In 2003 The Omega Institute came to John Todd Ecological Design interested in options for wastewater treatment at their campus in Rhinebeck, New York. These discussions soon became more than just wastewater treatment and together we began conceptualizing a design of an ecological bio-shelter that would sustainably treat wastewater to reuse standards as well as function as an educational center focusing on sustainability.
Early in our discussions it was apparent that the Omega team had a deep abiding respect for the land they occupied and was cognizant of the impact of the Institute on the local ecology. During these discussions, what began as planning for a wastewater facility transitioned into a regenerative ecological design using the nutrients in the waste from Omega as the catalyst for healing the damaged natural surroundings.
After engaging in due diligence with several outstanding architecture firms, Omega and JTED decided to move ahead with the firm of Berkebile, Nelson, Immenschuh and McDowell, or BNIM as they're known, to lead the design team in building what is now The Omega Center For Sustainable Living, or OCSL.
In their search for alternatives to their failing septic/ leach field system, Omega sought a solution that would be non-toxic, would model cutting-edge sustainable design,and serve to educate the general public on environmentally responsible means of managing resources.
The problems being faced by the design team, and campaign to shift a major paradigm in turn, was twofold; aging wastewater systems and conventional treatment inefficiencies. In the case of Omega, the failing leach field was contributing excess nutrients to the local watershed. Robert Backus, along with ourselves and Conservation Design Forum, began to design the Eco-Machine and strategize the site hydrology for the first time, not as a liability management issue but as an asset, where conventional planners consider these situations restraints to design.
In order to treat up to 52,000 gallons per day of domestic wastewater, the OCSL utilizes a combination of outdoor constructed wetlands and aerated aquatic cells housed within the greenhouse serving as the main space of the building. Wastewater is collected through the campus and conveyed to two equalization tanks that allow for the system to be consistently dosed over a range of flows, dependent upon campus occupancy. The wastewater is then conveyed through the following treatment components:
Septic Tanks--Initially, sewage is collected and pumped to several underground septic tanks. Inside the tanks, organic matter is broken down. The solids in the tanks are reduced through an oxygen free microbial process and settle out of the liquid waste.
Equalization and Anoxic Tanks--Primarily liquid waste flows into two equalization tanks where further separation of liquids and solids occurs. The inflow is uneven, with peak entry during early mornig and late evening hours. The equalization tanks distrubute the liquid waste on a measured basis to two anoxic tanks over a 24-hour cycle. The anoxic tanks aggressively begin the process of removing nitrates and phosphates from the liquid waste and then introduce the partially cleaned liquid waste to a splitter, where the effluent enters four constructed wetlands.
Constructed Wetlands--Omega has constructed four wetland cells through which the wastewater passes before entering the greenhouse. The wetlands are planted with native water-loving plants known for their ability to help treat wastewater. The root zone of the plants contribute oxygen to the water and provide surface area for the bacterial processes that metabolize the nutrient-rich wastewater. In that process, ammonia in the waste steam is converted into nitrates. In turn, the nitrates are converted to nitrogen gas that rises out of the wetland into the atmosphere. Nitrogen gas is neither a greenhouse nor a global warming gas.
The Treatment Lagoon--The treatment lagoons are housed within a greenhouse that is part of the OCSL. This powerful ecosystem is designed to achieve high quality water without the need for hazardous chemicals. The process uses a series of tanks in which a diversity of life arises. The elements of life include microscopic algae, fungi, bacteria, protozoa, snails, fishes and zooplankton. Plants, shrubs and trees are grown on floating racks within the system. Air compressors are installed to maintain oxygen levels.
Re-circulating Sand Filter--The recirculating sand filter continues the cleansing process. Wastewater travels from the lagoons to a sand filtration system that is approximately 2,500 square feet. Microscopic organisms live in the spaces between the sand grains or attach to sand grain surfaces and trap suspended solids or feed on soluble organic compounds. When the wastewater leaves the sand filter, it meets advanced wastewater standards, usable for non-potable purposes.
Irrigation and Dispersal Field--Treated wastewater is then returned to the underground aquifers via the soil. After appropriate testing, the purified water can be reused in the building for flushing toilets and will be usable in the future to feed plants on campus. The purified water can also be used for an outdoor pond or water garden that Omega plans to develop near the site. On average, the process from flushing a toilet to the return of treated wastewater underground takes about 36 hours.
What makes Omega's role unique was its commitment to the project, its commitment to sustainability, its commitment to be LEED certified and Living Building Challenge certified, and finally, its commitment to model sustainability and to develop curricula that will explain and educate new ways of treating wastewater responsibly and effectively.
Omega has done more than improve their own environmental practices. By seeing through the challenges and creating the OCSL, Omega has created a model and is demonstrating a regenerative example that is educating and creating possibilities for a sustainable future for beyond the borders of its campus and into the global community.
The direct impact of the OCSL is effective treatment of domestic wastewater that would otherwise leach evironmentally hazardous nutrient loads into the groundwater and lake system. In a broader sense, it serves as a operating example of sustainable design. There has been much talk and publication on sustainable design, however there is no better way of communicating to the masses than to have a place where they can experience first hand the opportunites of sustainable alternatives.
The OCSL today may be the benchmark for sustainable design and the beginning of ecological design of the future. It is a wastewater treatment plant that sustains and regenerates the land that it occupies, exports rather than imports energy and creates living viable water, our planet's fastes dwindling resouce.