A Passion for Green

Sustainable design practices create a dramatic and sacred house of worship.

When looking at St. Gabriel’s church in Toronto, it’s hard to know which issue took first priority—spirituality or sustainability. In this case they’re one and the same. The building is owned by the Passionists, an order of the Catholic Church that considers the earth sacred. “The sense is that humans are not primary and the earth derivative, but the earth is primary and humans are derivative,” explains Roberto Chiotti, a principle of Larkin Architect Limited, which designed the building. “That’s a dramatic shift in understanding [compared to traditional Catholic ideas].”

The resulting structure is equally radical. St. Gabriel’s has been certified LEED Gold, and is one of the greenest worship spaces in North America. Rather than an introverted organization of space, the church’s south wall is floor-to-ceiling glass, putting emphasis on the garden outside while also facilitating passive solar heating. Instead of a steeple, the transparent wall is topped by an enormous canopy, positioned to shade the interior in summer. Parking is buried underground to create maximum green space. In the entrance hall, there’s a living plant wall; in the restrooms, there are waterless urinals, dual-flush toilets, and solar-powered low-flow faucets. When representatives of the church need a ride, they can even get behind the wheel of a newly purchased hybrid car.

Chiotti was uniquely qualified to take on the project. He originally studied architecture as an undergrad at the University of Waterloo before earning a master’s degree in theological studies, with a specialization in eco-theology, from St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto. He is also well versed in the writings of Thomas Berry, a Passionist priest and leading thinker on ecology and religion. When beginning to design the building, a question from Berry sat foremost in Chiotti’s mind: “How do you address the sun?”

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In addition to the south-facing glass wall, there is a skylight that runs around the perimeter of the nave that is lined with an updated version of stained glass windows. Equipped with colored panels by glass artist David Pearl, the skylight floods the building’s exposed concrete walls with ribbons of colored light that shift throughout the day. It’s a dramatic effect that has the added advantage of reducing the building’s need for artificial light – proof that celestial inspiration and earthly sustainability can easily go hand in hand.

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