The Hudson Valley has long been fertile ground, not only for agriculture, but also for innovators. Think IBM, but also think Shakers, Samuel F.B. Morse, Thomas Cole, and many more.
So it’s not completely surprising that what many consider the greenest building in the country is right here in the Hudson Valley. The Omega Center for Sustainable Living (OCSL), an environmental education center and natural water reclamation facility at the Rhinebeck campus of the Omega Institute, is the first green building in America to achieve both LEED© Platinum and Living Building Challenge™ Certification. That means it’s a building that is not only carbon neutral, supplying all it’s energy needs through geothermal systems and photovoltaic power, but one that starts to have a positive environmental impact, in this case by purifying more waste than it creates and generating more energy than it consumes.
Built to meet the highest standards currently available in sustainable architecture, the OCSL is a handsome facility designed specifically for this ecosystem and this site, with a constructed wetland, stoney plateaus, cattails and bullrushes. It treats 100% of the water used at the 200 acre Omega Institute center which hosts thousands of visitors each year for conferences, retreats and workshops. In keeping with Omega’s mission to “awaken the best in the human spirit” through innovative educational experiences, the OCSL also sports a roomy classroom where classes and workshops are held and from which free tours of the center are led daily. I encourage you to take a tour; it will revolutionize your thinking about water. For one thing, it reminds you that all water is recycled and re-used — no new water is produced on earth.
The core of the OCSL is a 4,500-square-foot greenhouse containing a water filtration system called the Eco Machine™. This living system uses plants, bacteria, algae, snails, and fungi to recycle Omega’s wastewater (approximately 5 million gallons per year) into clean water that is used to restore the aquifer. The Eco Machine™ incorporates technology first seen in similar systems known as Living Machines.
Omega put together an impressive and innovative team to build the OCSL and the challenges brought the price tag to $4.2 million. Dr. John Todd, and his son, Jonathan Todd, of John Todd Ecological Design, Inc., were the ecological architects for the Eco Machine™. BNMI Architects, who designed the building that houses it, have practiced cutting edge architecture and sustainable planning for 40 years. Since 2007 they have been part of the pioneering Make it Right project launched by Brad Pitt to build 150 green, affordable, high-quality homes in post-Katrina New Orleans.
The payback for a project like the OCSL is not in immediate return of dollars, but rather in “moving social change forward,” says Omega CEO Skip Backus. Think of the green-collar jobs that could be created right now. Think of what a difference it would make for our cities and towns to have sustainable water treatment that is low energy and chemical free. Think of what an impact funds directed to green economic development could have on the future of this region so rich in natural resources. Let’s encourage the Mid-Hudson Regional Economic Development Council — one of the ten councils appointed by Governor Andrew Cuomo earlier this summer to compete for $1 billion in economic development funding over the next five year — to visit the OCSL. It would inspire their thinking.
Leading by example, Omega is hopeful, says Backus, “that projects like ours will mark a new era in sustainable design, one that reflects a truly integrated approach to creating built environments that are in harmony with the natural world.” And to think it all began here in the Hudson Valley.