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.”
Come take a tour or register for one of our sustainable living programs today.
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.
Net Zero Energy
The Omega Center for Sustainable Living 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™, the natural water reclamation system at the heart of the OCSL, as well as the OCSL building itself.
More than 200 photovoltaic solar panels capture energy from the sun at the Omega Center for Sustainable Living. Solar energy, which does not pollute the air or contribute to global warming, supplies 100% of the OCSL's electricity needs. Solar inverters condition the generated electricity for use in the OCSL. 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. On an annual basis, the Omega Center for Sustainable Living supplies more energy to the grid than it uses, establishing it as a net zero energy building.
The Omega Center for Sustainable Living 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.
Water from deep wells is circulated by pumps for geothermal heating and cooling. When heat is called for, an electrically driven compressor takes the constant heat available from the earth and concentrates it for use. The heat can then be delivered through the OCSL's radiant heating system. For cooling, the process is reversed. Heat is extracted from the OCSL and transferred to the earth. All the energy required for both geothermal heating and cooling is generated by the OCSL's photovoltaic solar panels.
The Omega Center for Sustainable Living's geothermal heating and cooling system is complemented by the sustainable design of the building. Located along an east-west axis, the OCSL is positioned for the best use of solar heat throughout the year. The thermal mass of the concrete and water that make up the Eco Machine™'s aerated lagoons also help to heat and cool the building. In addition, both the recycled metal roof and the green roof, which contains a garden of sedums, help cool the building during the summer months.
The United States Green Building Council's LEED® Platinum designation and the Living Building Challengelist 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.
At the Omega Center for Sustainable Living, building materials were selected to avoid hazardous chemicals, including cadmium, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), added formaldehyde, lead, mercury, and polyvinyl chloride (PVC). They 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; and 250 miles for heavy materials, such as brick, stone, and concrete.
All new wood materials at the Omega Center for Sustainable Living 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.
We learned two important facts while trying to meet the criteria of LEED® Platinum and the Living Building Challenge at the Omega Center for Sustainable Living: many building materials include toxic chemicals, and most building materials are no longer made in the United States. For example, we had to make our own pipe insulation because we couldn't find any free of toxins. We also used many salvaged building materials to meet LEED® Platinum and Living Building Challenge criteria, including doors from an office building, bathroom partitions salvaged from a church, and even plywood from President Barack Obama's inaugural stage.
Learn more about the OCLS's buiding materials: Omega Center for Sustainable Living Fact Sheet
The Omega Center for Sustainable Living (OCSL) is constructed to meet one of the highest green building standards: LEED® Platinum. Developed by the US Green Building Council (USGBC).
The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED®) Green Building Rating System™ is an internationally recognized green building certification system. 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® can be applied to all types of buildings, including new construction projects like the OCSL. 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 Omega Center for Sustainable Living has earned LEED® Platinum status.
Living Building Challenge™
"Omega Institute, a pioneering adopter of the Living Building Challenge, is helping to change the way we design, build, and operate buildings by creating the Omega Center for Sustainable Living," Jason F. McLennan, Living Building Challenge™ founder says. "Through its leadership, Omega is providing us with hope and guidance for a sustainable future."
The Living Building Challenge™ asks, "What if every single act of design and construction made the world a better place?" Drawing on the most progressive thinking from the worlds of architecture, engineering, planning, landscape design, and policy, it is a call to action in seven key performance areas of sustainable architecture: Site, water, energy, health, materials, equity, and beauty.
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 is the Omega Center for Sustainable Living?
The Omega Center for Sustainable Living 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 America to receive both LEED® Platinum and Living Building Challenge™ certification.
What is LEED® Platinum?
Developed by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED®) Green Building Rating System™ is an internationally recognized green building certification program. 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. The total number of points a project earns determines its LEED® status: Certified, Silver, Gold, or Platinum. The Omega Center for Sustainable Living has received LEED® Platinum status.
What is the Living Building Challenge?
The Living Building Challenge, a program of the Cascadia Region Green Building Council, is a call to action in seven key performance areas of sustainable architecture: site, water, energy, heath, materials, equity, and beauty. It is comprised of a set of stringent prerequisites that include generating all energy with renewable resources; capturing and treating all water used in a 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 operation. The Omega Institute for Sustainable Living 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.
Why build the OCSL?
In 2005, Omega realized that our aging wastewater septic system would soon need to be replaced. Instead of installing a new septic system, we wanted to create a different kind of water treatment system—one that would reflect Omega's core value of sustainability and treat water not as waste, but as a precious resource. We identified three criteria to be met by the natural water reclamation system we envisioned:
1. Water reclamation using zero chemicals
2. Water reclamation using low energy
3. Educational opportunities for individuals and groups to learn about natural water reclamation, green building, and sustainable living.
In designing and building the Eco Machine™ and the Omega Center for Sustainable Living, we met each of these criteria.
How long did it take to plan and build the Omega Center for Sustainable Living?
From initial concept to finished building, it took five years to construct the OCSL. There was the first year of planning and then another two years spent obtaining all the necessary building permits. One and two-thirds years were spent actually constructing the building.
How much did it cost to build the Omega Center for Sustainable Living?
It cost $4.1 million to build the OCSL. As of October 2010, Omega has received generous contributions from funders totaling $2.6 million toward the $3.2 million OCSL campaign goal. Omega has also borrowed $1.5 million at less than 5% interest to meet the building's cost. That interest rate was reduced to 1% through a New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) grant. To accommodate tours and educational programs, it was necessary to size the building much larger than necessary for water reclamation only. This added greatly to the cost. We are glad we made the investment! Thousands have already taken advantage of OCSL tours, workshops, and conferences.
What's the monitoring and maintenance of the OCSL and Eco Machine™ like?
The systems of the OCSL are fully automated and manage temperature, humidity, and lighting, and record all energy used by the building's systems. The Eco Machine™ requires water testing in order to meet regulatory standards. The overall maintenance of the Eco Machine™ is minimal and consists mainly of plant and filter care. As a result, maintenance for both the OCSL and the Eco Machine™ takes just a couple of hours per day.
Are tours of the OCSL available?
Yes, free OCSL tours are offered by appointment year round, and on Wednesdays and Saturdays at 1:00 p.m. during Omega's season (May to October). We welcome students of all ages, teachers, activists, contractors, architects, elected officials, and many others. During a tour, visitors can observe the Eco Machine™ treating all of Omega's wastewater without chemicals, and get a close-up look at the solar and geothermal systems that satisfy 100% of the building's energy, and heating and cooling needs. To schedule a tour, contact us at OCSL@eOmega.org.
What kind of workshops and conferences are offered through the OCSL?
We offer sustainable living programs to help people connect with the natural world and preserve the planet for future generations. Workshops range from canning local foods, to mindfulness meditation in nature, to conferences.