© Assassi / courtesy of Omega Institute for Holistic Studies, Rhinebeck; N.Y., eOmega.org
As the world's first project to be certified Living Building and LEED Platinum, the Omega Center for Sustainable Living, in Rhinebeck, N.Y., is net zero energy and water.

A Living Building pioneer eyes the future

Sept. 6, 2022
More than a decade after the Omega Center for Sustainable Living set a new standard in green design, its operators are eyeing smart tech to achieve their next goal: making the facility even more accessible and compelling as a teaching tool.

It wasn’t for nothing that Pete Seeger performed his folk anthem “Turn, Turn, Turn” at the groundbreaking of the Omega Center for Sustainable Living (OCSL) on Oct. 11, 2007. The fall foliage was at peak brilliance in Rhinebeck, N.Y., and the changing season called to mind the cycles of nature. But the people who gathered that day were celebrating a different kind of return—one that would merge architecture and engineering with nature. The new facility would challenge people to think differently about waste while restoring clean water to Earth.

Completed two years later, the OCSL would gain renown as the first building to earn both the International Living Future Institute’s Living Building certification—widely considered the highest echelon of green architecture—and LEED Platinum certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. To earn these distinctions, the project had to demonstrate net-zero energy, net-zero water, and net-zero construction waste. The project was ahead of its time in mission, design, and education. Given the blossoming of green building technologies in the ensuing decade-plus, does the OCSL continue to push the envelope of smart, sustainable design?

Nestled at the edge of the verdant, 195-acre campus of the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies, a learning center founded in 1977, the OCSL comprises a greenhouse, classroom, and terraced wetlands that showcase the workings of Omega’s Eco-Machine, a living, chemical-free water treatment system devised by ecological designer John Todd. Clad in reclaimed cypress, the 6,250-square-foot OCSL building crowns an elaborate filtration and plumbing system that extends through the landscape to the north and south. At once a utility and an attraction, the OCSL was designed to cleanse wastewater from the campus’s 119 buildings and to educate visitors about sustainable design.

“I wanted to make wastewater into an educational opportunity,” Omega Institute CEO Robert “Skip” Backus says during my visit to the campus in the spring. “People are blown away that shit can be so beautiful.”

After more than a dozen years in operation, the OCSL is the cornerstone of the institute’s efforts to continue greening its campus and expanding its climate-related programming and partnerships. The biotech behind its Eco-Machine remains state-of-the-art, but its data management and visualization systems are outdated. Backus, who personally supervises the OCSL’s operation with the help of two staff members, would like to leverage data to help visitors understand how water moves through the Eco-Machine and, by extension, our bodies and the wider ecosystem.

Water, Energy, and Data

On the chilly April morning of my visit, I’m breathing in the aroma of tropical plants and flowers as I stand in an aerated lagoon, a greenhouse at the heart of the OCSL. Water gurgles through the 90-foot-long, 8-foot-deep concrete trough—the room’s centerpiece—and plants, supported on metal racks, plunge their roots into the engineered stream. This is yesterday’s wastewater, Backus says, but I can smell only the foliage. Here in the lagoon, the graywater is already halfway through a seven-stage purification process that uses plants, bacteria, algae, snails, and fungi to process up to 55,000 gallons of water daily, returning clean water to the local aquifer. The Eco-Machine mimics and accelerates natural processes.

Every day, OCSL staff members record—by hand—data from each step of the water treatment process, as well as in-house energy use. “This is the brain behind the Eco-Machine,” Backus says, pointing to a control panel in the mechanical room. With windows to the lobby, the modest space is part of the OCSL’s mission to make water and building systems transparent. Backus navigates a rather antiquated-looking touchscreen. “Right now, I could tell you what’s happening at every single pump in the system,” he says, “and whether it’s drawing more amperage than it should, which could mean we possibly have a clogged filter or any number of things.”

On-site solar arrays generate 134 kilowatts a day, typically enough to meet the OCSL’s electricity demands. This fall, the Omega Institute will undertake a “full evaluation of solar panel and inverter performance and building usage,” Backus says. He and his team check electricity allocation on E-Mon meters in the mechanical room to identify ways to improve efficiency. The biggest energy sink is typically not the HVAC or lighting systems—architecture firm BNIM designed the building to control daylighting, shading, and ventilation, minimizing the need for electric lighting and air conditioning. Instead, says maintenance and facilities coordinator Chuck Maccabee, “most of that power’s going to run pumps.”

