Sustainable Cities™

Rhinebeck: Bringing buildings to life with the eco-machine

The Omega Center for Sustainable Living in Rhinebeck of the US has been designed to achieve the highest level of environmental performance possible to date. Incorporating the best of today’s sustainable building technologies, notably the eco-machine wastewater treatment concept, the building has been the first to be awarded the title of “Living Building” from the Cascadia Region Green Building Council.

Facaden på Omega Center, Copyright Omega Institute

The Living Building Challenge was introduced at the 2006 Greenbuild Conference in Denver, Colorado and has inspired some 60 projects across North America since its inception. On July 16th, 2009, the Omega Center for Sustinable Living in upstate New York became the first of these projects to cross the finish line and meet the standards of the challenge. Located at the Omega Institute in the small town of Rhinebeck, the building far exceeds the sustainability criteria set by the US's LEED Rating System and was designed by BNIM Architects to uphold the six categories set by the Living Building Challenge: Site, Energy, Materials, Water, Indoor Quality, and Beauty and Inspiration.

To achieve such a noble title, the building has incorporated many of today's most advanced sustainable building strategies: a geothermal heating and cooling system, rain-collecting gardens, solar panels, special daylight design, sophisticated solar heating capabilities, a green roof, energy efficient light fixtures, off-site wind power, natural ventilation, and many eco-friendly building materials. While all o these features are incredibly impressive (some described i detail below), perhaps the feature that i most responsible for the building's place i the Living Building category i its eco-machine wastewater treatment system.

Cross Section of the Omega Center Showing the Eco Machine, Copyright Omega Institute

Developed in 1981 by Dr. John Todd, the eco-machine is a sewage treatment concept that takes inspiration from the natural water treatment systems used in wetlands. It incorporates some 200 species of plants that soak up the nutrients of the sewage while bacteria and microbes on the plant's roots break down the pollutants. As the sewage proceeds from one area of specific plant species to another, snails and fish join in the feast until, at last, sparkling water that is good enough for irrigation, toilet flushing, or car washing is produced. The eco-machine of the Omega Center is arranged throughout the land surrounding the building and uses the fresh water that it produces primarily for irrigation purposes. 

Surprisingly, among the many challenges that Omega faced when trying to implement the new eco-machine, monetary obstacles were at the bottom of the list. Eco-machines cost about half as much to install as traditional sewage treatment plants, which are made of concrete tanks and a maze of pipes. Additionally, the vegetation that the eco-machine produces can be harvested and sold to local farmers as compost, offsetting the already low maintenance and operating costs. Accordingly, since Omega's 50-year-old campus septic system was nearing the end of its life, the switch to an eco machine made a lot of sense.

It seems the largest challenge that the project faced in terms of the eco-machine was the gathering of the large land area that the system requires. Ultimately, the system's large land footprint was justified by infusing the eco machine with value as a garden and an educational tool. The Center for Sustainable Living has become much more than just a sewage treatment facility and is replete with windows that show the workings of the system, plaques that explain it, and tour guides that regularly lead visitors through the building's halls. Also, since eco-machines do not smell and can be pleasant to look at, the school has created infrastructure to make many of the parts of the system a component of a school garden. In this way, the Omega Institute has ensured that its building is worthy of the description "living" and presently boasts a structure that is arguably the most sustainable in the entire US.

Creating a successful eco-machine

A number of other projects have successfully implemented Eco-machines but several of them have run into difficulties with regard to the issue of scale. For example, the eco-machine that England's BedZED ( attempted to implement did not have enough users to make the system worthwhile to maintain. The Omega Institute has addressed this issue by having the eco-machine service the entirety of its campus along with its annual 23,000 residents. 

Other sustainable living building strategies

The Omega Center has applied a long list of sustainable design strategies that can be seen towards the end of its project overview. However, to focus on some of these features that are particularly novel other than the eco-machine, the geothermal heating/cooling system and the impressive use of eco-friendly building materials are both noteworthy. 

The geothermal temperature-regulating system works by drawing up water from underground sources that are at a constant temperature year-round. At a certain level below the surface, the water that can be drawn up is roughly at comfortable room temperature no matter what the season is. Such a level is far enough from the surface to be unaffected by the changing solar energy that the Earth receives with the seasons is but close enough to the Earth's lower crust to receive some thermal energy from the planet's core. While this level varies depending on geographic location, it is usually a few hundred meters below the surface in Northeastern America. The Omega Institute has drilled wells down to this level to use the water to heat its building in the winter and cool it in the summer.  

The Omega Center also exhibits a huge dedication to the use of eco-friendly building materials. The Living Building Challenge includes a long and incredibly harsh list of prohibited materials that includes PVC, a plastic pipe that is typically used in plumbing. According to the executive director of the Omega Institute, "the entire wastewater industry uses PVC, so when you want to find an alternative to that, you're talking a major commitment." 

Last updated Tuesday, January 21, 2014