The world's most beautiful wastewater treatment plant

Let this wastewater treatment plant show you how to live.

This may sound crazy, but it is exactly why the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies in Rhinebeck, New York hired Dr. John Todd of John Todd Ecological Design to design their Omega Center for Sustainable Living (OCSL), also known as the Eco Machine. We can learn some valuable lessons from this building.

© Chris Tackett

The Omega Center for Sustainable Living may be the most beautiful wastewater treatment plant in the world. Invented by Dr. John Todd, the building is powered by solar and geothermal power, so it requires no additional power to operate. Unlike other wastewater treatment plants, the OCSL does not use chemicals to treat the water, but rather mimics the processes of the nature world, such as using a combination of microorganisms, algae, plants and gravel and sand filtration to clean sewage water and return clean drinkable water back to the aquifer.

In addition to doing all of this, the OCSL also functions as a classroom, to help educate and inspire people about the power of nature to provide solutions.

As the CEO of the Omega Institute, Skip Backus says, the OCSL purifies, beautifies and educates, all at the same time.

“The OCSL is a dynamic, living and breathing demonstration of how interconnected we all are with the world around us,” says Backus. “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.”

© Chris Tackett

The reason this building works so well is because of good design, but also data and science.

The idea that "what gets measured gets managed" is a popular maxim in business, but the principle has proven itself to be an influential aspect in sustainability, as well. By measuring the efficiency and sustainability of buildings, for example, LEED was able to create a hierarchy of Silver, Gold and Platinum levels of certification, which gave the building development industry new goals to which to aspire beyond simply aesthetics and low construction costs.

But one certification won't work for all levels of aspiration and while it is still important, LEED is not the only way we measure the sustainability of buildings. The Omega Center for Sustainable Living was built as part of the Living Building Challenge (LBC), which is the most intense green building certification program around.

Currently, there are only four Living Building Challenge Certified buildings in the world and the OCSL is the first building in the United States to gain both LEED Platinum and Living Building Challenge certification. What makes the LBC certification so difficult to attain is that rather than the building being rated upon completion of construction, the LBC certification is only granted after the building has been in operation for 12 months and has proven it has met the 16 prerequisites, one of which is that a building must process all of its wastewater on-site. It can't simply be pumped away.

So how does it work?

It is surprisingly simple.

To start, all of the water from toilets, sinks and showers on the Omega campus feeds into storage tanks that collect the human waste and the "gray water" from showering or sinks. Then this water is sent to the Eco Machine building, where it is fed to "microscopic algae, fungi, bacteria, plants, and snails."

The first stage is two 5,000 gallon Anoxic tanks located underground, where inside naturally occurring microbial organisms use the wastewater as food. They digest "ammonia, phosphorus, nitrogen, potassium, and many other substances in the water."

© Chris Tackett

Next, the water flows to the four man-made wetlands behind the OCSL building.

Here's how Omega describes the wetlands on their site:

They are three feet deep, lined with rubber, and completely filled with gravel. About two inches beneath the gravel is wastewater, which flows from the anoxic tanks, to the splitter box, to the upper two constructed wetlands. The wetlands use microorganisms and native plants, including cattails and bulrushes, to reduce biochemical oxygen demand, remove odorous gases, continue the denitrification process, and harvest nutrients such as phosphorus. As the wastewater flows through the wetlands, the microorganisms and plants are fed.

© Chris Tackett

After the water had flowed through the four wetlands, it is already remarkably clean. According to Omega, there is "a 75 percent increase in the water's clarity and a 90 percent reduction in the water's odor" just from having passed through the anoxic tanks and wetlands.

© Chris Tackett

After the wetlands, the water is pumped inside to two aerated lagoons.

Omega writes,

The aerated lagoons are divided into four cells, each 10 feet deep. At this stage, the water looks and smells clean, but it's not safe to touch. The plants, fungi, algae, snails, and other microorganisms of the aerated lagoons are busy converting ammonia into nitrates and toxins into harmless base elements.

There is no soil in the aerated lagoons at the OCSL, yet beautiful tropical plants thrive here. The plants live on metal racks and their roots extend up to five feet into the water. The roots of the plants act as a habitat for the organisms in the lagoon, and are sustained by them. The flowers of these tropical plants illustrate the beauty that naturally treated "wastewater" can yield.

© Chris Tackett

All around the Omega campus, there are beautiful potted plants, which began as cuttings from the tropical plants grown in the lagoons. I even heard someone discuss the possibility that these plants could become an additional revenue stream by being potted and sold to the public.

© Chris Tackett

After the lagoons, the water moves back outdoors to a sand filter.

After the water has moved through the recirculating sand filter, it meets advanced wastewater standards and is as clean as water from your kitchen faucet at home.

© Chris Tackett

However, that's not where the Eco Machine process stops. After the sand filtering, the water is returned to nature via two dispersal fields under Omega's parking lot.

In the dispersal fields, the reclaimed water is released back into the groundwater table, located below the surface. The reclaimed water is further purified by nature as it trickles down to the aquifer that sits 250-300 feet beneath campus.

With this final step in the Eco Machine process at the Omega Center for Sustainable Living, Omega completes a closed hydrological loop in our water use. We draw water from deep wells that tap the aquifer; use the water in sinks, toilets, and showers; naturally reclaim the used water with the Eco Machine at OCSL; and release the purified water back to the aquifer, where the process can begin again.

It is this full-circle process that makes the Eco Machine so incredible. It challenges us to rethink the idea of "waste" and redefine the idea of "throwing something away." There is no "away". That's why the Eco Machine design is an inspiration to the idea of thinking of interconnectedness as a basis for solutions to the myriad problems we face. By assessing and measuring our impact on the world, we can then look at how the environment would solve a problem, in this case cleaning water, and design solutions to utilize those natural processes to meet our needs. That something so obvious and natural is now considered so radical and revolutionary just goes to show how far we've drifted from sustainable ways of living. Hopefully the Omega Center for Sustainable Living can help us see how to get back on track.

To learn more or to set up a tour of the facility, visit eomega.org

Tags: Air Filtration | Alternative Energy | Bacteria | Biomimicry | Green Building | LEED | New York State | Waste | Water Conservation