What is a Living Building?

The term "Living Building" was created by the International Living Future Institute to designate the highest green building standards in the world.

And while the OCSL was foundational in the creation of the Living Building Challenge, our building is much more than an award-winning construction project. 

With the Eco Machine™ it houses—and through the people who visit its classroom and take its tours—it is a building that lives and breathes every day.

OCSL cutaway

Why Build?

In 2005, we realized that Omega's aging wastewater septic system would soon need to be replaced. Instead of simply installing a new septic system, we wanted to create a different kind of water treatment system—one that would handle water not as waste, but as a precious resource.

Omega identified three criteria to be met by the natural water reclamation system we envisioned:

  • Water reclamation using zero chemicals
  • Water reclamation using low energy
  • Educational opportunities for individuals and groups

We brainstormed with Omega teachers at the top of the environmental and sustainability fields and chose to build an Eco Machine™, a natural "wastewater" treatment system that cleans water by mimicking the systems of the natural world. This met criteria number one, water treatment using zero chemicals.

The Mission

Part of the Eco Machine™ needed to be housed by a building. We decided the building should be just as green and efficient as the Eco Machine™ itself, and began to design the OCSL. We built the OCSL to the highest standards in sustainable architecture—LEED® Platinum and Living Building Challenge. To meet one of the prerequisites for the Living Building Challenge, the OCSL was designed to generate and supply all energy for both the Eco Machine™ and the building. With a zero carbon footprint, we were able to exceed our second criteria of low energy for the new water reclamation system.
At the OCSL, we wanted the public to be able to learn about the process of natural water reclamation, witness the latest developments in green building, and take courses that highlight their connection to the natural world and inspire greater sustainability in their own lives and communities. With a 4,500-square-foot greenhouse, an accessible mechanical room, and an indoor and outdoor classroom, the OCSL meets Omega's third criteria of education and allows us to provide educational opportunities for a wide variety of groups and individuals.

“Our goal is to help people reexamine how they relate to the world by showing them what’s possible in terms of environmental sustainability, green energy, and regenerative design.”
Robert "Skip" Backus ,

OCSL Founder

Skip Backus in front of OCSL solar panels

The Site


The right site for the OCSL was clear from the start. The previous owner of our campus had used a portion of the grounds as a landfill site for disposal of materials such as concrete, metals, and old plumbing fixtures. We decided to complete the clean up of the landfill and properly dispose of the materials that had been buried there over the years.

Northern Cricket Frog


A Frog's Tale


Once the former landfill was safely cleared, the construction site for the OCSL was prepared. We were excited to begin building. But, as part of the site analysis that was conducted, the endangered northern cricket frog (Acris crepitans) was discovered on the property. 

northern cricket frog 2

A Small Frog With a Wide Reach

Though it was originally thought that the northern cricket frog's habitat did not extend into the construction zone, it was later discovered that these vulnerable frogs could reach the OCSL's building site.

Habitat Protection Fence

Habitat Protection

Before we could continue construction, we needed to take steps to ensure the frogs' safety. A 3-foot frog-proof fence was constructed around the entire building site and crew members were trained to monitor the fence several times a day. No frogs were ever found, but Blanding's turtles (Emydoidea blandingii), a threatened species on the land, were discovered and safely re-routed.

A Powerful Lesson

The northern cricket frog served Omega as a reminder of our responsibility as stewards of our natural resources. We learned how important it is to consider all beings—birds, squirrels, fish, frogs, flies, bees—when planning a newly built environment.

Frog Rescue Station


The United States Green Building Council's LEED® Platinum designation and the Living Building Challenge list a number of requirements for all building materials used in construction projects. These criteria include limiting the amount of chemicals in the materials and sourcing all building materials from within a prescribed distance.

Materials were sourced from within:

  • 8,000 miles for renewable energy technologies
  • 1,000 miles for lightweight materials, including insulation, carpet, and fabrics
  • 500 miles for medium weight materials, including wood products
  • 250 miles for heavy materials, such as brick, stone, and concrete.

