July 14, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Jewish Communal Facilities: Planting the Seed

We are all familiar with the midrash of the old man planting a fig tree. Even though it was unlikely that the man would get to enjoy the fruits of the fig tree himself, his descendants would be the beneficiaries of his labor.

Jewish communal facilities such as synagogues, schools and community centers are like the planting of that fig tree in the sense that the time and effort invested to bring them to fruition will provide tremendous benefits to future community members. The planning, design and fundraising that goes into the construction of such facilities enables communities to prosper and grow since they will have the space for essential communal functions to take place such as worship, education and more.

But just like any seed that is planted, these buildings also need tending to. Though the initial construction costs of a building are a massive investment, they are dwarfed by the operation and maintenance costs over a 30-year period, leaving a potential burden on the community. Therefore, to ensure the long-term financial health of these institutions, it is important to think about ways of lowering these future operating costs through the design of the building to reduce maintenance, increase energy efficiency, and provide flexibility to meet the evolving needs of the community over time.

Institutional Challenges

In 2015, the UJA Federation released a report Strategies for Maintaining Synagogue Spaces. The study used surveys, focus groups and key informant interviews to investigate the concerns of synagogues in the management and operation of their facilities. The main conclusions were that the synagogues faced three main challenges:

  • Balancing the synagogue’s religious and programmatic activities with the need to address the physical demands of maintaining a facility.
  • Obtaining funding to address the day-to-day demands of operating a building and the longer-term facility needs.
  • Developing expertise in facility management.

One of the executive directors interviewed by the study put it clearly: “The design of synagogues is often inherently inefficient. They’re expensive to heat and expensive to cool.”

Synagogues are not the only Jewish communal facilities that can prove costly to run. A friend of mine once shared with me the experience of her Jewish high school. The school had recently constructed a beautiful campus but could not afford to properly heat the buildings in the winter, leaving many of the students to wear coats in the classroom to stay warm.

Energy costs have been increasing year over year across the country, as have the costs of materials and construction.

Planning for Success

The first step to proper planning for a capital project is to work with design and construction professionals that are experts in space planning and energy efficient buildings. Seek out architects and engineers for your project who not only use best design practices but can leverage more advanced tools like energy modeling to make decisions about which energy conserving measures will provide the best return on the investment.

Sometimes, it is a matter of simply creating a smaller building to operate and maintain, yet ensuring the spaces contained within are flexible enough for a variety of purposes. In every case, the approach should include designing the building to properly respond to external environmental conditions and occupant usage patterns to minimize the demand for heating, cooling and lighting.

Design Principles

The careful design of the building enclosure to insulate, minimize thermal bridging and keep out unwanted solar gains while admitting natural light will help achieve these load reductions. But this additional investment in the envelope will also allow the capacity of the mechanical equipment to be downsized, reducing the required expenditures for HVAC. This specific ‘cost-shift’ will keep first costs neutral, but also provide long-term savings through energy cost reduction. It will also minimize maintenance costs over time since mechanical systems need repair and replacement in more frequent cycles than the enclosure.

Efficient Systems

After minimizing conditioning and lighting loads through good passive design, the design team should specify high efficiency mechanical equipment and lighting systems to meet those demands. New electrified technologies are increasingly replacing traditional fossil fuel systems as they are 3 to 4 times more efficient. Decoupling ventilation systems from the delivery of conditioning can also yield impressive energy savings.

In addition to efficiency, select building systems based on their ability to respond to the varied occupancy of most Jewish communal buildings. The large gatherings in spaces for prayer or classes require sudden changes in ventilation rates, heating or cooling demands, and lighting levels which can be an energy intensive process. Choosing building systems that can be separately ramped down in less occupied spaces or totally turned off in unoccupied spaces can yield great savings. Technologies such as Building Management System (BMS) can automate the operation of most systems.

Bringing Efficiency Closer into Reach

Institutions can obtain additional funding for energy efficient technologies or retrofits through private grants or from government incentives. Whereas previously tax-exempt entities such as Jewish institutions could not take advantage of tax rebates for energy saving technologies like solar panels and high efficiency heat pumps, the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) passed in 2022 provides a new direct payment option that provides the same federal rebates regardless of tax status. The incentives can offset 30% of the cost of applicable technologies.

There are many more considerations and possible design strategies that are possible but are beyond the scope of this article. The exact solutions that are the best fit for a particular project may vary depending on the building type, the climate and site it is situated in, and the needs of the community.

When to Start

The key takeaway is that time for community stakeholders to start thinking about measures to lower the long-term operating costs for new construction or major renovation is as early in the project conception as possible. Make planning for operational efficiency a central priority of the project and select the right professionals with the capabilities to support these goals.

Starting the project with energy efficient goals in mind will also allow the initial decisions like massing and orientation of the building to support good passive performance. Trying to incorporate efficiency features later when aspects of the design are more locked-in may prove to be more costly and less effective.

Communal facilities are so vital to many aspects of Jewish life. It is important that all stakeholders work to ensure they are designed carefully to be easily maintained and operated, even adapted, over time. In this way, we will leave a wonderful and sustainable legacy for those that will inherit these facilities in the future.


Elliot Glassman, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP BD+C, CPHD is the firm-wide lead of building performance at one of the ten largest architecture firms in the US. He obtained his Bachelors of Architecture from the New Jersey Institute of Technology and earned a Masters of Design Studies degree with a concentration in sustainability from the Harvard Graduate School of Design. He also teaches classes on building performance at Columbia University and Pratt Institute.

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