Several stages of the Eco-Machine involve pumping uphill. So lush is the foliage, so calming is the daylight streaming in, and so pleasant is the thought of water purified by plants and bugs that the gadgetry along the greenhouse walls and ceiling could almost go unnoticed. But the place is intricately wired and packed with sensors. When the lagoon’s temperature and humidity levels rise, grilles at the top of the north-facing wall and the bottom of the south-facing wall automatically open. Simultaneously, exhaust fans kick in to expel warm air, drawing in fresh air from the other side. The adjacent classroom is the only air-conditioned space in the OCSL, but the whole building is occupiable year-round. Geothermal systems provide clean heating and cooling.

The 4,500-square-foot greenhouse is equipped with photosensors that could adjust grow lights automatically, but Backus has discovered that the plants don’t need electric light. They grow so vigorously with sunlight that they must often be pruned. And thanks to the strategic daylighting design, the plants receive balanced light. “Otherwise,” says architect and BNIM principal Laura Lesniewski, “the plants would have leaned uncomfortably to the south, toward the large glass wall.” The architects shielded that south-facing exposure with overhangs and a mid-height sunshade to bounce light off the ceiling. They used a daylight simulation tool to optimize the size and placement of north-facing clerestory windows and a row of skylights toward the north side of the room. Though the solar-tracking mirrors above the skylights are not currently working—perhaps a cautionary tale about complex hardware—this signature space of the OCSL remains an inspiring showcase of passive and active systems.

But could the OCSL use newer data systems to advance its environmental and educational mission? Already, data collection helps the OCSL, a licensed wastewater operator, to operate efficiently, anticipate maintenance needs, and comply with water-quality reporting mandates. However, little of this data translates to the visitor experience. Even if the building’s energy, HVAC, and water filtration systems continue performing efficiently, could smart tech help strengthen the OCSL as a tool for learning and engagement?

A smart dashboard, the “next-level dream”

The OCSL typically hosts multiple tour groups each week, adding up to thousands of visitors each year, notwithstanding the pandemic. Backus envisions a dashboard system to display real-time data on campus water use and purification. “If we had a centralized or smart system, it would make the whole thing more transparent,” he says.

And there’s more at stake. Recycling water in a way that heals the landscape, without emitting carbon, embodies the essence of Omega’s mission, Backus says. “Water is a great way to show how we’re all connected. We are all part of something greater than the self.”

Backus envisions installing an interactive kiosk with a touch screen in the OCSL’s lobby. “If you pushed a button, it would make the sound of a flushing toilet, and you could follow the water through all seven stages of the Eco-Machine. A series of data points would show you exactly what was in each zone or cell.” Video feeds could supplement this visual interface, he continues: “Underwater cameras could show the microbe activity and increasing clarity in each area.”

This hypothetical smart dashboard would be responsive to real-time, localized fluctuations in water use. “Say we’ve got 600 people on campus, and the kitchen is making lunch,” Backus says. “You push the kitchen water valve button, and you see the water usage in real time, in the past hour—and also that the kitchen is using an average of about 3,000 gallons a day.”

Backus also wants to celebrate the center’s Living Building status. A smart dashboard could display data from multiple building systems—and, ultimately, from dozens of buildings across the Omega Institute campus once sensors and networked meters are installed. Integrating these systems could unveil new efficiencies. “We could do a lot more with our data,” Backus says. “It’s always been the next-level dream.”

But, despite its busy program schedule and international standing, including its participation in United Nations conferences, the Omega Institute doesn’t have a large budget for capital improvements and building system upgrades. “We’re a scrappy nonprofit,” Backus says. “We’ve got about 300 toilets on campus, and we’re still dealing with just keeping the wastewater flowing, let alone illustrating it.”

Sooner or later, Backus intends to pursue his dream of illustrating the wonders of the OCSL’s Eco-Machine and the sustainable building systems. Though he’s aware of some monitoring and dashboard systems on the market, he’s not convinced any are a right fit. Omega would need to modify and perhaps combine existing tools, he says, to integrate data from various water and energy systems and to present them in a meaningful way. “There are manufacturers that have the parameters we’re looking for,” he says, “but we’d have to build it out.”

