficient LED light bulbs. Changing light bulbs in our Meditation Hall is a bigger challenge than you might expect—there isn’t a ladder made that is tall enough to reach the upper bulbs in our vaulted ceilings! We had to bring in a man-lift for that purpose. As a result of these efforts, from the beginning of December 2015 to the end of January 2017, we used one-third fewer kilowatt hours of electricity compared to the same months the previous year. Transitioning all of the guest bedrooms and hallway lights to LED bulbs remains an ongoing project.
We’ve also recently implemented a single-stream recycling system, which is helping us reduce our overall waste.
With these projects and others—such as continuing to seal doors, upgrading the storm windows, and making the guest room thermostats more user-friendly—the Institute’s sustainability efforts really come down to making many, small incremental changes over time. These changes come in the form of upgrading our technology, making use of best practices, and, perhaps most importantly, making a collective effort to improve our individual behaviors.
Below is an overview of the current state of our ongoing work.