Earlier this year, we highlighted the release of the newest version of the Living Building Challenge certification program, Version 2.0 After digging a little deeper, we learned about the Omega Center for Sustainable Living (OCSL), in Rhinebeck, NY, a state-of-the-art education center currently pursuing Living Building certification. As a model of sustainable architecture and design, the OCSL is hoping to be the first building in the United States to be certified a Living Building. Recently, we had the opportunity to interview industry expert, Laura Lesniewski, principal at BNIM Architects and Project Manager for the Omega Center for Sustainable Living. Read on to see what Laura had to say about the OCSL’s quest for Living Building certification and how they are setting a benchmark for every building embracing the notion of sustainable design.
© Assassi, Courtesy BNIM
What made the Omega Center for Sustainable Living decide to pursue Living Building Certification?
For starters, the Omega Center’s longstanding history is one of shared values with the Living Building Challenge, so they’ve already inherently been acting in a way that’s consistent with its foundation and principles. When we were brought onto the project as architects, we shared the idea of this brand new grading system with the CEO, who quickly realized that the Living Building Challenge aligned very well with their values already. And so it was at that point that the project took on its current name, which is the Omega Center for Sustainable Living.
So, I guess in short what made them decide to pursue it is because we proposed it, they were already aligned with its values and they thought it was a great idea.
Is the building pursuing LEED Certification as well?
We have submitted documentation for LEED certification as well, but neither has been confirmed – we are in the process right now.
© Assassi, Courtesy BNIM
When do you expect the Omega Center for Sustainable Living to achieve Living Building Certification?
For Living Building certification, we’ve just recently gathered all of the year-end data. The program requires that a project go through a year of validation to ensure that it meets the defined standards. We have just submitted that documentation to the International Living Building Institute, who reviews the materials, and then sends someone out to the building for an audit. So, we’re hoping for some good news this fall.
Have you faced any challenges throughout the process of becoming a certified Living Building?
I would say that because the program is so new, and because we’re one of the first teams going through it, we’ve been the guinea pig of sorts. There hasn’t been a roadmap set before us, so we’ve been forced to forge a path of our own as we go.
Specifically to the documentation process– it’s been interesting to figure out how much documentation to have on building materials for example, because there are pretty rigorous requirements and restraints on materials. Knowing exactly what it is we need to gather and submit has been quite a challenge.
Could you highlight some features of the OCSL specific to each of the seven performance areas – site, water, energy, health, materials equity and beauty? And how do they work with the environment as a whole?
For energy, we really focused on the design of the building to make sure that the energy load requirements were as minimal as possible. All of the energy from this building comes from photovoltaics, and we have three separate arrays on the building working for us. But because this is such an expensive technology, the less energy you need to run the building the better. For this reason, all of our design efforts went into optimizing the building’s form – things like orientation, solar access, the type of glazing on the building and taking advantage of thermal mass. All of this was done to reduce the overall energy load and ultimately allows us to get to net zero energy.
For water, Omega is in a unique situation where they are not connected to a municipal utility for water. The campus uses a well system, and all of the water drawn up from the wells is put through a wastewater treatment system, called the Eco Machine, designed by John Todd Ecological Design. The Eco Machine filters wastewater through various treatment zones, until the water becomes clean enough to be returned back to the ground water. This whole system creates a closed loop, which is how we get our net zero water. It’s pretty cool!
Health is related to things like indoor air quality and the correct amount of air volume, which also relates to materials, so these two work hand in hand. All of our building materials were carefully selected for the greater role they could play in the functioning building.
The requirements can be very challenging when it comes to materials. You have to not only meet air quality guidelines, but also avoid any products that contain materials on the red material list. To meet these demands, we did a lot of research as to what was available and close to the building site, while using the purest materials possible.
Using reclaimed wood is one way to ensure that you’re building green, so we worked with a group called Planet Reuse (http://www.planetreuse.com/projects/index.html), who sourced salvaged materials from around the country that fit our specifications. Some of the wood used in the bones of the building was reclaimed from the 2009 presidential inaugural stage. They were a great resource in handling salvaged materials, reducing our fuel consumption and saving us money and time.
© Assassi, Courtesy BNIM
Moving forward, what efforts are required to ensure that the OCSL is constantly achieving its desired building performance?
By revisiting these buildings every few years, we have the opportunity to go back and look at the building post occupancy and understand how people are living and functioning within them. We can see what’s working and what’s not. We then can compile these lessons learned and make adjustments for better sustainable practices in the future.
How does this go on in the future? These buildings are our babies that we need to watch out for with an on-going plan in place, and the challenge does just that. Championing the idea of the living building can be a big risk, so it’s crucial that all parties involved, and especially the owner, are fully bought in and prepared to support the building moving forward.
Visit http://bnim.com/bookshelf/bnim-flow, for more information from BNIM on the making of the Omega Center for Sustainable Living.