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August 28, 2015 | 13th Elul 5775

Ask a Specialist: Architecture

This month, Governance, Leadership Development & Architecture Specialist Judith Erger answers your most frequently asked architecture questions, including how the URJ can help you with renovations.

Judith ErgerOur building was built over 40 years ago before there was an awareness of energy conservation. We cannot invest in major renovation right now and wonder if there are ways to use our building more efficiently and effectively?

If you embark on new building, remodeling or renovation, a great deal of efficiency (and building accessibility), formerly omitted in your older structure, will be intuitive because of newer building codes. However, you can live in your building as-is and still initiate change. The operative words are "awareness" - engaging the entire congregation in reducing, recycling, and reusing ; and "use" - giving thoughtful planning to how and when the building is used to minimize operational cost.

Some examples of immediate action-steps include:
Reduce your HVAC power consumption: For most congregations, 50 - 75% of the utility bill is driven by the consumption of energy for heating and cooling. The greatest opportunity to change your costs is by exploring energy savings through usage.

  • Change your settings - For each degree you lower your thermostat for heating, you will lower your utility bill by an average of one percent. Each degree you set your thermostat for cooling above 75 degrees can cut cooling costs by three percent.
  • Use programmable thermostats - According to Energy Star you can save about 8% a year by properly setting a programmable thermostat and maintaining those settings.

Reduce your electrical power consumption tied to lighting. There are many low-cost options available including replacing worn-out lamps (lights) with Compact Fluorescent Lights (CFL). According to Energy Star, CFLs:

  • Use about 75% less energy than standard incandescent bulbs and last up to 10 times longer
  • Produce about 75% less heat and substantially cut energy costs associated with cooling the facility.

Learn some congregation-tested tips from eight URJ congregations working in partnership with GreenFaith.

We are considering an architectural project. At what point do we hire an architect and what will we need to know?

The Building Committee or organizers of the project have an initial task of identifying general building project requirements, analyzing the congregation's financial ability to support a project and making responsible recommendations to initiate action steps. As soon as these preliminaries have been completed and there is a vision and basic understanding of need, it is advisable to bring in an architect to provide professional expertise. The initial scope of services is a feasibility study that includes working with the architect to better define what is trying to be accomplished and the various considerations for moving forward. This is also often the time for a financial planner to be retained to conduct a similar feasibility study pertaining to the congregation's financial considerations.

The next phase is planning, which is the road-map to get from point "A" (the start) to point "B" (the vision of the future). It is during this scope of services that the architect will work with you to develop a preliminary plan of what the new project may look like and to develop a phased, organized process for accomplishing the task.

The congregation can retain an architect for initial services. This does not commit the congregation to engage the architect for all future work but does provide the opportunity to see how well you work together and is often the beginning of a longer professional relationship.

Our current location no longer meets our needs. How can the URJ help us to sort through the different considerations involved with renovating, relocating or building new?

The URJ's Architects Advisory Panel is comprised of talented and experienced design professionals who volunteer their time and lend their expertise regarding how to navigate the challenges and demands of a building project, including understanding the various steps and processes that are involved in renovation, adaptive re-use or building new, always with the goal that the end result reflects the congregation's long-range needs and vision.

A one-time consultation with a member of the Panel can be coordinated during any phase of a capital project, either by conference call, video call or if needed, by site visit. However, congregations are encouraged to schedule a consultation before projects begin and major decisions have been made.

Recent consultations have included Agudas Achim Congregation's (Iowa City, Iowa) discussion about relocating to a commercial space; the Harford Jewish Center Temple Adas Shalom's (Havre de Grace, Maryland) considerations for new construction; and B'nai Zion Congregation's (Shreveport, Louisiana) considerations for a sanctuary renovation.

For additional information, visit the URJ facilities page and download the pamphlet Bonei Kodesh, Builders of Holiness: Architect's Advisory Panel Congregational Consulting Service or contact Judith Erger directly.

Our congregation has successfully completed an architectural project. How can we tell other congregations more about it?

Yasher koach on your building success!!! We are always interested in sharing stories and look forward to receiving photos and written descriptions. Please contact Judith Erger,, for additional information.

Architecture Resources
The Union for Reform Judaism has offered resources for congregations engaged in any aspect of an architectural project dating back to 1946! Design trends and demographics changed and the URJ has stayed one step ahead, realizing that our buildings reflect who we are, where we've been and what direction Reform Jews are heading at any given time: early 20th century immigrants eager to assimilate and worship in opulent and grand cathedral-style buildings; post World War II families seeking more modest structures in suburban settings that would accommodate schools and social gatherings; socially conscious, egalitarian, free-spirits of the 1960s worshiped with song, guitars and female clergy mixing amongst the congregation.



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