Saturday, December 6, 2008

The World's First Eco-Convent Built

Architectural plans for the new building
Photograph: SWNS.COM

The Benedictine nuns of the Conventus of Our Lady of Consolation will be moving next year from the Victorian beauty of Stanbrook Abbey in rural Worchestershire to live in an environmentally-sensitive monastery being built in the North York Moors national park.

The nuns will be moving in to a new home complete with solar panels, rainwater harvesting, reedbed sewage systems, sedum roofs, recycled materials, a woodchip boiler and responsibly-sourced timber.

The reason prompting the move is the latest phenomenon of the 21st century – downsizing. An overall decline in Catholic vocations has left the community with just 22 professed nuns and two novices, who between them are responsible for the maintenance and overheads of a 20-acre site.

According to Dame Andrea Savage, the abbess at Stanbrook, manual labour was overtaking monasticism.

"We're running a big building, spending thousands of pounds that we don't have on looking after the place and heating it with oil and gas, which isn't good for the environment. We're here for the monastic life and it is being impinged on," she said.

The front of the old abbey
Photograph: SWNS.COM

"Stanbrook Abbey was built for the time, they didn't have heating. They had one tap and no bathrooms. It's been adapted since; but, it's still too big for us and we're not museum curators."

When the nuns presented their vision of their new home to the architects, the nuns requested that besides being sensitive to environmental concerns, a monastery for women should “contain some natural curved surfaces and shapes.” The new building was designed by the 2008 Stirling prizewinners Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios and will allow the nuns to live simply while incorporating one or two 21st century perks.

There will be broadband-ready bedrooms for up to 30 nuns, a church, library, and ancillary buildings. Since hospitality is one of the cornerstones to Benedictine tradition, there is also to be a retreat for up to 15 guests.

The nuns will live surrounded by the ruins of Whitby, Rievaulx and Byland abbeys and Mount Grace Priory. They will be in harmony with the heritage of their surroundings. "We are supposed to love creation and respect the environment. We're living in and taking care of it," said Savage.

The old monastery was put up for sale in 2002 for £5 million ($7.5 million); but, it hasn’t sold and the fate of it is still unclear. The nuns wanted to direct the proceeds of the sale of the old home into their new home; and, at the same time wish to save it from being converted into apartments, hotels, spas, or something of the same ilk. One nun thought it might make a lovely open-air prison.

With only months remaining before the actual move the inside is organized disarray with packed boxes lining the corridors along with discarded furniture, abandoned wheelchairs and a jumble of collected bits and bobs. Some of the “antiques" have found new homes through sales; but, lots of bargains remain.

Sister Maria, 79, entered at age 18. She said she was not as sad about leaving the building as she was about saying goodbye to friends. "The village has grown around us to some extent. It is getting noisier and noisier," she said. "Up there it is much more unspoilt. We hope to fit into the spirit of the place."

During the planning, there developed a deep and mutual admiration between the architects and the nuns.

Gill Smith, of Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, said the nuns were "very clued up" about what they wanted from their new monastery. "They were very specific about wanting a sense of space and tranquility. They also wanted to trade down and live in something that was manageable, comfortable and suitable for the 21st century," she said.

"These clients are naturally parsimonious (thrifty), they're not into buying and consuming like we are; and, they have a great respect for the natural environment. It's been a privilege working with them. They're so charming and they're quite good fun. Ideas for green features came from both sides”, she added. "They'd done their research on the internet and there are techniques that we've used that we were able to suggest. It's quite a creative relationship."

The Benedictine nuns of the Conventus of Our Lady of Consolation should be an example for all of us. They are concerned about the environment in which they live in every aspect big and small. Good on you!!

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