A Tour of America's First Zero-Impact, Supergreen "Living Building"

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The Omega Center for Sustainable Living is designed to make a LEED Gold structure look like a Superfund site. The $3.2 million Rhinebeck, New York, structure, which opens in July, will be the nation's first certified "living building," having no negative environmental effects. The centerpiece of the project — designed by Kansas City, Missouri-based BNIM and John Todd Ecological Design of Woods Hole, Massachusetts — is a revolutionary system that will clean 5 million gallons of wastewater a year. The facility also doubles as an education center focusing on — what else? — sustainable living.

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1 Holding Cell

A 10,000-gallon anoxic (oxygen-free) tank collects all the wastewater from the 195-acre campus of the Omega Institute, an educational nonprofit that promotes "holistic living" (think yoga and meditation). The tank is placed so that water can flow downward as it's being cleaned, minimizing the need for energy-hogging pumps.

2 The Wetlands

BNIM designed artificial wetlands to serve as the second stage of the treatment process. Water flows from the anoxic tank into gravel-filled cells filled with stands of bulrush and cattail. The plants ingest nitrates and other impurities.

3 Green Lagoon

From the wetlands, the water moves inside the building into two lagoons that are divided into cells. Plants such as calla lily and giant papyrus hover just above water level, their roots working alongside a curated menagerie of fungi, microbes, algae, and snails to clean the water as it moves through the cells. Koi swim in the last, cleanest cell.

4 Natural Light

Skylights above the lagoons let in sunshine to nourish the plants. A solar-tracking system follows the sun through the day, diverting rays downward for steady light.

5 The Sandpit

Clear water flows back outside from the lagoons into a filter of sand and gravel. Microorganisms living in the sand devour residual waste before the cleaned water is piped to flush toilets and irrigate the land.

6 Roof Garden

The green roof will collect and clean rainwater before diverting it to a cistern.

7 Air Supply

After studying wind patterns, BNIM designed the lower windows on the east side and the upper ones on the west to open and cool the building in the summer.

8 The Shield

Using slabs of cypress reclaimed from a Pennsylvania mushroom farm — all building materials had to be recycled or come from within 1,000 miles of the site — BNIM constructed a sheath around the building to prevent moisture buildup and provide extra insulation.

9 Powering

Up Photovoltaic collectors allow the building to be entirely off-grid.

10 In Session

Eco-focused lectures and talks will be held in the indoor/outdoor classrooms.

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  • rickz

    What I think some of the other commenters might be overlooking is succeeding generations. Every toddler, tween, teen or middle-schooler that visits a learning center like this can come away with an altered perception of the world and our (consuming) place in it. Proselytizing is essential to shifting the globe toward sustainability and long-term survival. Leading by example is commendable.

  • G R

    No offense Nichole, but you contradict yourself. We don't need learning centers, we just need to live by learning. Hmmm. I appreciate your intentions, though. No, it doesn't take gold medal models to teach us how, but it does show us, temporarily, what is possible and allows visuals that stay in the mind. If we know it can be, we will find a way to make it our own reality. Every day we don't change for the better, we devolve. Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Keep your eyes on the horizon. Make it happen.

  • Nichole Reber

    Gracious what we don't need is yet another sustainable living training center. What America needs is to learn to LIVE sustainably. This is a good building in theory, though, and if someone learns something about how to live a more eco-friendly life from reading this article, then it's achieved at least that.