Tiffin nuns 'preserve God's creation' Energy-wise home makes use of nature
Sister Jane Frances Omlor and Mike Conner, director of the Sisters of St. Francis of Tiffin’s Earth Literacy Center, pose in front of the eco-friendly, energy-efficient straw-bale house. THE BLADE/JEREMY WADSWORTH
“Recognizing’ our oneness with all creation and grieving the desecration of the earth, we commit ourselves to challenge each other and society to reverence creation and to be in harmony with it. We commit ourselves to ongoing conversation in our use of natural resources.”
— From the Directional Statement of the Sisters of St. Francis, Tiffin, Ohio.
TIFFIN — The Sisters of St. Francis of Tiffin are hoping that, like the tiny seedlings sprouting inside their Earth Literacy Center, ideas and inspiration will blossom once people visit their eco-friendly, energy-efficient straw-bale house.
“You can talk about passive energy and insulation and how to use solar power, but people need to see it,” said Sister Jane Frances Omlor, the driving force behind the home named Little Portion Green. Ground was broken in May, 2010, and completion, often delayed while awaiting funding, could happen this fall, Sister Jane said.
The cozy 1,300-square-foot building is insulated with regular farm-field straw bales packed tightly between timber framing. Every component of the house is designed to save energy, make use of nature, and “preserve God’s creation,” the nuns said.
The interior doors and railings were salvaged from a demolished section of the Tiffin convent; hot and cold air is pumped from a miniductless split heater/cooler; the interior walls are made of an all-natural mix of clay and sand; the windows are triple-paned and placed for maximum efficiency; the floor sits on a bed of German-made millcell, or recycled glass, and recycled steel was used for the roof.
When Sister Jane and Sister Janet Hay move into the two-bedroom, 1.5-bath house, the home is expected to be a zero-net-energy building consuming no more energy than it produces through renewable energy sources. A small wind turbine rising above a clover field is now in operation, and a solar panel is planned for the roof.
Mike Conner, director of the nuns’ Earth Literacy Center, said the electric bill in April was a penny-pinching $2.37.
“I know there’s nobody living here yet, but obviously the air-conditioning and the heat have been on [during construction]. Plenty of things that have been running. And the two months before that, there was no electric bill at all,” he said.
Sister Jane Frances Omlor sands walls inside ‘Little Portion Green,’ the eco-friendly two-bedroom, 1½-bath home. Sister Jane Frances Omlor sands walls inside ‘Little Portion Green,’ the eco-friendly two-bedroom, 1½-bath home. THE BLADE/JEREMY WADSWORTH Enlarge | Photo Reprints
Once the solar panels are in place, he said he expects the utility meter to spin backward at times when the house is generating a surplus of electricity.
If more people catch the vision for conservation, it could have a significant impact on the nation’s energy use. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, today’s buildings consume 72 percent of electricity produced and 55 percent of the country’s natural gas, accounting for about 40 percent of total U.S. energy consumption.
The straw-bale house costs more to build than a standard home, but it brings long-term savings on utility expenses. The Franciscan sisters have spent about $100,000 on construction thus far, with “every last cent” donated, Mr. Conner said. If the value of the volunteer time and donated materials are added, it would double the cost of Little Portion Green to about $200,000, he estimated.
“That’s a lot of money, but anybody building a new house is probably going to spend between $100,000 and $200,000,” Mr. Conner said.
Sister Jane said there are spiritual and moral implications for living in harmony with nature and conserving energy, one of the sisters’ missions. Named for 13th-century St. Francis of Assisi, the Catholic religious order also promotes peace and justice, spirituality and contemplation, and care for the elderly and poor.
Sister Jane said she witnessed the devastation that humanity can wreak on the environment while living in West Virginia, where mining companies literally blew the top off of mountains to get to the coal.
“It pushes tons and tons and tons of debris literally down the side of the mountain, destroying whatever is in the path,” she said.
That kind of environmental damage, and the realization that coal supplies are finite, should motivate people to support renewable energy and conserve what we have, Sister Jane asserted.
“Fossil fuel from coal is not a sustainable resource. It’s going to be used up and it’s not going to come back,” she said.
The Tiffin Franciscan sisters, who have 99 nuns serving around the world, are working to preserve creation on many fronts. They have set aside 348 of the approximately 400 acres on their Tiffin campus as a conservation easement in perpetuity, barring the land from ever being used for anything other than farmland or forest.
Two years ago, they demolished 65 percent of their convent structures because they no longer needed the space and maintenance and energy costs were prohibitive, said Sister Jacqueline Doepker, community minister.
The straw-bale house will be a lived-in home but open for public tours, providing a visible example of alternative energy and conservation.
With its adobelike walls painted in muted greens and browns, large windows, a ceiling open to the second-floor balcony, Little Portion Green is far from the Spartan, impersonal box people may expect with an energy-efficient, eco-friendly, modestly sized home.
“If I can get people to come into this place and say, ‘Oh, this is nice. This is lovely,’ then they can see themselves here, they can see themselves living in a place like this, and, well, half my battle is won,” Mr. Conner said. “I’m trying to not only give you a product that uses next to nothing as far as electricity and energy, I’m also wanting to make it attractive to you. I want to not only appeal to your wallet but I want to appeal to your eyes also.”
Sister Jane, an artist and a potter, called the straw-bale house “a beautiful place” that has a “spiritual connection” to the nuns’ 143-year presence in Tiffin.
“This land is very sacred to us,” she said. “We’re going to be doing rituals and prayers and a lot of sharing as well as education. It’s going to bring out a lot of eco-spirituality.”