Building Green

Has Your Church Considered Horse Logging?

August 18, 2008

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Daily papers and talk shows are filled with the whys and how-to's of going “green.” Even my parish church has an environmental committee that reminds us to get an energy audit for our home. It seems that recently environmental topics have filtered into mainstream consciousness. What can you do when you are building green for your new church building or renovation? There are many suggestions available from the architectural world to help you with your building. Heating and cooling alternatives as well as material choices for surfaces – such as low voc paints and flooring from renewable or recycled sources – can be found in many places. Architects and designers with LEED accreditation can guide building committees in their decision making for their project. However, there is one area that is not often thought about – church furnishings.

Altar baseIt is possible to build new altar, ambos and fonts using only sustainable materials. The recycling of materials from old altars and sanctuary furnishings has been practiced for many years. For some furnishings old and new wood are combined. Recently, I worked on a project with furniture builder Richard Helgeson, where the congregation felt that it was important to retain the old wooden high altar. It was built into the paneling of the sanctuary. The old wood gave a warm glow to the interior of the church and it was one of the treasures of the community. The unused, old pulpit blocked sightlines and so it was removed. Some parts of it were reused, but the majority of the wood for the new furnishings would be new.

Work HorseAs part of an environmentally conscious decision all the new wood used for the furnishings was certified by the United States Forest Stewardship Council. And all of it was horse logged. Horse logging is a way of sustainably managing a forested area where non-native, unwanted trees are removed with the least impact to the environment. In seeking to maintain a property or return it to an original ecosystem, horse logging can prove to be a very valuable tool. It is one used successfully in the Midwestern United States where it has been used to aid land owners in restoring white oak Savannahs.

felled logHorse logging is an old method with a light environmental footprint. Using an old Swedish method of felling trees, unwanted (often non- native) large trees are carefully cut down without disturbing other trees surrounding it. A portable saw is brought in by horses and used to mill the lumber on site. If a large number of trees are to be felled, the saw is placed in a centralized clearing and the horses bring the felled trees to the saw. Horses, unlike large vehicles, are able to enter the site with minimal damage to the surrounding area. There is no necessity to build a large road into the area. The lumber is then gathered and taken by the horses to a main road and loaded onto a small truck. From there it is taken to a place where it can be properly air dried before using. The air drying and conditioning of the wood takes longer than commercial kiln drying – sometimes one year as compared to one month. The results, however, are noticeable to the woodworkers.

The process of horse logging, sometimes called equine forestry, has several advantages. Clearly, there the environmental impact is far less than conventional methods of logging. Because there is such a "light touch" on the environment, trees on hillsides or near streams can be successfully removed without harming other trees. Those who work closely with wood can tell by the color and figure of the pieces when they have come from the same tree. In ordering from other sources, wood from the same tree is not predictably available.

completed altarColor and pattern in the wood are integral to building a piece of furniture, particularly so in designing and building altars. Beautiful patterns can emerge from matching the color and figure (graining) of the wood pieces.  When the project is a renovation, pieces of old wood from the site can be integrated into the new. Wood color can be matched to the existing furnishings or surrounding wood through the use of environmentally low impact products. Designs can also integrate elements from surrounding furnishings or building details. These furnishings fit the space comfortably and help to retain the integrity of the original worship space.

There is another, less tangible, advantage for using horse logged materials. It is more personal. For the logger, it is the personal relationship with the horse. For others involved in the process, it causes them to discover things about their environment. Often, foresters will have demonstration projects available for parishioners. For them the environmental education is important. Horse logging demonstrations can give a community a way of actively participating in the fabrication of their sanctuary furnishings and in stewardship of the earth.

There are many decisions to be made when designing and fabricating new sanctuary furnishings. One that will be important for your committee to consider is the kind and source of the materials to be used. For the environmentally conscious parish community ,using recycled and new wood materials can be a good choice. Sustainable, certified horse logged wood is a choice that can yield beautiful results, have a light impact on the environment, and provide an educational opportunity for the entire congregation.

Carol Frenning is a liturgical design consultant in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S.A.

Photos by Richard Helgeson.  Designer and builder of furnishings featured: Richard Helgeson.


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