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A Living Building


Building in this age requires addressing multiple environmental concerns. For the Omega Institute — which is a center in Rhinebeck, N.Y., specializing in holistic living — those concerns mean designing beyond conventional codes and practices. Omega Institute recently unveiled a "living building," which filters 5 million gallons of wastewater each year through an indoor marsh and outdoor wetlands.

This $3 million project was the brainchild of Omega's CEO, Skip Backus. Backus' vision was to replace the center's aging septic system with something more sustainable while providing an educational model for future projects and the 23,000 visitors to Omega each year. The Omega Center for Sustainable Living was conceived.

The OCSL may be the first green building to achieve the LEED Platinum certification and meet the Living Building Challenge, which is the highest standard possible for building performance. This means that the building provides all of its own electricity and heat through geothermal wells and solar photovoltaic panels. The building is constructed of reused materials and locally sourced concrete without additives.

The heart of the building is a 4,500-square-foot greenhouse containing a water filtration system called the Eco Machine. There is a concrete marsh that is 15 feet deep. Water bubbles through a lush flowering jungle containing plants, snails, microbes, algae and fungi that filter out nutrients, contaminants and organic material. But the process doesn't start there. It actually begins in one of Omega's 250 toilets or in a shower, sink or kitchen. A tiny spray of microbes helps to jump-start the composting process when the toilet is flushed.

All wastewater from the bathrooms and kitchens flows into an equalization tank, where solid waste is separated from liquid waste.

The equalization tank also helps to quell surges and spread out the flow evenly over the course of the day to keep from overwhelming the Eco Machine. This tank is an anaerobic environment, where microbes reclaim the water without oxygen.

The wastewater then flows horizontally through gravel and the roots of bulrushes, cattails and other plants that pull nitrogen from the water. Next, the water flows through the living building and the aerated lagoons, where it is cleaned in the constructed ecosystem. The water then is polished in a sand filter. Finally, the water is returned to the hydrologic system through a dispersal field. It also is used to irrigate landscaping and flush toilets.

This living sewer system has the capacity to service a small village at a cost far less than conventional pipe and water treatment sewers. Right now, many municipalities are looking at replacing aging sewer systems. The OCSL is a model for large-scale municipal projects. The Eco Machine mimics nature's way of handling waste. A similar project could serve a single building, neighborhood or gated community. If we designed all our buildings to produce their own energy and heat, reclaim water and process waste, we could reduce our infrastructure costs — and our taxes — greatly. At the same time, we could conserve and reclaim water, which quickly is becoming our most precious natural resource.

Living buildings represent a human commitment to changing our shortsighted and self-serving way of life to be more in harmony with nature and live more sustainably.

Shawn Dell Joyce is an award-winning columnist and founder of the Wallkill River School in Orange County, N.Y. You can contact her at To find out more about Shawn Dell Joyce and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at



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