All new wood materials at the OCSL were certified to Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) standards and the concrete used at the OCSL was locally sourced. The concrete is made up of 40% slag (a by-product from the production of steel), which greatly reduces its environmental impact. In addition, 99% of all metal, cardboard, rigid foam, and wood waste from the OCSL's construction was recycled or diverted from landfills.

From Dream to Reality

From initial concept to finished building, it took five years to construct the OCSL: one year for planning, two years for permits, and one and two-thirds years for construction.

Energy Use

The OCSL is a net zero energy building. Over the course of a year, it generates more electricity than it consumes. To achieve net zero energy, the OCSL was designed to be extremely efficient with the electricity it generates to power the Eco Machine™ and the building itself.

More than 200 photovoltaic solar panels capture energy from the sun. Solar energy, which does not pollute the air or contribute to global warming, supplies 100% of the building's electricity needs.

OCSL solar panels

Solar inverters condition the generated electricity for use. That electricity is then sent to the OCSL's energy management center, where a series of meters measures how much electricity has been generated and used. These meters help us learn how we use the energy and how we might better conserve.
If the photovoltaic solar panels generate more electricity than the OCSL can use, the excess is sold to Omega's utility company. When enough solar energy cannot be captured, such as during the evenings and some winter days, the OCSL draws energy from the local power grid. This process is called net metering

The OCSL is heated and cooled using 100% geothermal energy, a clean, renewable resource that we access via a geothermal heat pump. This system allows us to use the constant temperature of the earth (approximately 52 degrees Fahrenheit at 50 feet) as both a heating and cooling source.


The OCSL has received a number of awards since it was completed. It is the first building in the world to have achieved two of the most stringent green building standards: 

  • LEED®Platinum status
  • Living Building Challenge™ certification
LEED Platinum & Living Building Challenge logos

The OCSL also has been designated a Fossil Free Zone by Leave It In the Ground.

Fossil Free Zone
What is LEED Platinum?
LEED logos

The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED®) Green Building Rating System™ is an internationally recognized green building certification system developed by the US Green Building Council (USGBC). It provides third-party verification that a building or community was designed and built using strategies aimed at improving performance in energy savings, water efficiency, CO2 emissions reduction, indoor environmental quality, and stewardship of resources and sensitivity to their impacts. 

LEED® awards certifications based on a 100-point scale. By meeting certain criteria, a project accumulates points. For example, if you're using recycled building materials for up to 10% of the materials in the building, you earn one point; two points if you use 20%. The total number of points a project earns determines its LEED® status: Certified, Silver, Gold, or Platinum. The OCSL has earned LEED® Platinum status.

What is the Living Building Challenge?
Living Building Challenge logo

A program of the International Living Future Institute, the Living Building Challenge™ is not a contest or a point system. It is a set of stringent prerequisites that include generating all energy with renewable resources; capturing and treating all water used in the building; and using building materials void of hazardous chemicals. Projects can be certified as Living Buildings if they prove to meet all of the program requirements after 12 months of continued operations and full occupancy. The OCSL is one of the first projects to participate in the Living Building Challenge™ and has been named as one of the first Living Buildings in the world.

What does it mean to be a Fossil Free Zone?
Fossil Free Zone

Fossil Free Zones are places that do not extract, process or burn coal, oil or gas. The designation has been created by Leave It In the Ground (LINGO), an organization that is "guided by a simple principle: Leave fossil fuels in the ground and learn to live without them."

"Many groups and movements are already piloting a zero carbon lifestyle, fighting fossil fuel projects, and advocating for divestment from fossil fuels," according to LINGO. "The Fossil Free Zones campaign aims to accelerate the spread of the emerging norm of being 'fossil free' and build a common global identity among groups – from households to football clubs to national governments – that are working to phase-out fossil fuels."