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Noah, AIA LEED

2011 January 9

At the beginning of December, Answers in Genesis, or AIG, announced the construction of a Creationism based theme park called Ark Encounter.  This same group brought us the Creation Museum and supports a radically biblical approach to global warming and “has made its money on scientific skepticism, particularly on the issue of evolution” as On Faith panelist Jonathan Merritt puts it.  Which is why the announcement that AIG would use LEED techniques for construction made waves this week.  They may not seek LEED certification, the official standard of  green building in North America, but it speaks volumes that they’ve made a public announcement that the design firm they’ve contracted, The Troyer Group from Mishawaka, IN, specializes in environmentally sustainable practices.

I wrote a few months ago about the depth of scientific skepticism rooted in conservatism, much of which comes from the book of Genesis.  Brian Dorsam wrote a couple of days ago that 40% of Americans believe the earth is 4,539,990,000 years younger than it really is, many of these people falling into the category of biblical literalists. [1]  Genesis 1:28 is frequently cited in the debate over global warming, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (New King James Version).  Fill the earth and subdue it.  In environmental theology, this verse causes trouble because it simply doesn’t translate into a less menacing word.  Subdue, dominion, rule over it, bring it under your control. [2]  A literalist will read that God gave the earth to man to do with as he wished, which can in the minds of many, justify industrialization and pollution.  Of course, many Christians believe that this verse comes with great responsibility, the idea from which the stewardship movement focused on giving back to the planet arose.

Less often climate skeptics cite the end of the story of Noah.  God promises Noah, “Never again will I curse the ground because of humans, even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done” (Genesis 8:21, NIV).  God makes a covenant with Noah in Genesis 9:12-17, putting the rainbow in the sky as a reminder of that promise.  In some sense, building the Ark, LEED or not, says, “We remember what God told Noah, so no matter what we do to the earth, God won’t destroy it or let it be destroyed.”

So this takes us to the more practical considerations of a LEED ark.  I work for an architecture firm where at least half of the staff is LEED certified.  When I first read the Washington Post article about AIG’s green announcement, I mentioned it to a co-worker who remarked, “What’s the spec number for a cubit of wood?”  According to Mike Zovath, senior vice president for Ark Encounter and Patrick Marsh, the senior design director, the ark will be made entirely out of wood, inside and out, on a biblical scale: 300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide, 30 cubits high (Gen 6:15).  From a practical perspective, I would assume the design team won’t be marking up their blueprints with cubits.[3]  It’s a little bit less biblically literal to include an HVAC system in the ark to begin with, and I’m certain Noah didn’t have animatronic aardvarks and giraffes either.

Philip Kennicott of the Washington Post noted that there are churches and synagogues built to LEED standards, and that this marks a change in conservative Christian theology as they begin to embrace green technology.  Why shouldn’t a conservative group build green?  There’s nothing conflicting between Genesis 1:28 and 9:12-17 and building responsibly.  It is more expensive to build green, which is usually why an owner won’t choose the techniques.  Given AIG’s experience with the opening of their Creation Museum in Kentucky in 2007 and the months it took to adjust it’s HVAC system to handle large summertime crowds, it only makes sense to build the Ark Encounter as wisely as possible.  Why aren’t they seeking LEED certification, though?  Outside of expense, which if projections are correct will be made up for in less than 5 years through admission fees, but LEED certification doesn’t distinguish between “buildings we need and theme parks we don’t.” Zovath says, though, that the Ark will include information on green building techniques for public education.

Is the Ark going to set off a new revolution in green building?  I can’t say.  Does it mean that conservative Christian climate skeptics are changing their minds? Probably not.  As a business decision it makes sense to build more efficiently, particularly if you can afford it.  Zovath himself is a climate skeptic, but he likes the idea of bottom line energy efficiency and the broader idea of stewardship that appeals to younger generations.  I admit that I still have a hard time understanding why there should be any controversy at all over a LEED building, theme park, Ark, school or church, or government building.  As an Episcopalian who grew up hearing “this fragile earth, our island home” –as Kennicott mentions in his article–nearly every sunday, I never knew there even was a  religious conflict with stewardship of the earth.  Climate skeptic or not, biblical literalist, scriptural relativist, or atheist, the Ark is an interesting experiment in building and design and cultural change.  I likely won’t visit it, or support it in any way (you can donate $100 for a wooden peg, $1,000 for a plank, and $5,000 for a beam on their website), but I’ll be interested to hear more as the design process continues and construction begins.  I don’t like the idea of a bible theme park because the concept of turning scripture into capitalist profit has always made me uneasy.  No matter how literal you are with your bible verse, Noah’s story only takes up a few chapters and there are details that aren’t included (like what did happen to the unicorn?) that you have to fill in yourself which creates a dangerous precedent for imagination within scripture.[4]

I applaud AIG and Ark Encounter for deciding to build green from an architecture and design perspective, but from my own religious standpoint I can’t support the idea of the project–from the scriptural literalism involved to the need to be inside an Ark replica to gain real understanding of God’s Word.[5]  I hope that LEED and other green architecture continue to play a large role in buildings sacred and secular, and  that perhaps this may unite discrepancies between disparate Christian communities when it comes to the environment, if not other matters of biology.

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[1] He also notes that this statistic is at it’s lowest since 1982, and it peaked at 47% in 1993 and 1999.

[2] In less literal translations like “The Message,” which is an idiomatic interpretation with fresher and more accessible language, says “take charge” but also places the burden on man, “Let us make human beings in our image, make them reflecting our nature so they can be responsible for the fish in the sea, the birds in the air, the cattle, and, yes, Earth itself, and every animal that moves on the face of Earth.”

[3] I’m certain that much has been written about the size of the cubit they’ll use.  I’m not a biblical history scholar, so I’m not familiar with which cubit is which.  My cursory research showed me that “cubit” is a generic term for length, and it varies in length from a little over a foot to 35 feet depending on culture and time period.  I’ve heard differences of up to 50 feet in the size of the Ark, ranging from 450 to 500 feet.

[4] Hence one argument for my personal belief in scripture as symbolic not literal.  Read literally we are left with a sparse one-dimensional world in which half of what is said is repeated only a verse or two later.

[5] CEO of the Nehemiah Group, Cary Summers, says, “it allows the guest to literally see God’s Word come to life” in a short YouTube clip.  I know that not every guest to Ark Encounter is looking for proof of the Word of God–that more are looking for a wholesome Christian way to enjoy a vacation at an amusement park–but some will be and the idea that one needs solid proof of an Ark as God’s Word come to life to enhance their belief makes me doubt the voracity of their version of Christianity.

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