“It’s amazing,” says Skip Backus, executive director of Omega Institute. “I’ve done construction for 30 years, and this is very unique.” Backus worked as a general contractor before becoming Omega’s director, and says there was a learning curve for the construction crews. “It took us a good six weeks to get the recycling together and get all the people to understand that this is part of what we are trying to model,” Backus says.
One feature of the project will solve Omega’s wastewater infrastructure challenge while fulfilling the LBC prerequisite to treat and purify a building’s wastewater with a chemical-free process. An Eco Machine, designed by John Todd, a pioneer in ecological design, will treat all of the campus wastewater. Omega, founded in 1978, currently has about 23,000 people pass through their campus each year attending wellness and personal-growth workshops and retreats, so on-site wastewater treatment is no small task. This past Earth Day, a couple hundred people planted 12,000 reeds, cattails and ferns in constructed wetlands. The wetlands are part of the Eco Machine, which can process 52,000 gallons of water in a day and meet advanced wastewater standards for nonpotable use.
After the grand opening, the building will be open to the public with regularly scheduled tours. Its classrooms and labs are equipped for demonstrations, and the building is replete with windows into the workings of all the systems. Plaques offer explanations of the building’s many features. An educational component is also a prerequisite of LBC. Systems and features on display include a geothermal heating and cooling system, solar panels, rain gardens, a 4,500-square-foot greenhouse (part of the Eco Machine), daylighting design and eco-friendly building materials all around. The building must be net zero, meaning that it will use no more energy than it generates during a year.
The cost of the project is $3.2 million, says George Kaufman, who directs Omega’s fundraising. Achieving net zero can be especially costly, and McLennan sees that as one of the two most challenging hurdles in LBC. That, and finding permissable materials. Many building materials are toxic, and LBC has a red list of prohibited materials, which includes PVC. “The entire wastewater industry uses PVC,” says Backus, “so when you want to find an alternative to that, you’re talking a major commitment.” LBC also has a distance radius for the origin of materials, which Backus found put constraints on some acquisitions. Green building is expensive, but costs are projected to come down as green materials, technologies and methods advance into the marketplace.
“The building industry is in a very tough time,” says Backus. “I think the desire to build green is very high, but we’re still driven by a price point that makes it difficult to include a lot of these green materials.” He thinks that will change with a better economy.
The Omega project will demonstrate what is possible. “We need to have examples of this type of architecture to show the way,” says Backus.