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Creating a building that lives

A greenhouse area in the Omega Center for Sustainable Living in Rhinebeck, N.Y., is part of a wastewater-treatment system designed to help the center become the first building to meet the Living Building Challenge. Photo Courtesy of Andy Milford

A greenhouse area in the Omega Center for Sustainable Living in Rhinebeck, N.Y., is part of a wastewater-treatment system designed to help the center become the first building to meet the Living Building Challenge. Photo Courtesy of Andy Milford

Sam Bennett
Daily Journal of Commerce

For one man, work and life couldn’t be more inseparable.

Skip Backus, chief executive of New York’s Omega Institute for Holistic Studies, traveled from upstate New York to Philadelphia to salvage a few bathroom doors from the site of a school demolition. He’ll use the doors in his new Omega Center for Sustainable Living.

Backus, who is the general contractor on the project, is committed to being the first person to construct the ultimate in green building — a living building.

The 6,200-square-foot center, part of Omega Institute’s holistic learning campus in Rhinebeck, N.Y., is designed to meet the standards of the Living Building Challenge, a competition created by the Northwest-based Cascadia Region Green Building Council.

Laura Lesniewski, project manager with architect BNIM, Kansas City, Mo., said the Living Building Challenge requires all of a project’s wood be Forest Stewardship Council certified or salvaged. In addition, woods may not contain materials on the Living Building Challenge’s red list, such as toxic adhesives and laminates that contain formaldehyde, lead or neoprene.

“We found the material requirements, by far, the most difficult thing to meet,” she said.

The next large challenge was creating a wastewater-treatment process that would treat water from the whole

Omega Institute for Holistic Studies campus. The center has a 55,000-gallon wastewater-treatment facility that uses plants in aerated lagoons to break down fecal matter and convert the wastewater into water suitable for flushing toilets and irrigation. Rainwater collected at the building also will be used for irrigation and toilet flushing.

“We wanted to take wastewater and, by treating it, use that as a way to reconnect people to a natural process,” Backus said.

The aerated lagoons will be in a greenhouse inside the building; similar lagoons to treat the wastewater will be outside the building.

He said the treatment areas will change the way people on the Omega Institute campus look at what happens to wastewater after they flush toilets as they see how the system converts wastewater to usable water.

“What they see (in the wastewater treatment areas) is water that doesn’t stink and is not all brown and nasty, and they understand the process,” he said.

Backus said the building will use solar panels to meet all the energy needs.

He also plans to seek Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design platinum certification for the building.

But he said neither LEED certification nor living building status is his main reason building green.

“At some point,” he said, “I hope we don’t need a certifying agency to have this level of logic and process.”

The Omega Center will open July 16. It will qualify for certification as a living building after it has been open for one year.

Daily Journal of Commerce, like The Daily Reporter, is owned by Dolan Media Co.

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