When the Dominican Sisters of San Rafael approached architecture firm Van Meter Williams Pollack (VMWP) with plans to build a new convent, they had some very specific goals in mind. Above all, they wanted the new building to speak to their commitment to the Earth. The building, which includes living quarters for Dominican sisters, guest rooms, common areas, and a small chapel, is powered by solar photovoltaic panels on the roof, and solar thermal panels provide hot water. When it was completed in 2005, the Dominican Sisters House of Formation became the first LEED-certified convent in the country.
During the planning stage, the Dominican sisters studied the Earth Charter, an international document outlining the principles needed to create a just and environmentally sustainable world in the 21st century. Large portions of the Earth Charter are devoted to protecting natural systems and preventing further destruction of the natural world. The sisters used the pillars of the Earth Charter as a blueprint for living simply and sustainably. Then, they brought their proposal to the architects at VMWP, who helped articulate what they wanted in the house and how to achieve it on a budget.
The convent was opened to the public for tours during this year’s this year’s Marin Living: Home Tours, hosted by AIA San Francisco and the Center for Architecture + Design. The new facility includes eight bedrooms, two guest rooms, communal living spaces, and a small chapel. The large, industrial-size kitchen is large enough for all of the convent’s permanent residents to prepare Thanksgiving dinner and to host other events. To keep costs down, much of the furniture in the common areas is reused and was purchased from Craigslist and Goodwill; everything from carpets and insulation to cabinets and linoleum is recycled.
When the convent was completed, the solar photovoltaic panels on the roof were expected to provide about 95 percent of the building’s energy needs, but the sisters told visitors that they haven’t paid an electric bill since moving in. A solar thermal system combined with with a 90-percent efficient central boiler provides hot water. The back side of the convent features a beautiful garden that is planted with drought-tolerant and native species that don’t require any irrigation. And a dry creek bed was added to collect and retain rainwater. The convent was completed in 2005, and it has achieved LEED Gold certification.