The Omega Center for Sustainable Living (OCSL) is an environmental education center and natural water reclamation facility built to meet the highest standards currently available in sustainable architecture. It is the first green building in the United States to achieve both LEED® Platinum and Living Building Challenge™ certification.
At the OCSL, you can observe the Eco Machine™ treating wastewater without chemicals and get a close-up look at the solar and geothermal systems that provide energy, heating, and cooling for the building.
“The OCSL is a dynamic, living and breathing demonstration of how interconnected we all are with the world around us,” says Skip Backus, chief executive officer at Omega. “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.”
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.
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 Omega Center for Sustainable Living. 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.
The right site for the Omega Center for Sustainable Living 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.
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. 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.
Before we could continue construction of the Omega Center for Sustainable Living, we needed to take steps to ensure the frogs' safety. A three foot frog-proof fence was constructed around the entire OCSL 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.
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.