WU, Omega Institute on the verge of architectural history

| Managing Editor


While the Living Building Challenge, introduced by the Cascadia Region Green Building Council (CRGBC), has been in place since November 2006, two buildings are finally bringing the challenge to the forefront as they begin the auditing process necessary to obtain living building certification.

The Living Learning Center, the newest facility at the Tyson Research Center of Washington University, and the Center for Sustainable Living at the Omega Institute need only to prove that they have operated without consuming any net water or energy for one year in order to earn what has become the highest distinction in sustainable building.

Reason for construction

While both the Tyson Research Center and the Omega institute specialize in environmental education, the respective decisions to take on the Living Building Challenge arose for completely different reasons.

At Tyson, more than 100 professors, graduate and undergraduate students conduct research in some area of environmental biology or ecology on the 2,000-acre property in Eureka, Mo. While Tyson has always focused on environmental sustainability, the pursuit of living building certification came about almost by accident.

According to Kevin Smith, the associate director of the Tyson Research Center, a growing undergraduate program necessitated the construction of an additional building, but the decision to make it a living building did not even originate with the University.

“The way that John [Chase, Director of Tyson], looked at it is that a green and sustainable building fits in with our mission so much since we do so much work with ecology and environmental sustainability,” Smith said. “It is a matter of putting our money where our mouth is. It’s only been a year since we decided we needed this building, and here it is already.”

The 2,900-square foot, $1.5 million building opened May 29 and features a large classroom, computer lab, a few offices and a large outdoor patio that will be double as a second classroom. Construction continued through the morning of the 29th, as the building had to be fully functional for a high school program that began on June 1.

While Smith called the quick turnaround time “a huge headache,” he thinks it actually benefitted in the building’s completion.

“If you were given unlimited amount of time to work on this building, you would have taken an unlimited amount of time because there were so many things to work out. If everything goes well, we can be the first building certified…We came around late but sort of leapfrogged over everyone else,” Smith said.

In contrast, the Center for Sustainable Living in Rhinebeck, N.Y., was the product of five years of planning centered around eliminating waste water on the Omega Institute’s Rhinebeck campus.

“We originally about five years ago realized that we were going to have a problem with our waste water, so we decided that were going to build an Eco Machine to purify our water with no chemicals,” said Skip Backus, chief executive officer of Omega. “We’re first and foremost a non-profit educational center, and our entire campus is developed around sustainability. So for us to be able to take the idea of waste water and convert it using zero energy and zero chemicals to clean water and use that as educating moment to bring people closer to understanding natural process and how people can actually live in a more sustainable way with nature.”

The institute’s 6,200-square foot, $3.7 million building opened on May 12, and like the Living Learning Center, it features a large classroom and even a laboratory.

Both buildings rely on photovoltaic cells to generate electricity and do not consume any electricity from the grid. Each structure was also built without any materials that generate pollution or require too much energy to create. Thus, any materials containing lead or materials that release dioxins such as PVC were not allowed in the building. Furthermore, all dense materials had to come from local suppliers to reduce the carbon footprint involved with transportation of these materials.

The race

Omega’s building opened first and should therefore finish its one-year audit period before Tyson if the May 12 date is accepted by the CRGBC. While Backus downplayed the race to become the first certified living building, Smith thinks that the winner will receive added benefit even if both buildings pass inspection and earn certification.

“For better or for worse, there is a lot of credibility that goes along with being able to claim priority,” Smith said. “And I think particularly in Wash. U.’s case, it will say a lot because Wash. U., especially in the last few years, has really started to pride itself in being progressive in having a very serious commitment to environmental sustainability in all of the University’s activities.”

Unique features

Each building relies on large, retractable windows for light and improved heating and cooling, yet the two buildings could not be more different.

With over 2,000 acres, Tyson contained plenty of wood that if not used for construction would have been damaging to the habitat.

“We went above and beyond in terms of where some of the materials came from. All of the finished wood that you see, all the siding, the decking and as you go inside, the trimming and the hardwood floors come from wood at Tyson,” Smith said. “It could have come from 500 miles away, and we got it from two miles, which is pretty amazing.. And it tells a really neat story in part because two of the tree species in this area are invasive species, and we were going to restore the habitat by removing those trees anyway.” The white oak also came from trees fallen by storms.

For Tyson, the key to using zero net water comes from the composting toilets, which need only a small amount of water in the composting facility.

Omega’s building is highlighted by its 4,500-square foot greenhouse, which features the Eco Machine, which filters 30,000-50,000 gallons of water a day without chemicals. Two large septic tanks filled with naturally occurring anaerobic microbial organisms eat the sludge at the bottom of the waste water, before the water passes through constructed wetlands where plants continue to filter the water. The water then passes through aerated lagoons filled with plants, fungi, bacteria and snails before a sand bath completes the filtration process. The water is then introduced into the environment.

While the water cleaned at Omega is not used within any building, all water in the Living Learning Center is used internally.

Better than LEED Platinum?

While the Center for Sustainable Living is on track for LEED Platinum certification, Backus mentioned one key difference between the average LEED-certified building and a living building.

“People realize how clean the building feels, and I don’t mean that the floors are swept. You can tell that there are not chemicals in this building.” Backus said. “A lot of people are saying, especially when they are standing in the aerated lagoon section of the building, that this is actually a healing center, which is kind of wild since they are actually looking at their waste water from that morning.”


“When you’re building a building like this, it can be really tempting to say zero net energy,” Smith said. “Let’s not have anything in there that uses energy because that makes it harder to meet the standards, but you have to have a building that is really usable.”

With the computer lab, Smith added that they will need to monitor energy consumption closely, but as the lab is necessary for running data and simulations, it was essential in the new building.

The cost

Since a building that uses photovoltaic cells cannot use common building materials and running on no water and electricity from the grid costs more than a conventional building, Smith explained how only a university such as Wash. U. or a non-profit such as Omega, which must raise $2 million to cover the building, could think of building a living building at this time.

“We are going to save a lot in money from the energy that is produced by the photovoltaic panels. But to be honest, the PV panels were so expensive in the first place, that that’s a very long payoff time, decades. Maybe even longer,” Smith said. “So if you look at it strictly economically, it’s really only universities that can build buildings like this because they are really one of the few kinds of places that looks at a building as a 100-year investment. And that’s something that Wash. U. is very good about.”

But he thinks that the attention the building has already and will continue to draw will more than offset the building cost.

How the average individual can make a difference

Smith and Backus both emphasized that individuals see the building and ask about incorporating one component into their houses or other buildings, which they say is part of the mission of the Living Building Challenge. In New York, where solar panels are subsidized, Backus had seen them “sprout up around her like weeds.”

“There’s a sustainability movement called the 5-percent rule,” Smith said. “You can’t do everything; you have to choose your battles, but even if you reduce your impact by 5 percent over the scope of the whole country, the whole world, that’s going to make a huge difference.”

With both buildings featuring dozens of sustainable features, any visitor to either site will see how to he or she can make a small but important movement toward sustainability.

Mission of the Living Building Challenge

While describing the outdoor patio at the Living Learning Center, Smith hit the key point of the Living Building Challenge.

“That’s the emphasis that the Living Building Challenge has, making sure that buildings are made to isolate people from the environment but that they are just another part of the environment that you can be in.”

  • David Eshaghpour

    What a wonderful example for Wash U to set for other peer institutions! This story makes this alum very proud.

    David Eshaghpour, LA ’90