Ecologically Friendly Geothermal Plant Launched at Cathedral


Visitors to St. Patrick’s Cathedral can see the evidence of the multimillion dollar restoration project in the interior and exterior of the Gothic landmark building. Now, part of that restoration can literally be felt—thanks to the activation of a state-of-the-art geothermal plant last month.

The geothermal plant is an ecologically friendly way of heating and cooling the atmosphere that reduces the cathedral’s carbon dioxide emissions and increases energy efficiency by 35 percent.

“We are not using fossil fuels, it’s positive for the world we live in and it’s forward-thinking,” said Msgr. Robert Ritchie, rector of the cathedral, in an interview with CNY March 10.

The geothermal plant uses 10 wells that engineers drilled between 600 and 2,200 feet below the surface of the cathedral. The wells contain water, which remains around 55 degrees Fahrenheit all year long and is used to heat or cool the air in the cathedral. In the winter, heat is absorbed from the water and delivered into the building, and in the summer, the heat from the building is absorbed and delivered back underground.

The cathedral’s former heating and cooling system was installed in the early 1970s. Murphy, Burnham, & Buttrick (MBB), the architectural firm that led the restoration project, first proposed to replace it with another conventional heating and cooling system. Those plans were analyzed and changed.

“It became evident that a conventional plant would have an impact on the architecture,” said Jeff Murphy, a founding partner at MBB. Not only that, but a conventional plant would require substantial excavation and rock removal.

Even though the upfront costs were higher, the geothermal plant takes up just 40 percent of the space of a conventional system and wouldn’t change the structure of the 138-year-old building.

The new system also fulfills the Church’s mission to be responsible stewards of the Earth. That is a message emphasized by Pope Francis, who wrote about the need to protect the environment in his 2015 encyclical “Laudato Si.”

“We looked at a geothermal plant as a possible solution for the cathedral, because the Trustees were interested in it being sustainable,” Murphy said.

“It is an ideal air conditioning and heating solution for this cathedral because it doesn’t have an impact on the building fabric,” he said. It also heats and cools buildings adjacent to the cathedral, including the parish house and the Cardinal’s residence.

The geothermal plant at St. Patrick’s is unlike many others of its kind because it is designed to be able to use cooling and warming simultaneously in different areas.

“We looked for the most efficient and best solution,” Msgr. Ritchie said.

The project was not without its challenges. “One of the obstacles, which, in many ways, is a good thing for us is the cathedral is built on a huge rock,” the rector said. “The Church is built on the Rock of Peter and we are built on the rock of Manhattan.”

Drilling, which began in June of 2015, required time because of Manhattan schist, the name of the extremely durable rock that makes up the foundation under the cathedral.

Among those working on the geothermal plant were MBB, Landmark Facilities Group, Robert Silman Associates, Langan, Zubatkin Owner Representation, Structure Tone Inc., PW Grosser and Lane Associates.

“Everybody had tremendous aspirations for the project. We were working with some of the best engineers, specialists and tradesmen in their fields. Everyone wanted to give 120 percent because it was St. Patrick’s,” Murphy said.