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Omega Center for Sustainable Living (New York, USA)

Credits: ©2009 Omega Center

The Omega Center for Sustainable Living supplies all of its own energy needs, and its operation is carbon neutral. The self-sustaining building is heated and cooled using geothermal systems, and utilizes photovoltaic power. It will serve as the heart of Omega's ongoing environmental initiatives and includes a greenhouse, an Eco-Machine, constructed wetland, and a classroom which will be open year-round to the public. In 2005 Omega began to look at replacing its aging septic system and quickly decided that a living machine—a natural wastewater treatment system—housed in a building designed and built to the toughest criteria of sustainable architecture, was the most appropriate response for these times.


Omega Institute NY

The Omega Center for Sustainable Living (OCSL) was designed by BNMI Architects and features a laboratory and interpretive center in 6,200 ft2 (576 m2). ©2010 Assissi

Omega worked with a number of progressive, forward-thinking companies to create what is now the Omega Center for Sustainable Living (OCSL). John Todd, a pioneer in the field of natural wastewater treatment systems and head of John Todd Ecological Design, and civil engineers from the Chazen Companies, did the preliminary engineering work to envision Omega's living machine and how it would fit into the systems currently on campus. They laid important groundwork for BNIM, the sustainable architecture firm that designed the OCSL. The full team—experts in natural wastewater treatment systems, civil engineering, sustainable architecture, and landscape, mechanical, and structural design-worked collaboratively to help the Omega Center for Sustainable Living meet the Living Building Challenge and LEED Platinum level certification.

The result is a 6,200 square foot building that contains a classroom, laboratory, and a 4,500 square foot greenhouse for Omega's living machine, the Eco Machine™. Slated to come online in spring 2009, the Eco Machine will treat more than 5 million gallons of wastewater annually. The OCSL will offer visitors a direct experience with the most recent, cutting-edge technologies in green building and sustainable living, and will show, in an experiential, accessible way, how we can move forward together.

Living Building Challenge
The Omega Center for Sustainable Living is a pioneering project in the Living Building Challenge. A program of the Cascadia Region Green Building Council, the Living Building Challenge is attempting to push the boundaries of green building and sustainable architecture to help our society move quickly to a state of balance between natural and built environments.

Taking a holistic approach to green building, the Living Building Challenge requires buildings to be informed by their eco-region's characteristics; generate all of their own energy with renewable resources; capture and treat all of their water; operate efficiently; and be designed for maximum beauty. There are six performance areas—site, energy, materials, water, indoor quality, and beauty & inspiration—and certain criteria to be met in each category in order for a building to be designated a Living Building.

The Living Building Challenge aims to facilitate changes in the green building industry by examining the best knowledge and practices available today in sustainable architecture-including design, sourcing, building codes, economics, consumer expectations, etc.-and creating a benchmark of the highest level of sustainability currently possible in the marketplace. It is a challenge to building owners, architects, engineers, and design professionals to build in a way that moves us toward sustainable architecture and a truly sustainable future.

The Omega Center for Sustainable Living is one of the first projects to participate in the Living Building Challenge.

The Eco Machine
The Eco Machine™ at the heart of the Omega Center for Sustainable Living (OCSL) is the latest in living machine technology designed by John Todd, a pioneer in the field of ecological design. A living machine is natural wastewater treatment system that cleans water by mimicking the systems of the natural world. Wastewater comes into the Eco Machine and is run through various treatment zones where all major forms of life are represented, including microscopic algae, fungi, bacteria, plants, snails, and fishes. This natural wastewater treatment is a robust ecosystem that cleans the water without the need for hazardous chemicals.

The size and components of a living machine depends on how much water the system will process. Omega's Eco Machine can process up to 52,000 gallons a day and includes anoxic tanks, constructed wetlands, the Eco Machine lagoons, sand filters, and large dispersal fields. Much of the Eco Machine's natural wastewater treatment process is gravity fed, decreasing the amount of energy needed to operate the system. Omega plans to eventually use the purified and sterilized water from the OCSL for irrigation and in toilets throughout its campus.

Step-by-Step Through the Eco Machine
Step 1: Anaerobic Tanks

In the first stage of the Eco Machine, all wastewater comes into two large septic tanks (10,000 gallons total) and naturally occurring microbial organisms living in the water begin to digest the sludge that settles to the bottom of the tanks. This process happens in the absence of oxygen (called either aerobic or anoxic) and produces a modest amount of methane gas, though not enough to harvest and use as an energy source.

Step 2: Constructed Wetlands

From the anaerobic tanks, water makes its way into a constructed wetland full of plants known for their ability to treat wastewater. These plants help clarify the water as particles in the water stick to the plants' roots. They also remove nitrates from the water, converting them into a harmless nitrogen gas that escapes into the atmosphere. There are four constructed wetlands in Omega's system, each the size of a basketball court.

Step 3: Aerated Lagoons

From the constructed wetlands, the water is collected in a 5,000 gallon tank where it is then pumped into the greenhouse and into the two lagoons of the Eco Machine. There are four cells in each lagoon, and as the water makes its way through each cell it is scrubbed and cleaned by plants, fungi, algae, bacteria, snails, and other organisms in the tanks. In turn, these organisms use the nutrients to grow and thrive and the tanks become full of lush plants and teeming with life.

Step 4: Sand Filter

Before being reintroduced back into the environment, water is sent through a recirculating sand filter. Tiny microorganisms living in the sand are capable of removing any nitrogen, organic matter, or particulates that may still be present. At this point the water meets advanced wastewater standards and is ready for non-potable use.

Stage 5: Dispersal

Finally, the processed water is reintroduced to the environment via a subsurface network of chambers in two large dispersal fields under the parking lot. Eventually, we hope to use the water to irrigate our gardens, flush toilets, and maintain an outdoor water garden.


  Omega Center for Sustainable Living Overview (1,355 kb)


Omega Center for Sustainable Living Case Study

Omega Center for Sustainable Living (Rhinebeck, New York, USA)