The Omega Center for Sustainable Living (OCSL), which officially opens on July 16, 2009, is at the bleeding edge of green building.  It's located on the 195-acre campus of the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York, an education and retreat center.  Not only is it on track to achieve LEED Platinum, it may be the first building in America to meet the requirements of the Living Building Challenge.

OCSL Section Perspective - BNIM Architects

About OCSL:

The building is intended to be the heart of the Omega Institute's initiatives focused on the environment.  It began in 2005 as a plan to replace the aging septic system that had been there since the land was used as a summer camp in the 1950s.  The building has a whole host of green features, but the real feat is how they all work together with the local environment.  As Robert “Skip” Backus, OCSL’s CEO puts it, "it's not just about compact florescent light bulbs, it's not just about recycling, it's about looking at what are the systems and the ways of engineering that are available to us now so that we can go to a higher level of sustainability — one that is truly in balance with the natural environment."

Green features include:

  • Net zero energy use due to photovoltaic array;
  • Net zero water use;
  • High fly-ash content concrete;
  • Green roof;
  • Rain gardens;
  • Automatic windows to vent out hot air;
  • Recycled content steel throughout;
  • Closed-loop geothermal heating and cooling;
  • All construction materials are FSC certified, locally sourced, and do not contain chemicals on the Living Building Challenge’s Red List.  


The Eco-Machine:

The center has several classrooms, but at the core of the 6,200 SF center is the 4,500 SF greenhouse containing a water filtration system called the "Eco-Machine."  The Eco-Machine is the latest in Living Machine technology designed by Dr. John Todd.  Living Machines use a combination of plants, bacteria, algae, snails, and fungi to treat and recycle wastewater.  Wastewater flows through a system of aerobic and anaerobic tanks located under ground, inside the greenhouse, and outside through the four "cells," which are man-made wetlands. The OCSL handles all of the wastewater generated by the Institute’s 23,000 annual visitors and has a daily capacity of 52,000 gallons.



How to be a Living Building:

The Living Building Challenge (LBC) was conceived by Jason F. McLennan and has been operated by the Cascadia Green Building Council.  It was not intended to compete with LEED but to go beyond it.  Unlike LEED, whose goal is to make the built environment more sustainable, the LBC takes it even further to outline requirements for buildings to take nothing at all from the environment.  Buildings must generate their own energy, use no outside water, and be built with locally sourced, sustainably harvested materials that do not contain any harmful chemicals on their "Red List." 

The Red List:

Designing a building that generates is own energy and reuses water is actually the easy part, the material requirements are the biggest challenge.  The Red List includes toxic materials, CFCs, petrochemical fertilizers, and mercury, which can be easy to avoid, but also includes things like PVC, wood treatments (with creosote, arsenic, or pentachlorophenol), flame-retardants, and added formaldehyde that are present in the majority of manufactured products. 

Most electrical, plumbing, and pump assemblies have at least some parts that are made out of PVC, which make for an added procurement challenge.  It might mean choosing one manufacturer over another, or asking the manufacturer to change their entire manufacturing and procurement process just for you.  Companies that can or will do this are few and far between and it comes at a premium.  Project architect Laura Lesniewski of BNIM Architects sums it up, "In the marketplace, it’s tough to meet the materials list, the red list, and the FSC [requirements] and make it affordable."


Material Sourcing:

LBC also outlines how far materials in manufactured products can be sourced, which is a huge challenge in today’s global supply chain.  Skip Backus encountered this firsthand, "most companies don’t even know where the parts in their own products come from … toilets were the hardest because almost all of them are made in Vietnam."  Exceptions are made on items that cannot possibly be custom manufactured to meet the requirements, such as computers.

The bar is incredibly high and the LBC has yet to certify a building in America.  Certification is not complete until one full year after opening, wh en it can be proven that the building is able to meet its own energy needs year round.  Time will tell if the OCSL becomes the first project to receive the lofty and coveted certification. 

Photo/rendering credits: Gregory Edwards (top); BNIM Architects (second and third renderings); Andy Milford (fourth image of lagoons); Omega Institute (fifth image of Eco-Machine); Andy Milford (sixth image of exterior).