The renovation of the Columban Mission Center

Fr. Bill Morton
June 24, 2010
An Environmentally Friendly Transformation

In January 2008, after a year of searching, the Columbans purchased a property at the corner of Magoffin and St. Vrain in central El Paso, Texas. For over ten years we had rented two small houses on the east side of El Paso, about a half hour’s drive from the U.S./Mexico border. The driving required to reach the houses used up extra time and fuel whenever we returned from Juarez.

Photos from the Renovation

Photos from the Renovation

The Columban commitment to environmental stewardship—not to mention common sense—motivated us to acquire a property where we would be closer to the border and that would allow us to renovate and remodel in creative and energy-saving ways. God is good and through the suggestion of a friend we located a single property that had two buildings, both constructed around 1920: a small (1,700 sq. ft.) duplex as well as a large house (4,200 sq. ft.) that had been divided into eight small apartments. The property turned out to be ideal as it would give us the freedom to have a small, traditional Columban center house for priests and visitors as well as a much larger mission center, adapted for Church and student groups, and with a decidedly environmentally friendly flair. After a real estate inspection, a commercial appraisal, more haggling with the owner and soliciting the opinions of many other Columbans and friends, we purchased the property.

Both houses were badly deteriorated as one might expect from rental properties that had been poorly maintained. As we planned the renovation, we developed a philosophy to guide us. First, anything that was not broken beyond repair and that was still serviceable and safe would be cleaned up, repaired and used. Second, anything that couldn’t be used would be recycled or sold as scrap. Only those items with absolutely no “alternative” future would be discarded as trash. Third, we would always seek to purchase good used items or, if new, items made in environmentally friendly ways. Fourth, we would always consider the environmental impact, especially the carbon output generated, throughout the renovation. Finally, the way we did the renovation and the amount of money we invested would ensure that we were creating a model that people of average or below average means could follow for their own projects.

I would like to focus in depth on just one of the many facets of the renovation, the windows, explaining what we did and why. Other aspects of the renovation will be explained in less detail. It may also offer some realistic alternatives to many homeowners in today’s cash-strapped economy who are agonizing over how and when to spend money for their housing needs.

One of the biggest renovation challenges was the windows. Between the two houses there are 54 windows, many of which had broken glass and rotted wood in need of replacement and all of which were in need of paint, glazing and weather-stripping. Since they were traditional, double-hung windows, all of the ropes would need to be replaced and, in some cases where the upper sash had been caulked and painted shut, the weights had been discarded and would need to be replaced for both sashes to function. These innovative windows are thought to have been invented in the 1400’s and served as one of the first air conditioners. By lowering the upper sash a few inches and raising the lower sash, hot air and humidity can be filtered out as cooler air enters from the lower part of the window.

Given the number and the extent of the necessary repairs, we considered purchasing replacement windows: double pane, argon gas-filled double pane, low emittance coating glass, spring loaded and more. The least expensive new windows for the smaller windows would have come in around $200- $300 per window. The cost for the largest new windows would be between $500-1,000 per window. With screens, hardware, installation and miscellaneous costs the total for both houses would have been easily between $30,000 and $40,000 depending on the quality and brand of windows we chose. We decided to repair and refurbish the original windows. The rough estimate for the repair and refurbishment of all of the windows in terms of materials and labor is about one-third of the cost of replacement windows. One advantage of repair and refurbishment is a quicker return on our investment both economically and environmentally.

Apart from the financial cost was the question of the proverbial carbon footprint. A special issue of Preservation Magazine included the article “A Cautionary Tale” by Wayne Curtis, in their January/ February 2008 issue on green renovation of historical properties. The Columban property is located in the Magoffin Historic District which was detailed in the article.

The article discussed the carbon cost of replacement windows versus restoration of the existing ones. The first thing to be considered is what went into the existing window: the tree has to grow, be cut down, lumber transported to a mill where it is cut and then transported to a factory to be made into windows which are again transported to construction sites and installed in houses and so on. We haven’t included, yet, the glass, rope, weights and hardware that go into the windows. I think you can get the idea that lots of energy has gone into this 90-year-old window. In questions of renovation versus new construction or new materials, it was helpful for us to consider what is referred to as “embodied energy,” i.e. all the energy that went into the existing windows and all the energy that went into the existing building. As soon as you replace that window, you’ve increased your carbon output by losing all that energy, and then adding in the energy it took to create, transport and install the new replacement window.