Navigating smart building retrofits

To shed light on the challenges and opportunities involved with retrofitting existing buildings with smart tech, I reach out to Benson Chan, senior partner and chief operating officer of Strategy of Things, an Oakland, Calif.–based consultancy. Chan isn’t a proponent of technology for technology’s sake. Instead, he helps clients solve problems and achieve desired outcomes by applying design-thinking methodologies. He resists prescribing standard solutions, preferring to develop focused responses to stakeholder requirements and goals, typically involving rigorous experimentation. “We assume nothing and validate everything,” he tells clients.

Chan hasn’t visited OCSL and wasn’t asked to formally consult on it, but he seems to agree with Backus’s idea of installing and customizing an off-the-shelf smart dashboard system. When I recap my visit to the OCSL, Chan recognized a familiar predicament. “Most building projects are going to be retrofits,” he says, “and they have constraints that may prevent them from incorporating the ‘latest and greatest’ smart technology.”

Before investing in smart tech, Chan suggested, building owners should first evaluate and consider upgrading any ageing building systems and infrastructure. “If you have a 30-year-old HVAC system, the best thing you can do is to upgrade it,” he says. Adding sensors and automation technology won’t prevent poor performance—instead, he quips, “you’re just going to get bad news faster.” He also recommends installing or upgrading hard-wired cable networks to handle critical or high-bandwidth data: “With wireless, you can run into issues with interference and poor coverage.”

As for dashboard systems, Chan believes many of today’s commercial offerings are not designed for a public audience. “Most dashboards are good at reporting the data from sensors, but they don’t convert the data to a format that people can understand,” he says. For a community with an educational mission, like Omega, translating building and landscape data in clear, engaging ways would be imperative. Ideally, numbers can become graphics, and unfamiliar units can be translated into familiar ones. For example, Chan suggests, solar energy production could be described not in kilowatt-hours, but in offsetting the demand of x number of houses or cars.

Yet Chan also cautions against starting from scratch. Creating an all-new, custom dashboard system would be “overkill,” he says, both because of the upfront cost and because it would be unwieldy to change or adapt to future needs.

Fortunately, a middle path between settling for desultory visual presentations and building a custom system exists, Chan says: Let the ready-made dashboard software become the sturdy, yet hidden, back end of the system, while rethinking the front end, or interface. “Some dashboards allow you to put in another layer,” he explains. “You would retain an outside company—a third party—to build a user-friendly visualization layer on top of the dashboard.” Visitors could then access this page from a dedicated kiosk or touch screen, like the one Backus envisions in the lobby of the OCSL or from an everyday web browser, if the data is stored in the cloud.

Augmented reality (AR) applications offer another way to interact with smart building data, Chan says. When visitors scanned their phones over QR codes as part of a self-guided tour, staff members could use AR to cut through “information overload” and parse data more quickly.

AR could also aid in equipment repair and maintenance. “A maintenance worker could put on a pair of AR glasses, walk into a building’s mechanical room, and see at a glance if there’s something wrong,” Chan says. “Instructions, or just the key warnings on critical steps, can be displayed on the glasses.”

Where sustainable meets smart tech

Fifteen years after breaking ground in the Hudson Valley, the OCSL remains at the forefront of the regenerative design movement. The daily operations of its water and energy systems embody harmony with natural cycles and systems and heal the landscape. Intriguingly, some of the holistic ideas articulated by Backus and his Omega Institute colleagues intersect with the ideas of smart-planning strategists like Chan.

In his May article for Smart Buildings Technology, Chan defined a smart building not in terms of any specific technology or capability, but rather as a layering of physical, digital, and human systems that yield positive results over time: “A smart building is a platform that integrates community, building systems and infrastructure, information and communications technologies, sensors and devices, data, advanced analytics, and algorithms” to help deliver “relevant” outcomes. Integration is the method; the relevant goals are defined by stakeholders.

In the case of the OCSL, integration is both a method and a desired outcome. The place connects people with the water cycle through design features that capitalize on the power of sunlight and microbes. While an infusion of smart tech could further enrich the visitor experience and increase the building’s efficiency, the integration must be relevant to the needs and vision of stakeholders.

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About the Author

Gideon Fink Shapiro

Gideon Fink Shapiro is a Brooklyn, N.Y.–based writer focusing on the built environment. His work on architecture and building technology has appeared in Architect, Domus, Places, and other journals, including this one. He holds a Ph.D. in architecture history and theory, and he co-authored The New Residential Colleges at Yale: A Conversation Across Time (2018) and 50 Lessons to Learn from Frank Lloyd Wright (2021). 

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