In the spring of 2011, Omega Institute completed construction on a passive house addition to the main office building to house the Omega Women's Leadership Center (OWLC).
The structure was the second project in New York State—and the first commercial project in the United States—to be certified as passive house. A low-energy building science developed in Germany in the 1990s, passive house design and engineering saves up to 80% of energy consumption as compared to a conventionally built structure. Strategic and comprehensive, it balances receptivity and retention, climate data, and structural innovation. This is accomplished through rigorous analysis of energy losses and gains, a super-insulated building envelope, airtight construction, and high-efficiency building systems.
Passive house works on the principle “maximize your gains, minimize your losses.” Maximizing heating sources from passive solar collection, as well as the internal gains of the people and electronics housed, means that any additional needs placed on an "active" system are diminished. Shade and window orientation help minimize the need for additional cooling in the summer, and a ventilator provides and circulates fresh air.
Why Passive House for the OWLC?
Omega Institute’s chief external affairs officer and OWLC cofounder, Carla Goldstein, said of the intention behind the office construction for the OWLC, "Omega was founded on the holistic worldview that the well-being of each of us is deeply connected to the well-being of all living things. Our commitment to sustainability is not only through an ecological lens, but also reflects an understanding of the social and economic implications of our actions. To that end, Omega believes that women and girls worldwide have a critical role to play in building a more peaceful, just, and sustainable world. The Omega Women’s Leadership Center, an outgrowth of this commitment, recognizes that women’s leadership can advance what matters most and aims to give women the tools to become the kind of leaders the world needs now. At Omega, environmental stewardship is embedded in all of our resource decisions as we seek to model what it possible, so it only made sense that our new office space reflect the most sustainable architecture available."
The OWLC passive house addition joins another Omega building that has achieved environmental distinctions, the Omega Center for Sustainable Living—the first green building in America to receive both LEED® Platinum and Living Building Challenge™ certifications. Omega continues to model regenerative environmental practices by integrating them into other facilities on our Rhinebeck, New York campus.
Working in a Passive House
Since 2011, as OWLC staff members have settled in to their offices, they've enjoyed the benefits of the light and the open feeling of the space, which is complemented by large windows and high ceilings. Sarah Urech, OWLC manager, said that she continues to feel "very connected to the outside world and with all the seasons." She spoke about making sure that visitors to the Center have an understanding of the building's construction and "alerting people to what's possible and thinking in a different way about our housing and technology."
But perhaps an even more obvious sign of the building's success is its seamless normality. The building underscores the potential for sustainable architecture to innovate in ways that are inspired and efficient without expecting significant adaptation on the part of its day-to-day inhabitants.
The intention and initiative Omega has taken in sustainable building practices is the radical shift in practice, everything that follows is just another day at the office.