Now consider the energy it takes to remove and haul away the original windows. Add in the environmental costs of constructing new replacement windows, including all the waste associated with the various processes to produce the metal, vinyl, glass, sealants and wood required to manufacture the windows. The windows then must be transported to El Paso and installed creating even more carbon output. To see a positive environmental gain in this scenario could take as long as 64 years. To see an economic gain in lower energy bills would take even longer.

Columban Fr. Dennis O’Mara (in blue cap facing camera) with  university students during their mission trip

Columban Fr. Dennis O’Mara (in blue cap facing camera) with university students during their mission trip

The fundamental principle such as “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” really did apply to these windows. And, even if the original windows are in need of some repair, they’ve basically been serving the house for a long time—over 90 years in our case—and the replacement windows, even with guarantees, have an uncertain future. With the double-hung, original windows, only maintenance and the occasional replacement of the ropes are required. Once we tackled the windows, we moved on to other areas in the houses that needed attention. The original wooden floors in the larger house were worn and damaged beyond repair. We covered the floors with ½ inch thick oriented stand board (OSB) commonly used as sheathing in floors. Manufactured OSB uses almost all of the wood from the harvested trees. We then laid a beautiful, used maple hardwood floor that had served as a middle-school basketball court from 1974 until about 2005.

We decided to forego a traditional heating or cooling system in the larger house. Using fans, insulation and shading, we are trying to live as simply as possible without relying on electricity or gas to keep the house at a reasonable temperature. We also use outdoor clotheslines and indoor racks instead of a clothes dryer. A solar water heater on the roof helps warm water for bathing and washing clothes, and we installed a tank-less, on-demand water heater in the basement.

We installed low-flow toilets throughout both houses and are developing a rainwater catchment system. We invite all residents and guests to drink tap water which results in considerable savings financially and environmentally. Imagine if everyone stopped using bottled water, paid attention to their local water supply and ensured clean, refreshing water for all the community for just pennies a gallon!

Though we are very conservative with energy usage and have installed compact fluorescent bulbs throughout the house, we are still planning a solar electric installation on the roof. This could be an expensive front end investment, but we believe that in time it would have many returns environmentally and economically, not just for the Columban Mission Center but for the wider community. El Paso has not seen a lot of green renovation, especially solar, and we may be able to help animate others in this area. At both houses, we recycle organic waste to create compost and reduce what goes to the landfill. We also recapture all recyclables such as plastic, paper, cardboard and metal. Choosing not to use bottled water, for example, means we also avoid creating and disposing of all the resulting plastic.

Furthermore, the newly renovated Columban Mission Center is conveniently located in downtown El Paso, about a mile from the U.S./Mexico border and within walking

distance of the bank, post office and stores. We use less fuel and do more walking and bike-riding resulting in better personal and environmental health. Bishop Oscar Romero is often quoted: “We can’t do everything but everyone can do something.”

The environmental and economic challenges we face often appear insurmountable. We can thus choose to give up in frustration, blame others or wait for a large institution like the Church or government to get something started. Or, like Jesus and the disciples, we can go off in twos or threes and begin to proclaim the Kingdom has come by living simply, creatively and in solidarity with those most in need. The ensuing process will lead us to use resources more wisely, rediscover the wisdom of our elders and ancestors, and even begin to enjoy the challenge of doing more with less. Pope Benedict has been referred to as the “Green” Pope and the U.S. Catholic Bishops have created the Catholic Committee on Climate Change, so as we experiment and risk in this vital area we are also thinking with the mind and heart of the Church. The Columbans hope that our efforts might animate others to try something wherever they are. We invite you to let us know of successes you have met, so we too can continue to become better stewards of all God’s gifts.

Father Bill Morton

Father Bill Morton

Fr. Bill Morton lives and works in El Paso, Texas.
This article first appeared in Columban Mission.