Made for This Time: Surprisingly Emmanuel Church Was Engineered for COVID-19

History has become a real teaching mechanism about the machinations of the Emmanuel Church on Newbury Street for those in the leadership and on the Building Commission – as through the pandemic they have learned firsthand of the wisdom of their forefathers in the 1800s who engineered their church to mitigate airborne diseases so the church could minister to the sick.

It has been an unexpected and astounding finding, church leaders said.

Rev. Pamela L. Werntz and Church Building Commissioner Michael Scanlon said after years of trying to make the church more efficient and to save on heating bills, it is only now that they have learned the system they sought to dismantle is actually the perfect antidote for keeping the COVID-19 virus at bay inside the church.

“They knew about airborne diseases and ventilation was installed,” said Werntz. “The system keeps the air flow upward and not across and doesn’t recirculate air…We did everything we could for 15 years to dismantle it. It’s more energy efficient and financially responsible not to blow hot air out the roof. We weren’t successful though. We just couldn’t figure out how to eliminate all the fresh air vents. Then COVID-19 hit and we said, ‘Oh my.’ We had a system in place designed perfectly for this. We reversed the few steps we had taken and spent some money to fix the attic fan and put the former system back in service.”

The results have been measurable.

Scanlon and other members of the Building Commission have used professional air quality monitors to measure the particles and CO2 in the air, and they’ve found the old ventilation system has made the air inside more safe than the air outside. It’s a phenomenal finding, and though not very hip to the building efficiency movement, it’s a fierce warrior against the spread of COVID-19.

“In the sanctuary and Lindsey Chapel when you measure CO2 it’s about the same or better than it is outside, even with people inside,” said Werntz. “It’s extraordinary.”

Scanlon said over the last 12 years he has chaired the Commission and they have done all they could to close in the church and lower the bills for heating – which are the single largest expense for the church in its facilities budget. Modern thought was to close up buildings, recirculate hot air and save energy in doing so. That theory isn’t so great, though, for COVID-19 times, and is a key reason why indoor spaces are so perilous for the spread of the virus. As much as they tried to “remedy” the “problem,” Scanlon said, finances and engineering questions always got in the way and so the old drafty system stayed in place.

“It always seemed like an albatross around our necks,” said Scanlon. “Then we came to COVID-19.”

Scanlon and his colleague on the Commission, Julian Bullitt – an engineer, began looking at studies on the coronavirus and it’s spread within indoor spaces. The studies talked about how easily COVID-19 spreads inside when air isn’t circulating and actually stays airborne for huge amounts of time. That all changes when fresh air is introduced with open windows and such.

It was then they realized what was happening with the heating system at Emmanuel Church – and it was then they began to understand the intelligence and wisdom of those that came before them at the church.

In 1861, on the day that the Battle of Bull Run took place in Virginia, an enthusiastic membership laid the cornerstone for Emmanuel Church on Newbury Street, the first building in that area of the Back Bay. Along with the excitement for their new building was an enthusiasm for their faith and for serving those in need. Eventually, Werntz said the Emmanuel Movement sprung from the church to treat, welcome and show the love of God to those discarded from society – such as alcoholics, homeless, and the sick. The Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) movement got its motivation from the efforts there. However, a key piece of the Emmanuel Movement was welcoming those with Tuberculosis (TB), an airborne disease that spread fast and was devastating to those that caught it. Members of Emmanuel Church actually shocked the city and other religious counterparts by inviting those with TB into church services with them.

Like COVID-19, the perfect antidote to TB was fresh air.

Therein was born the ingenious heating and ventilation system at Emmanuel Church.

The system works by pulling fresh air in from the alley and the front door through a series of grates on the outside. That fresh air then passes into huge mazes of ducts that have radiators to warm the air. That air is then blown out of registers on the floor and sucked up quickly into the ceiling with a fan, then expelled out the roof. The air moves quickly, and it can feel chilly, but it’s safe in these trying times.

“This is a doctoral dissertation just waiting to happen for someone,” said Scanlon. “It seems there was a conscious effort when they designed the ventilation system to combat airborne diseases and not let the air recirculate…One thing I learned is we as a society have a hubris about having computers and sensors and we can do things no one else could do. In fact, the buildings in the 18th and 19th Centuries were done quite well. If you work in their buildings it’s a good idea to get the idea they had in shape before you think of getting rid of it…I don’t know how the people in 1898 intuited all this. It’s really, really remarkable. When I was in school for preservation, they said poverty is the preservationists best friend. That certainly is the case here because if we had the money, we’d have gotten rid of this long ago.”

But they didn’t and in these times is it paying great benefits – allowing them to continue running programs for the homeless and a warming center/bathroom for those living on the streets. It also allows other programs like indoor AA meetings, and a support group for elderly LGBTQ residents who feel isolated. These in-person gatherings are possible because the air quality is so superior.

Scanlon said they have found there are eight changes of air per hour and that the readings are much better inside than in most interior spaces – if not better than outside.

“Judging by our CO2 counts and our particle counts and our air changes per hour our air quality in the Parish House is better than the published figures for outside air quality in Boston as a whole,” said Scanlon. “I don’t know how that can be but that’s what these data loggers are recording…I’m pretty proud of us.”

Emmanuel Church in the City of Boston is located at 15 Newbury St.

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